Niyo: Final playoff rankings sure to be awkward

John Niyo
The Detroit News

They skipped the terrible twos. But now that the College Football Playoff is a full-grown toddler, it’s finally acting out.

At No. 5, Michigan could slide into the College Football Playoff if Washington or Clemson loses.

And that wailing you hear, it’s only going to get worse.

Because after Tuesday night’s release of the penultimate CFP rankings, this much is clear: Somebody’s going to throw a tantrum when the music stops.

Or to put it another way, Jeff Long had it easy. Kirby Hocutt, meanwhile, may need a couple Advil — or something stronger — before this is all over.

Hocutt, Texas Tech’s athletic director, is in his first season as chairman of the three-year-old CFP selection committee. And while his predecessor, Long, the AD at Arkansas, dealt with relatively minor upheaval during his two-year term — the bleating of Big 12 fans in 2014 was muted by pathetic nonconference schedules, and last year’s choices were cut-and-dried — Hocutt knows it may not be that simple to explain this time around.

Tuesday night’s release all but confirmed that, with Ohio State firmly entrenched at No. 2 in the rankings, seemingly assured of one of the four playoff berths despite not winning its own division in the Big Ten, let alone a conference championship.

What’s more, the 12-member selection committee kept Michigan’s playoff hopes alive despite Saturday’s loss to the Buckeyes. And as Hocutt described the “extremely small” margin between No. 4 Washington and No. 5 Michigan, it wasn’t hard to envision an extremely awkward conference call on Sunday.

Because if the Huskies were to lose to No. 8 Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game on Friday night, the decision for the final playoff spot could come down to the Wolverines and the winner of the Big Ten title game, either No. 6 Wisconsin or No. 7 Penn State — two teams Michigan defeated earlier this season.

Michigan fifth, has 'strong resume,' playoff shot

“The separation there from four to seven is not a wide margin, but specifically between Washington and Michigan, it’s razor thin,” Hocutt said.

Contenders aplenty

Wisconsin currently has just one top-25 victory, while Michigan owns three wins over teams ranked in the top eight by the committee, Colorado among them. Penn State also has just one top-25 win, but that came against Ohio State, further complicating matters for the committee as it tries to sort all this out.

“There are a number of legitimate contenders who could stake a claim to being in those top four spots,” Hocutt said.

The previous two years, the eventual final four were all in the top 5 heading into championship weekend. But this time, that could change, if either the Pac-12 or ACC championship game — or both — ends in an upset.

If it does, the committee surely will hear about it. Yet even if the favorites all win this weekend, there’ll be an outcry, because the champion of the Big Ten — the nation’s best conference this season — could be left on the outside looking in. The Big 12 champ almost assuredly will for the second time in three years.

And among the cries will be the clamoring for an expanded playoff field with guaranteed berths for the Power 5 conference champions and maybe another for an outsider like this year’s undefeated Western Michigan team. There’s plenty of chatter about that already, moving to an eight-team playoff with higher seeds earning quarterfinal home games.

The still-relevant bowl system doesn’t want that, of course, because it’d lose more of its own cachet, not to mention its tradition-rich, money-laundering scheme.

And I’m not sure the fans really want it, either, if they stop and think about it.

Problem is, rational thought tends to fall by the wayside this time of year in college football. (Witness the aftermath of that riveting rivalry game in Columbus, for example.)

Deserving debate

It probably doesn’t help that the playoff selection committee keeps advertising something it may not be able to deliver. Week in and week out, Hocutt describes this as a quest to find the “four very best teams in the country.” Not the four most deserving, which is an altogether different argument, in some cases.

Including this one, perhaps. Because many, if not most, who watched that Ohio State-Michigan game — the “instant classic” that brought Urban Meyer to his knees — would tell you there aren’t more than two better teams in the country.

“But if Washington loses to Colorado, that’s what the committee is going to be talking about: ‘most deserving’ versus ‘the best,’” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “I thought Michigan and the way they played on the road in Columbus … I think they proved they’re one of the top teams.”

The proof is in the "putting," if you will. We’ll see where committee puts these teams Sunday, and then we’ll hear which of their break-in-case-of-emergency criteria they decide to lean on to explain their final rankings.

But whatever the end games are, the other problem with the so-called “eye test” — and it’s as subjective as it sounds — is that it often misses the bigger picture. That by limiting the playoff field to four, it all but guarantees weeks of drama and debate. And all that only adds to the intrigue and intensity — and, yes, the importance — of the regular season.

How many times in recent weeks have you heard college coaches and players referencing exactly that? Heck, it was Jim Harbaugh himself after that snowy win over Indiana a couple weeks ago who gushed, “It was a playoff game.” If so, then surely last weekend’s clash in Columbus was a playoff quarterfinal. Winner advances, loser goes home, right?

But what if both teams already had playoff berths locked up going into that game? How different might that ending have felt for both teams, and both fan bases?

Those are questions without any real answers, I suppose. But they’re worth remembering this weekend as the playoff committee comes up with answers that’ll surely raise more questions.