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College Football Playoff gets an early start with conference title games

College Football Playoff gets an early start with conference title games
Alabama coach Nick Saban, left, and Georgia coach Kirby Smart pose with the NCAA football championship trophy at a news conference in Atlanta on Jan. 7. No. 1 Alabama plays No. 4 Georgia in the Southeastern Conference title game Saturday. (David Goldman / Associated Press)

If college football fans are still hungry for a better sort of playoff, an expanded bracket that lets eight teams or more battle for the national title, Dabo Swinney has a suggestion.

Try looking at the slate of conference championship games this weekend in a slightly different way.

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“There is no question about it, it’s a playoff,” the Clemson coach said. “Just go lose a game. You’ll find out.”

From North Carolina to North Texas, teams in the top half of the College Football Playoff ranking will take the field with their postseason fate on the line.

Only Notre Dame, as an independent, will sit it out, the third-ranked Irish seemingly assured a spot in the final four after slipping past USC to finish 12-0.

As for the rest of the pack, including top-ranked Alabama, second-ranked Clemson and fourth-ranked Georgia, any last-minute stumbles could prove ruinous, opening the door to contenders hovering a little further down the list.

That means No. 5 Oklahoma, No. 6 Ohio State and maybe even No. 8 Central Florida.

“What we can control now is winning,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “If we’re able to find a way to do that, I think we’ll be right where we want to be.”

All the Sooners need is a bit of last-minute turmoil that forces CFP voters to make some tough choices as they sift through the final scores from the big games Saturday.

Southeastern: It was nearly a year ago that Alabama outlasted Georgia in overtime to win the national championship. Georgia coach Kirby Smart was asked if he thought the teams were destined to meet for this season’s conference title.

“I don’t know that it was inevitable,” Smart said. “Certainly both of us had to win some football games to get to it.”

Alabama (12-0) is a heavy favorite to knock Georgia (11-1) out of the picture. But if the Bulldogs score an upset in Atlanta, the playoff situation gets muddled.

The selection committee would potentially have to choose from three one-loss teams — Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State — for the final spot.

Oklahoma and Ohio State would have conference titles on their resumes, but the Crimson Tide could hang on to No. 4, if only because they have looked so dominant all season, bolstering their always strong defense with a potent offense led by Heisman Trophy-favorite Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback.

“You can’t ever be lax, because each week you play great opponents,” Alabama offensive lineman Jonah Williams said. “So I think that’s kind of our mindset is that we’re battle-tested.”

Big 12: When Riley says this game has “a bunch of intriguing storylines,” he isn’t exaggerating.

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Start with the traditional Red River Rivalry between Oklahoma and No. 14 Texas, then add a revenge factor because the Longhorns won their regular-season meeting 48-45.

The 11-1 Sooners need a victory to stay in the playoff conversation; they might also need to show a little defense because the committee has fretted about their one-sided nature in a conference where the scoring never stops.

“Historic offense,” said Rob Mullens, chairman of the CFP selection committee. “And we understand the defensive struggles.”

Riley doesn’t think the final score should matter, so long as his team comes out on top at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“If I’ve got to defend winning,” he said, “then I’m going to find something else to do.”

Big Ten: Ohio State was pretty much forgotten after a mid-season lull that included a loss to Purdue. Then came a shocking 62-39 victory over Michigan last weekend.

“An impressive win,” Mullens said. “Clearly it had an impact.”

At 11-1, the Buckeyes still need some other teams to falter, but their jump this week from No. 10 to No. 6 has put them in position for a dramatic move as they face No. 21 Northwestern in Indianapolis for the conference title.

Running back Mike Weber (5) and No. 6-ranked Ohio State are taking on No. 21 Northwestern in the Big Ten Conference title game Saturday at Indianapolis.
Running back Mike Weber (5) and No. 6-ranked Ohio State are taking on No. 21 Northwestern in the Big Ten Conference title game Saturday at Indianapolis. (Jay LaPrete / Associated Press)

“I feel like we can still get better,” quarterback Dwayne Haskins said. “We haven’t played our best game yet.”

Can the Buckeyes manage another blowout victory and leapfrog Oklahoma in the final ranking? They have the advantage of playing hours after the Sooners finish, so they will know exactly what is needed.

Just having a chance seems unlikely in a season that began with coach Urban Meyer spending the first three games on suspension because of his handling of domestic-violence accusations against one of his assistants.

Asked whether reaching the conference championship felt more special, Meyer said: “Only special if you win it.”

Atlantic Coast: Notre Dame isn’t the only team already penciled into the playoffs. Clemson is expected to cruise past unranked Pittsburgh in Charlotte, N.C., and join the Irish in the final four.

“I think we’ve been heavy favorites in 12 games,” Swinney said. “So business as usual.”

Conference championships make a difference as one of the committee’s four stated criteria, along with strength of schedule, head-to-head games and results against common opponents. Said Mullens: “It’s the one data point that becomes available at the end of the season.”

Much like Alabama, the Tigers (12-0) have relied on a top-10 defense and the arm of freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who has passed for 22 touchdowns with only four interceptions.

“Great pocket passer, athletic ability, leadership capabilities,” Pitt defensive back Dennis Briggs said. “Really is the total package.”

American Athletic: This one is a longshot to affect the playoff picture, but it would be a mistake to dismiss Central Florida.

The Knights (11-0) are riding a 24-game winning streak — best in the nation — and claimed an “unofficial” national title last season after defeating Auburn in the Peach Bowl.

This fall, their strength of schedule in the AAC has kept them on the fringes and they have lost star quarterback McKenzie Milton to a leg injury, which counts against them when the committee votes.

Coach Josh Heupel is leading No. 8 Central Florida (11-0), which is on a 24-game winning streak, into the American Athletic Conference title game against Memphis.
Coach Josh Heupel is leading No. 8 Central Florida (11-0), which is on a 24-game winning streak, into the American Athletic Conference title game against Memphis. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP)

It probably explains why they rose only one spot to No. 8 this week, remaining below Michigan. Mullens said only that “it was discussed.”

One more problem: The Knights face a Memphis team that came within a point of defeating them in mid-October. Coach Josh Heupel is taking a “stay-the-course” approach for the rematch in Orlando, Fla.

“Be who and what we’ve been throughout the entire season,” Heupel said. “If you’ve got to change something at this point in the season, then something hasn’t been right in the lead-up to it.”

The only big-time conference championship that doesn’t figure into the national equation is the Pac-12 matchup between No. 11 Washington and No. 17 Utah.

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But even this game has something to play for, with the winner earning an invitation to the Rose Bowl.

Also, because the game will be held in Santa Clara on Friday night, both teams can spend Saturday watching a string of do-or-die matchups across the nation.

“I think you guys are all seeing what’s happening in college football,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “Everybody’s got all these teams and these teams get knocked off. It comes down to these last couple weeks.”

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