How this weekend’s conference title games will define final four

Six teams are in striking distance of the College Football Playoff entering the final weekend of the regular season.

Five of those teams will play Saturday, in championship games that will decide the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and American. The one outlier is Notre Dame, which is done for the regular season at 11-1 and now waits to see if chaos opens a door to the national semifinals.

Reaching this point may go down as the top achievement of coach Brian Kelly’s tenure, which ended this week in stunning fashion with his decision to leave for LSU. His otherwise commendable stretch will be stained by this abrupt departure.

Kelly’s tenure will also be defined by an inability to bring a national championship back to South Bend. That’s not for lack of effort. Notre Dame has reached the playoff in two of the past three seasons, losing both times in the semifinals.

This year’s team is no offensive powerhouse — the Fighting Irish rank 44th nationally in yards per play, though that number has climbed in recent weeks — and was tossed out of the championship picture in early October following close games against Toledo and Florida State and a loss to Cincinnati.

Yet the Irish have ascended to No. 6 in the playoff rankings behind a dominant November, outscoring Navy, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Stanford 162-23 to reach the doorstep of another playoff berth.

Once almost unimaginable, Notre Dame making the semifinals is a possibility. But the odds have taken a hit with Kelly off to LSU, playoff selection committee chairman Gary Barta implied on Tuesday.

“The way it’s written is if the committee believes that there would be a likely effect on the outcome of the game based on who is coaching or who is playing, it can be considered,” Barta said.

Promoting defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman in Kelly’s place and retaining offensive coordinator Tommy Rees could be enough to convince the committee the Irish are worthy of returning to the semifinals.

Here are several scenarios that could unfold on the last Saturday of the regular season, ranging from the predictable to the unbelievable:

Saturday goes as expected

  • Georgia beats Alabama in the SEC championship game

  • Michigan beats Iowa in the Big Ten championship game

  • Cincinnati beats Houston in the American championship game

  • Oklahoma State beats Baylor in the Big 12 championship game

This is the most likely scenario. Then again, who believed Michigan would beat Ohio State and disrupt things in the Big Ten? But favorites winning each of the championship games would represent the playoff selection committee’s dream Saturday and Sunday.

A few decisions may still come into play. One has already been made with Oklahoma State moving ahead of Notre Dame in this week’s playoff rankings. That wouldn’t have lasted past this Sunday even had the Irish stayed in front, since topping Baylor would give OSU as many Power Five wins as Notre Dame but more high-quality wins, and give the Cowboys the ultimate trump card of a Power Five championship.

In addition, there’s always a slim chance defending national champion Alabama could lose a close game to Georgia — playing the Bulldogs tighter than any opponent this season, for example — and factor into the fourth spot. It’s more likely the Crimson Tide would need to completely outplay the Bulldogs and dominate in a last-minute or even last-second loss to come under even the slightest consideration.

Even then, that becomes a difficult sell given how the Crimson Tide have been very good but not dominant this year, and it would have to be an absolute no-brainer for the selection committee to put a two-loss team ahead of a one-loss Power Five winner.

In other words, Alabama is not getting in with a loss to Georgia should the other three favorites take care of business.

This is the most realistic and plausible top four: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Cincinnati, No. 4 Oklahoma State.

An upset in the SEC

Georgia is in no matter what happens Saturday. Could Alabama put that theory to the test? Winning 100-0 could make the committee reconsider things, yeah. Let’s get real.

So this scenario would have two SEC teams in the playoff for the second time, and again it’s the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide. The Wolverines and Bearcats would round out the top four, knocking Oklahoma State out of contention.

Ten years after being bumped out of the Bowl Championship Series national championship game when the computers favored an SEC rematch between Alabama and LSU, being replaced by the Crimson Tide on Sunday would give the Cowboys a serious case of déjà vu.

The debate centers on where to seed teams. Since one-loss Georgia would not fall lower than No. 3, putting Michigan No. 1 would set up an immediate SEC rematch in the semifinals — something the committee would very much want to avoid. Besides, SEC champion Alabama would warrant being ranked first after beating the Bulldogs.

How to seed Alabama into the field and not set up another game against Georgia will be a running theme in scenarios where the Tide factor into the semifinals with two losses.

Your four: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 Cincinnati.

One possible door for two-loss Alabama

Iowa probably isn’t leaping into the semifinals with two losses even if total anarchy does come to pass, as we’ll touch on below. For the first time, a path opens for Notre Dame. With the Bulldogs, Bearcats and Cowboys in, the Irish would contend with Alabama for the fourth spot.

In this case, how the Tide fare in a loss would be considered. What if it’s a close game decided by a field goal? With no conference championship to serve as a tiebreaker, Notre Dame’s biggest edge would come in the comparison of one loss to Alabama’s two.

There would be no doubt that Alabama played a far tougher schedule and has the more impressive list of wins. But what if the decision rests on which team is playing better at this point? If it’s a more lopsided loss to Georgia, the answer could be Notre Dame, based on the way the Irish looked in November.

However, any advantage in the loss column or in recent play could be nullified by Kelly’s departure. How the committee approaches that question is one of the uniquely interesting dilemmas in the format’s history.

There’s one overriding question to keep in mind with the committee, which is largely composed of sitting athletics directors. Would this group rather break the mold by choosing a two-loss, non-conference champion or by selecting a team whose coach jettisoned the program for another job on the eve of selection Sunday?

Without a similar comparison in the eight-year history of the playoff, how the committee settles the possible debate between Alabama and Notre Dame is impossible to predict.

Your four: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Cincinnati, No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 4 Notre Dame or No. 4 Alabama (depending on Tide’s performance in the SEC championship).

Combination of the SEC and Big Ten

Oklahoma State must beat Baylor in the Big 12 championship to keep its playoff hopes alive.

Oklahoma State must beat Baylor in the Big 12 championship to keep its playoff hopes alive.

This would make for more of a wild and crazy Saturday but would make it a pretty simple process for the committee. Two SEC teams are in, Cincinnati is in and Oklahoma State is in. The only question is seeding.

Your four: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Georgia, No. 3 Cincinnati, No. 4 Oklahoma State.

Baylor wins the Big 12 rematch

The glow of winning Bedlam would last six days. So long, Cowboys. Again, the debate would center on the comparison of Notre Dame and Alabama.

Your four: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Cincinnati, No. 4 Notre Dame or No. 4 Alabama.

Houston shocks Cincinnati

This would be a major upset given that Cincinnati is a double-digit favorite and the lack of attention or hype paid to Houston throughout the regular season. While knocking Cinderella out of the mix, it wouldn’t have a huge impact on the field.

Your four: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 4 Notre Dame or No. 4 Alabama.

All hell breaks loose

Ah, here we go. Alabama and Georgia are both in. The Wolverines, Bearcats and Cowboys are eliminated. Again, Notre Dame is waiting in the wings. That leaves the fourth spot. Incredibly, that could go to Baylor as a two-loss Big 12 champion, since that would top one-loss Cincinnati and two-loss Big Ten teams in Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State.

There would be a case for Iowa as winners of the Big Ten, but the Hawkeyes are already four spots behind the Bears in the penultimate playoff rankings. It would be difficult to make up that ground but not impossible, given the committee’s obvious respect for Michigan and the conference as a whole.

And what about Oregon? That non-conference win against Ohio State remains an impressive addition to the Ducks’ résumé. Beating Utah to win the Pac-12 would also avenge that ugly loss in Salt Lake City last month.

Still, your likely top four: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Georgia, No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 4 Baylor.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College Football Playoff: Seven scenarios that could define final four

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