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College Football Playoff’s Unwritten Rules, Path To The Postseason

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What does a team need to do to get into the College Football Playoff? A Path to the Playoff for the 2016 season is fairly clear – at least according to what we know.


Two years are hardly enough time to come up with absolutes for the College Football Playoff committee and how it chooses the four teams to make the postseason fun. Though, when trying to figure out the Path to the Playoff, a few precedents have already been set.

To a point.

The College Football Playoff boundaries have yet to be pushed or tested. The first go-round had a mini-controversy with TCU and Baylor being left out. An unbeaten Florida State was a lock. So was the one-loss SEC champion Alabama, the one-loss Pac-12 champion Oregon, and one-loss Ohio State following its annihilation of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. Alas, the Big 12 was squeezed out.

The second season was easier for the committee, with unbeaten ACC champion Clemson, one-loss SEC champ Alabama, one-loss Big 12 champ Oklahoma, and one-loss Big Ten champion Michigan State all no-brainers.

But what would’ve happened if Notre Dame held on to beat Stanford to finish 11-1, with that lone defeat coming against No. 1 Clemson on the road in the final moments?

What’s going to happen when there’s a conference championship curveball, like a three-loss team coming up with a shocker in the league title game?

The entire idea of the College Football Playoff committee is to come up with the four best teams, period. There’s no definitive criteria as to how they determine those four teams, but certain precedents have been set.

So with all that in mind, really, what is the Path to the Playoff? What are the basic ground College Football Playoff rules that we know going into the season?

Step One: Win Your Conference Championship

It all starts here. If you’re a Power 5 conference team and you don’t win your league title, then it’s all on you for not making the playoff.

You know the deal at this point.

The committee doesn’t have to do anything the committee doesn’t want to do – it can select four Sun Belt teams with losing records if it felt the urge. There’s nothing mandated, but the first suggestion, above all else, is that a team win its conference title.

Essentially, if you’re a Group of Five program, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done all season long. There’s no need even thinking about applying if you can’t get to Step One.

Step Two: Go Undefeated

There will never, ever, ever, ever be five undefeated Power 5 conference champions. It’s never happened historically, and it’s certainly not going to happen in today’s day and age.

Forget about there being four, either – it’s just too tough with a 12-game slate and a conference title game to get through.

It doesn’t matter how sad and soft your non-conference schedule is, and it doesn’t matter if there are other more deserving one-loss teams out there. No way, no how, no chance an undefeated Power 5 conference champ doesn’t make the playoff.

Okay, so we don’t quite have enough unbeaten conference champs to fill out the four. So …

Step Three: You Can Lose One Game, But There Had Better Be A Story

Ohio State lost really, really early in the 2014 season to Virginia Tech and had plenty of time to make up for the miss. Alabama lost early in the 2015 season, but that was a strange game against Ole Miss when absolutely everything went sideways against a terrific team. Both the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide steamrolled at season’s end.

2015 Michigan State suffered the second-worst loss of any of the eight teams to make the first two playoffs – losing to a Nebraska team that finished with a losing record – but a road win over Ohio State and a Big Ten championship win over an unbeaten Iowa team made it no problem.

2015 Oklahoma had the worst defeat of any of the eight College Football Playoff teams – getting dominated by Texas – but that came early in the season during a rivalry game where results often defy logic and reason. The Sooners made up for it by closing out with wins over TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma State to take the Big 12 title.

And that’s why it would’ve been so interesting if Notre Dame had beaten Stanford last season. If that happened, the Irish could’ve claimed a win over the eventual Pac-12 champs on the road, and, again, their only loss would’ve come on the road to the College Football Playoff’s unquestioned No. 1 team, Clemson.

If you just so happen to accomplish Step One, but not the next two, then …

Step Four: You Can Probably Lose Two Games, But …

There had better be a whole slew of weird things happening, and you better have some killer wins on the conference championship resume.

It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be a massive test that’ll change the way we view the College Football Playoff process.

There’s going to be a fantastic two-loss conference champion who’ll play a far better schedule than a one-loss champion from another conference, and that’s when the committee will truly be tested.

It’ll depend on the team, and it’ll depend on the circumstances, but an awesome slate will go a long way – the committee will someday reward the team that goes out of its way to take a chance.

Let’s put it this way. If Stanford had opened up last season against Northwestern State instead of playing Northwestern on the road, it would have gone 12-1 with a Pac-12 title and a win over Notre Dame. The Cardinal would’ve been in, and Oklahoma out.

Those are the basics: win, win a lot, and win a conference championship.

And then hope everything falls into place from there.

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