Tuesday July 23rd, 2024 10:37AM

Loaded field of CFP contenders fuels championship weekend drama

By Ralph D. Russo AP College Sports Writer

The four-team College Football Playoff is going out with the most crowded field of contenders and the most consequential championship weekend in the 10-year history of the system.

Eight teams have at least a glimmer of hope to make the field. Yes, that means you, too, Ohio State.

The penultimate CFP rankings will be released Tuesday night. The field for the playoff will be announced Sunday.

Determining which teams are CFP contenders heading into championship weekend is a bit subjective. More often than not a Power Five team with only one loss going into the conference title games — regardless of whether that team is playing — has to be considered alive.

No team with two losses has ever made the CFP, but at least a couple of times a team with two losses had to be considered in contention when it played for a conference title. Auburn in 2017 is the most obvious example.

That season was one of the few where championship weekend had multiple games matching CFP contenders. More commonly, championship weekend hasn't been about teams playing their way into the field as much as watching for whether teams might play their way out.

Last season when Southern California lost the Pac-12 championship game on Friday night, the field was practically set before Saturday's games kicked off.

Georgia and Michigan won their conferences to stay perfect and lock down the top two seeds, but would have gotten in regardless. TCU lost the Big 12 title game and got in. Ohio State slipped in the backdoor without playing.

Alabama coach Nick Saban politicked for the Tide to get in with two losses, but there was no real drama heading into selection Sunday.

This year, every conference championship has at least one CFP contender. The Pac-12 and the SEC each have two. Two-time defending champion Georgia might be able to lose to Alabama and make the field, as it did on the way to the national title in 2021, but that is far from a guarantee.

There are multiple scenarios that could play out this weekend and leave the 13-member CFP selection committee facing almost impossible choices Saturday night.

With such strong teams on top of college football this season, it would seem to be a perfect time to have a 12-team playoff to accommodate them all. That's coming next year.

Though an argument could be made if there were more seasons like this that produced dramatic championship weekends and intrigue heading into the selection Sunday, maybe the CFP would not have needed to expand.

Here are the paths to the final four for the contenders.

Georgia, Michigan, Washington
With perfect records, it is simple: win and you're in.

Being unbeaten provides some hope of backing in. Especially, for the Bulldogs, winners of 29 straight games.

Florida State
The Seminoles are perfect and in playoff position heading into their Atlantic Coast Conference title game against Louisville, but an injury to star quarterback Jordan Travis creates some uncertainty.

“You want to be pushing and playing your best ball in November so you can go into December and have these opportunities,” Florida State coach Mike Norvell said.

Leaving an unbeaten Power Five conference champion out of the playoff would be unprecedented — and some would say unfair. But the committee is instructed to judge the team as it is entering the postseason.

If Florida State muddles past Louisville and Alabama beats Georgia in a competitive game, leaving the two-time defending national champion 12-1 but without a conference title, the committee will face this question: Are the Tate Rodemaker-led Seminoles better than the Bulldogs?

Oregon, Texas, Alabama
Life is more complicated for these three 11-1 teams playing for their conference titles.

The Ducks seem to have the clearest path. The committee has had them ahead of Texas for weeks, so it would stand to reason if they beat Washington and win the Pac-12 they are good to go.

Texas fans don't want to hear that and have been frustrated with the Longhorns' placement behind Oregon. It's a fair complaint, but unlikely to change now with Texas playing Oklahoma State (9-3) in the Big 12 title game and Oregon getting a chance to avenge its loss to Washington.

Texas might also have a case in a comparison against the current version of Florida State. And if Alabama can pull the upset in the SEC, that could help the 'Horns, who beat the Tide in Tuscaloosa in September. Right?

Well ... the SEC champion has never been left out of the playoff and having one that stops Georgia's 29-game winning streak be the first would be surprising.

“This is one of the most competitive venues in college football,” Saban said of the SEC championship game. “We're obviously playing one of the best team's in college football. If not the best team in college football.”

Among these three, Texas seems most likely get the squeeze, and Alabama is the weekend's biggest wildcard.

A Tide victory makes everything more complicated.

Ohio State
In a world where Florida State, Oregon, Texas and Alabama lose, the Buckeyes look like winners.

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