How the College Football Playoff could end up with two non-division winners

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I have been batting around this chaotic idea in my head all day since doing a live video this morning about the latest College Football Playoff rankings. It sure seems as though we could be heading to an interesting College Football Playoff lineup, in which the third year proves there is no year-to-year formula for putting the playoff together. Each year will be different, like a snowflake. This one just so happens to be one of the oddest snowflakes ever.

The latest College Football Playoff rankings released on Tuesday night bumped Ohio State up to second place, behind No. 1 Alabama. That seems to have the Buckeyes in a very comfortable position to make the playoff, assuming it takes care of rival Michigan in the final game of the regular season. Of course, as has been discussed from multiple angles by now, we have a real possibility of Ohio State going 11-1, beating Michigan and still being locked out from playing for the Big Ten championship. That is because Penn State will represent the Big Ten East in Indianapolis if — and this is a big “if” — the Nittany Lions win their final two games (at Rutgers, vs. Michigan State) and Ohio State defeats Michigan. If you are Ohio State, this seems pretty frustrating as a Big Ten title would sure be nice. On the flip side, however, Ohio State could still be pretty comfy in that second spot in the rankings without having to risk playing in a championship game. It’s like old times in the Big Ten!

Ohio State could very well put the selection committee to the test this season, because they could be a top two team without a division championship. How are you going to leave out an 11-1 Ohio State at the end of the year when they are second in your ranking in the middle of November and will have a win against your third-best team? The simple answer, I think, is they won’t. Ohio State, despite not winning its division, is on course to become the first team in the playoff era to be selected to play in the four-team playoff despite not winning (or playing for) a conference title.

And the bets part yet, Louisville could potentially do the same.

The latest College Football Playoff ranking put Louisville in the “First Team Out” spot at No. 5, right behind Clemson. Louisville is in a similar position as Ohio State, in that they could finish the season with an 11-1 record and be locked out of playing for the ACC championship. Right now, Clemson stands in the way, thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker from September. It looks as though Clemson is going to go on to play for the ACC Championship as they need a win against Wake Forest to clinch the ACC Atlantic Division this weekend. But what if Clemson were to lose to Virginia Tech (or North Carolina) in the ACC Championship Game? Oh my, we’d have some chaos on our hands.

For starters, Clemson would drop out of the top four in the playoff ranking, and given the current rankings, that could give Louisville one last chance to sneak in. Of course, staying ahead of a one-loss Pac-12 champion might be difficult (but who says Washington is guaranteed to win the Pac-12 anyway?), and nobody knows what kind of surge a two-loss Big Ten champion (Wisconsin or Penn State) might receive from the committee.

Could we see two non-division winners in the College Football Playoff? It probably remains a bit of a long shot, but it is most certainly not out of the question. The committee is tasked to field the four best teams in the country. Ohio State and Louisville, each with 11-1 records, would be more than strong enough candidates given a little bit of chaos down the stretch.