Breaking down the biggest potential debates for the playoff committee

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The College Football Playoff selection committee’s top seven teams remained the same in its third ranking of the season, but there’s always something to debate.

(Minnesota fans would like to know why Penn State is ranked ahead of the Golden Gophers in spite of a head-to-head victory and the same 9-1 record. Fair question.)

It’s hardly the only discussion, though, still swirling around the 13 committee members as the season dwindles down to just three more weeks. There’s still plenty of time for the playoff picture to change — possibly even drastically — between Saturday’s Week 13 games and Selection Day on Dec. 8.

Until then, there are six possible outcomes — hardly outlandish scenarios — that are currently creating the biggest debates, and while the selection committee doesn’t even have the answers yet, here are some early predictions as to how they might play out:

1. Would the committee choose 11-1 Alabama or a one-loss Oregon that wins the Pac-12?
Early prediction: Oregon.
Here’s why: There is written protocol to be followed, and Oregon would likely win the tiebreakers, which include strength of schedule and conference championship games.

Although Alabama has finished in the top four without winning its division before, it was also an anomaly, as 17 of the past 20 semifinalists have been conference champions. The committee would have to agree that Alabama is “unequivocally” one of the four best teams in the country with backup quarterback Mac Jones. That will be difficult to prove against Western Carolina or a three-loss Auburn team. It is important, though, that Auburn is a common opponent with Oregon — a tiebreaker the Ducks would lose, as they lost the season opener to the Tigers. It’s probably not enough to outweigh Oregon’s conference title in the end, though, or a victory against a top-10 Utah in the Pac-12 championship game.

For now, it’s the losses that are separating the two in the eyes of the committee.

“The committee spent a lot of time talking about Alabama and Oregon,” committee chairman Rob Mullens said Tuesday. “Members talked about how dominant Alabama has been all season. They also said Oregon is explosive and they were impressed by Oregon’s quarterback, but Oregon’s only loss came to No. 15 Auburn at a neutral site, while Alabama’s only loss was to No. 1 LSU.”

Alabama has defeated only one Power 5 opponent with a winning record (7-3 Texas A&M) to this point, and Auburn would make two. Alabama lost to the only other ranked opponent it faced — LSU. Oregon’s strength of schedule was helped a bit this week because USC was ranked No. 23. The Ducks beat the Trojans on the road, and they would also have a top-10 win against Utah in the conference title game.

This is all assuming LSU runs the table and beats Georgia to win the SEC title, opening up the fourth spot. (LSU would clinch the West this week with a victory over 2-8 Arkansas.)

2. Would Minnesota get in as a one-loss Big Ten champion, or would brand-name bias be a factor?
Early prediction: Gophers would be in.
Here’s why: Minnesota’s three ranked wins — against Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State — would arguably be better than any other contender’s résumé.

A wooden coat rack outside the door of Selection Central holds a collection of white Nike golf hats assigned to each committee member, with his or her name in black letters. It’s a tradition meant to remind everyone to “check their hats at the door.” The committee members are not allowed to wear any school-issued clothes or logos during the meetings, and the so-called “brand name” isn’t supposed to matter, but it’s impossible to know what each individual is thinking. The conspiracy theories will always float among fans, and there will always be doubts about a process that happens entirely behind closed doors.

What Minnesota would have done, though, is in plain sight — and would be impossible to ignore.

3. Does Utah have as good of a chance as Oregon to get in if it wins the Pac-12?
Early prediction: No, but that doesn’t mean it won’t get in — it just can’t make as strong of an argument.
Here’s why: The loss to USC, coupled with a nonconference schedule that included BYU (6-4), Northern Illinois (4-7), and Idaho State (3-8), will create a weaker case for the Pac-12.

“I think the USC thing was probably [what] got the most discussion when they analyzed those two,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said Tuesday. “Oregon obviously defeated USC handily, and Utah lost. And Oregon’s résumé, including the loss to a good Auburn team in the last seconds of the game, and Utah really doesn’t have anything like that. So that was the difference.”

Utah would certainly be considered as a one-loss Pac-12 champion, and would still be in a better position than the Big 12 champion, based on the selection committee’s first three rankings. The opportunity to punctuate its résumé with a victory against a top-10 Oregon team would further boost its case, but it would also depend on what team it was being compared with. Alabama’s loss to LSU wouldn’t be as damaging as Utah’s loss to USC, but the Crimson Tide also wouldn’t have a top-10 win or conference title. It would also be tough for Utah to unseat Ohio State if the Buckeyes finish with one loss.

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After a rocky start in the first half, Jalen Hurts leads the Sooners’ 25-point comeback with four touchdowns to hand Baylor its first loss.

4. Is the Big 12 really done?
Early prediction: Yes.
Here’s why: If beating undefeated Baylor on the road wasn’t enough to give the No. 9 Sooners a significant boost during the regular season, why would beating a one-loss, No. 14 Baylor in the Big 12 title game be worth much more?

On the flip side, if Baylor were to beat Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship, it probably wouldn’t be enough for the Bears to jump 10 spots into the top four. Based on Baylor’s inability to crack the top 10, it’s clear the Bears’ schedule — which included wins against Rice, Stephen F. Austin and UTSA — is part of what’s holding them back.

“We just look at all the games, and when you look at Baylor’s three nonconference opponents, they have a combined seven wins,” Mullens said.

Oklahoma remains the Big 12’s best hope at a semifinal spot, but it’s going to need some chaos to go along with a conference title.

5. If Ohio State loses Saturday, would it still finish in the top four?
Early prediction: Yes.
Here’s why: Ohio State is just that good, and the committee has held Penn State in high enough regard all season that it wouldn’t be a bad loss if the Buckeyes fall at home to the Nittany Lions. It would also wind up being a better loss than Oregon’s defeat to Auburn, assuming the Tigers finish with four losses.

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