Three SEC teams in the Playoff? Exploring college football’s doomsday scenario



The SEC is the only conference to ever put two teams in the same four-team College Football Playoff.

Is there room for one more?

After two weeks, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 LSU occupy three of the top four spots in the AP Top 25 and would likely be in the same spots if the first College Football Playoff rankings were released this week. If we’re talking four very best teams, those three can make that argument right now behind No. 1 Clemson, the defending national champion.

MORE: Kirk Herbstreit talks Playoff for LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State

“The committee is told to pick the best four teams, not the most-deserving, not the best conference champions out of the Power 5,” “ESPN College GameDay” analyst Kirk Herbstreit told Sporting News. “The best four. You can disagree with them all day, so with that in mind I don’t think they would politically, even though they don’t want to admit it, put three teams in from one conference.

Herbstreit is right. But, just for the sake of doomsday scenario, let’s look at how the SEC could place three teams in this year’s Playoff.

How it could happen

The path isn’t as complicated as you might think, knowing where we stand after two weeks. Let’s assume the Group of 5, Notre Dame and the Pac-12 are out of contention by November. That’s not that difficult to imagine. After that, the assumption is Clemson goes undefeated and clinches one spot; Texas wins the Big 12 either with one loss or — even better — two losses; and the Big Ten champion also has two losses.

Now let’s get to it. LSU and Alabama remain undefeated until their showdown on Nov. 9 in Tuscaloosa in what could be a “Game of the Century” candidate if Clemson loses before that. What would the stakes be?

“I think whoever wins the LSU-Alabama game potentially eliminates the other team, and then I think you could potentially have two depending on how things shake out,” Herbstreit said.

Let’s say the game lives up to the hype and is the opposite of the 9-6 slugfest these teams played as No. 1 and No. 2 in 2011. It’s an all-out shootout between Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow, and it’s decided in overtime. The winner goes 12-0 and beats 12-0 Georgia — who has wins against Notre Dame, Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M ± in the SEC championship game. That’s also a classic, and Alabama or LSU wins by a field goal.

“If that happened again, you could maybe see with Georgia get in with one loss if they are sitting there,” Herbstreit said.

So, you would have Alabama or LSU at 13-0, Georgia at 12-1 and Alabama or LSU at 11-1. At that point they would probably all still be ranked in the top five. To date, no two-loss team — conference champion or no — has made the Playoff. Would that be enough for three SEC teams to make it?

MORE: Joe Burrow and LSU give SEC good look at multiple teams in Playoff

Why it won’t happen

First off, we’re only two weeks into the season and Nick Saban, Ed Orgeron or Kirby Smart aren’t even going to hear of that scenario because it’s probably not going to happen.

Again: We’re just two weeks into the season.

“I mean right now you can’t imagine that, but you know from following the sport how quickly things can change,” Herbstreit said. “I don’t want to sit here two weeks and not admit that injuries happen in this sport. Things happen. That’s what makes this sport so great and so different.”

The risks of putting three teams in the same conference in the College Football Playoff are obvious, too. That would alienate Notre Dame and at least three of the Power 5 conferences, catapulting the eight-team Playoff talk into the forefront of this year’s semifinals and championship game (which happens to be in the heart of SEC country at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans).

The SEC dominoes also have to fall just right for all three teams to have one loss or fewer. Georgia’s loss at LSU last season is proof that it just doesn’t happen like that. Two teams? Maybe. Probably, even.

But three teams? You’re asking too much.

MORE: Week 3 Playoff outlook

…But what if it did?

Through two weeks, there’s a clear separation between the top six teams in the country — which includes No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 Ohio State — and the rest of the FBS field.

Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State have combined for 15 of the 20 Playoff appearances, and LSU looks to be the closest to break through next, given the early-season play of Joe Burrow. It’s also worth noting the SEC has half of the top-10 teams, with No. 8 Auburn and No. 9 Florida. No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 10 Michigan round out the top 10, and No. 12 Texas is the highest-ranked one-loss team.

The question is whether anybody outside of that top six can break through.

“I don’t want to say it’s those six and nobody else is going to get in there because there is some potential from these other teams out there,” Herbstreit said.

But the longer it’s just those six, the greater chance there is for two or three SEC teams to make the Playoff. Big Ten champion Ohio State was left out with one loss last season. The Sooners have made the Playoff three of the last four seasons, but they’ve also lost two of those three games to SEC schools.

Remember, it’s about the four “very best” teams. The only comparable time that’s happened in sports was in the 1985 NCAA Tournament when Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s all made the Final Four in the first year of the expanded bracket era.

The difference here is the teams get picked, and the committee has shown a tendency to do things its way.

“Theoretically fans get frustrated that you have to be a conference champion and all that,” Herbstreit said. “That has nothing to do with it. The only thing conference champions is supposed to affect is the same thing head-to-head is supposed to affect. The same thing nonconference scheduling is supposed to affect. If you have a grouping of two, three or four teams the committee can’t separate, those three things are built in as difference-makers.”

Politically, it won’t happen unless those SEC teams separate themselves entirely from everybody else.

But, if the first two weeks are any indication — and the polls agree with it — then that’s already happening.





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