Major conferences face numbers crunch in college football playoff

Major conferences face numbers crunch in college football playoff
Coaches Les Miles of LSU and Gary Andersen of Wisconsin face the pressure of a big season-opening showdown on Saturday. (Associated Press photos)

Something to ponder over a holiday travel weekend as college football's four-team playoff prepares for takeoff: the flight is overbooked.

Do the math: Five power conferences are essentially battling for four spots, meaning at least one highly compensated league commissioner isn't going to be happy in December.


The season could come down to a squeeze play. Defending national champion Florida State, an overwhelming preseason bet to earn one of the four spots, hails from the Atlantic Coast, weakest of the five power conferences.

The Southeastern Conference champion, undoubtedly, will get a spot, too. And there are scenarios where the SEC could be positioned for two.

When could that have ever happened?

Last year.

The final Bowl Championship Series standings were: Florida State, Auburn, Alabama and Michigan State.

Florida State coasted through the soft ACC and Auburn won the SEC. Alabama ended up 11-1 without winning its division, but its only dent was a three-ring circus loss to Auburn. One-loss Michigan State won the Big Ten Conference and beat out two-loss Stanford for No. 4.

In a playoff last year, the champions of the Pac-12 and Big 12 conference would probably have been O-U-T.

In 2011, Alabama's only defeat was to the SEC's West Division champion, Louisiana State. Alabama did not win the division, finished No. 2 in the BCS standings, and won the national title by defeating LSU in a rematch.

Final BCS order: LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Stanford.

Champions left out in a playoff: Big Ten and ACC.

The 13-person playoff selection committee has been told to put more weight on conference titles, yet it would have been tough to deny non-champion Alabama in 2011 and 2013.

This year, if Florida State again goes undefeated, and the SEC again deserves two bids, three conference champions — Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12 — would be left fighting for one spot.

An eight-team playoff would solve this problem by providing automatic bids to the five power-league champions and three at-large spots.

That's not where we are today, though, making conference reputation extremely important.

Wisconsin versus Louisiana State this weekend, in Houston, is not just about the Badgers and Tigers — it's about the Big Ten and SEC. Wisconsin needs a strong showing to defend the honor of a Big Ten that has been further weakened by the season-ending injury to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.

The Big Ten got bonus points Thursday when newcomer Rutgers pulled out a 41-38 thriller over the Pac-12's Washington State.

Also off to a fast start is the underdog American Athletic Conference, which received a shot in the arm when Temple blasted Vanderbilt of the SEC, 37-7, Thursday in Nashville.

It's all quite enough to make even a veteran coach a little nervous. Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy was hesitant this week in advance of the Cowboys' opener, in Arlington, against Florida State. And for good reason.

Oklahoma State finished 10-3 last season but is an 18-point underdog against Florida State. Gundy says he will probably play eight true freshmen against college football's most loaded roster.

Gundy did not want this game, preferring to open with a softer opponent. And Oklahoma State isn't just playing for its own fate.

An ugly loss could linger deep into Big 12 playoff discussions. Last year, Oklahoma State hammered Baylor, 49-17, which ended up winning the conference.

The Pac-12 gets its tires kicked next week when Michigan State visits highly touted Oregon. UCLA's opener at Virginia will also be carefully weighed and measured. The Bruins should blow the Cavaliers out in Charlottesville. Last year, Oregon went east and toyed with Virginia in a 59-10 rout.

If UCLA's struggles? How might that play out when Virginia plays at Florida State on Nov. 8?

Comparatives are often unfair and misleading, but also part of what makes college football so much week-to-week fun.

It will stay this way for as long as the playoffs are decided, subjectively, by real people who can be lobbied and influenced.

Enjoy the fun while it lasts and we'll keep tabs of the conference brownie points.

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes