Mike Kays

Mike Kays, Phoenix Sports Editor

Enough has happened over the life of the College Football Playoff format to know that we really don’t know.

This should explain it:

Conference champions don’t matter, but a conference championship game does, and sometimes not being in your conference championship doesn’t matter. 

Need a deeper dive?

I won’t even begin to count yet, but at least one power five conference champion has been left out every year and sometimes two. And that’s not including the Group of Five champs, even if they ran the table, like Central Florida did in 2017.

We know that convincing final statement performances merit something, except when they don’t. Baylor and TCU, and the Big 12 at large, got the raw end of the CFP’s first go-round in 2014 when the Big 12 declared them co-champions, and alas, the committee caught wind of that and had deep concerns — either that, or fretted because there was no “State” in the names of these church schools.

The co-champion labeling was silly. Even high schools know that head-to-head should count for something. Baylor, despite a couple of egregious referee bungles, beat TCU 61-58 at mid-season, so for the record, the Bears should have been the league’s representative. 

God bless the committee — you know, kinks have to be worked out, and that year there were plenty. Like, having TCU ahead of Baylor in the next-to-last rankings, and even having the Frogs No. 3. Yet after a convincing 55-3 win over Iowa State, the Frogs dropped three spots. Ohio State, at 6, got in after what just seemed to be a lay-down by Wisconsin, made a 51-0 statement that pushed the Buckeyes over both Big 12 teams. 

Keep in mind too, that Barry Alvarez, the Wisconsin AD, was on the committee that year, as was Nebraska AD Tom Osborne — who, it is well known, didn’t care too much for the Texas influence upon the Big 12 when the Huskers bolted for the Big Ten. Wisconsin’s coach left after that loss, and Alvarez himself coached the Badgers in their New Year’s bowl game. To their credit, Ohio State beat Alabama, then Oregon, to justify the snub of the Big 12.

The next year, the Pac-12 got left out, then again, the Big 12 in 2016, and then the last two years, the Big 10 and Pac-12 both have gotten stiffed, last year much to Kirk Herbstreit’s displeasure.

So if Oklahoma gets the raw deal in 2019, well, it should be familiar. But hey, remember when the BCS was the preferred title-deciding acronym and the 2003 Sooners, already labeled the greatest team in college football history at the time, got embarrassed by Kansas State in the Big 12 title game, yet still was rewarded over equally once-beaten but Pac-12 champ USC to go to New Orleans in the old “find the best championship game” format?  

Flawed system then, flawed system now.

No one will admit this who is on the committee, but the Sooners stumbling in all three semifinals they’ve appeared in weighs every bit as much as how much Team X won by last week. Especially when two of the five conferences in the cartel making up the Power Five have been banished to “New Year’s Six” status in back-to-back years.

Utah may have lost to USC, but the Pac-12 is feeling jacked with and the Utes are on the verge of holding a conference championship trophy and being Exhibit A.

Ohio State? Ask ESPN’s Herbstreit about how he felt about his alma mater last year.

And then there’s the seemingly charter member of the CFP, Alabama. The Tide have never not been in the playoff, but that spot isn’t something they haven’t earned, having made the finals four times and winning it twice, coming within a play of taking it a third time. This year, the Tide won’t be in a conference championship, their only loss coming to LSU. 

But here Bama sits, at No. 5, with an Iron Bowl date with top 25 Auburn left and a historical point on their side from 2017, when they didn’t make the SEC title game but got in as the fourth qualifier.

All the while, some have even suggested dropping their ranking because it’s a team minus their two-time championship finals quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa. That is laughable, considering the Tide could convincingly whip Auburn in their “final statement” to the committee. It’s the Tide, not the Tuas.

Ahead of them sits LSU and Georgia, both destined for Atlanta and the SEC title game. The loser of that game should fall below Bama in the final rankings, and of course, most think that will be Georgia, unless Georgia fails to cooperate. And in that case, the Tide is in a pickle, because few if anybody think LSU — who has been as impressive this year as the ’03 Sooners were before Bill Snyder’s bunch got involved —  will fall out of the top four. And why should LSU fall, if OU only dropped from one to two after a blowout loss.

Ohio State is the presumptive Big Ten champion and a few think the Buckeyes have been more impressive than LSU. But what if once-beaten Minnesota knocks off Wisconsin and follows that up in Indy with a conference championship win over the Buckeyes? 

If one or both of those happen, OU is doomed.

But that is assuming Clemson does as expected and wins the ACC, but the Tigers still have a date with the Virginia-Virginia Tech winner to live up to that presumption. Lose, and the Tigers, who have had a less than impressive run to an 11-0 mark, would likely slide out.

Out west meanwhile, once-beaten Utah is high enough in the rankings at the moment that by winning the Pac-12 over Oregon might keep them there.  Utah doesn’t have the pedigree label of an Oregon or USC, and pedigree counts. Again, just ask TCU or Baylor.

If what is likely to happen happens, expect the SEC to get two spots, LSU and Bama. The real tension isn’t necessarily if the Big 12 champ is left out, but if both the Big Ten and Pac-12 get left out a third consecutive time. 

Nothing against Sooner Nation, you’ve already been snubbed once, the league twice, and recently, commissioner Bob Bowlsby didn’t seem too irritated about the inevitable third snub, blaming it this time on parity within the conference. Yes, the same guy who defended the Big 12 co-champion tag and the current, and somewhat silly, round-robin plus one format that won’t be so funny if Baylor turns the tables on the Sooners in two weeks.

Clearly, someone’s neighborhood will get rankled, and maybe — hopefully, two — should it come to that. Three would be a complete meltdown. How about a Georgia win over LSU, and a Minnesota win over Ohio State with a Clemson loss, and a Big Ten-SEC final four?

Clearly, a jump to a 16-team playoff favored by one of my active Facebook friends (yes, you Jody Cash), while noble and fair, isn’t going to happen soon. That, consequently, will always tell the Group of Five conferences you have little if any chance to win a football title, but hey, try any other sport. Cash and any other proponent of a 16-team playoff is right. It’s not fair, because those conferences can win any other Division I title they compete in on the field of competition. Just not with the football cartel.

Sixteen won’t happen. But the logical next step should be an eight-team playoff. 

Include five conference champions representing the Power Five. Add one guaranteed spot for the highest ranked Group of Five team. Then, the other two spots would go to the highest ranked teams from a combination of the writers and coaches polls, and the old BCS computer rankings system.

Or, hey, just use computers and chunk the human element for the final two selections.

Because, while the current system does try, it consolidates the human power among fewer. These select group of board members, members while recused from voting if contractually tied to a school involved in the voting, still have buddies, and biases, and conference affiliations, the latter of which isn’t subject to recusal.

Anybody has biases.

 Alvarez and Osborne were in that position in year one. Joe Castiglione is in the crosshairs of it this year. He can walk out, but the committee still has to face him, and well, relationships can turn awkward. We’re all human, you know.

Five champions, one Group of Five, and two at-large teams is not yet perfect, but it reduces the potential outcries significantly.

Which, count on it, are coming. 

You know it, and I know it.

You just hope, some of you, it doesn’t hit close to home.

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