Could two ACC teams make the Playoffs?

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Recently, Athlon Sports released their annual college football preview magazine. They project Florida State finishing 12-1 while winning the ACC championship for the fourth time under head coach Jimbo Fisher and securing the #2 seed in the College Football Playoff. Meanwhile, Athlon projects Clemson to finish 11-1 and earn the #4 seed in the playoffs.

Is this realistic?

Sure, Florida State and Clemson are projected to be two of the best teams in the country next year. Clemson returns Deshaun Watson, perhaps the best overall player in the country, and their offense should not take a step back from their record-setting season last year. Florida State, on the other hand, returns Dalvin Cook and should see improved play from both their offense and defense.

But I’m not so sure the playoff committee would be the biggest fans of two teams from one conference in the playoffs. On their official website, the committee lists ‘Conference championships won’ as the first criteria that they use to distinguish comparable teams. More so, the FBS conferences themselves manage the playoff committee. Do you think Barry Alvarez (current athletic director at Wisconsin) would be in favor of putting in a 11-1 Clemson over a 11-2 Big Ten champion?

The committee has an incentive to reward the conference champions because it expands the viewer market. In Athlon’s scenario, putting in both Florida State and Clemson leaves out the viewers from both the Big 12 and Pac-12. Possibly the worst-case scenario for the committee would be to have two teams from the same conference have a rematch in the national title game. It’s been no secret that ratings for the title games have decreased in recent years and the playoffs on New Year’s Eve haven’t helped rating either. Subtracting a conference or two from the equation would be a bad move for their business model.

However, it’s a worthwhile exercise to break down exactly how two teams from the ACC could make the playoff according to Athlon.

Because Athlon does not list exactly who each team beats and loses to and rather lists just the overall records, we have to project exactly where the wins and losses come from. Obviously, Athlon projects Florida State to beat Clemson to secure the Atlantic division crown once again. With a 7-1 conference record, Florida State marches into the ACC title game and beats North Carolina (for the second time that season).

But where does Florida State’s loss come from? Athlon projects them to have a 7-1 conference record, so the loss can’t come from the season opener versus Ole Miss or Florida to end the season. Prospective losses include at Louisville, versus North Carolina, and at Miami. An early road loss, such as the third game of the season versus Louisville, would be an easy loss to bounce back from. Athlon also projects Louisville to finish 9-3, so it wouldn’t be a situation where Florida State loses to a team that doesn’t make a bowl game.

Clemson’s case for the playoff committee would be pretty solid. They lose to Florida State on the road, but beat everyone else on their schedule. If the loss to Florida State is close, say by a field goal, it only helps their chances.

One reason why Athlon has two ACC teams in the playoffs is because the project poor seasons from both the Big 12 and Pac-12. They have Oklahoma winning the Big 12 again, but with a 10-2 record. This is another situation where the lack of a conference championship game could severely hurt the Big 12’s chances of making the playoffs. Meanwhile, Athlon projects Washington to win the Pac-12 with a 10-3 record and a win over 9-4 UCLA in the conference championship. Obviously, the natural inclination is to have an 11-1 Clemson over a 10-2 Oklahoma or 10-3 Washington.

However, an interesting situation presents itself if we look at the Big 10. Athlon projects Ohio State to win the conference with a 12-1 record and secure the #3 seed, but they also have Michigan finishing with an 11-1 record and missing out on the playoffs. This essentially means that Clemson and Michigan are in the same boat. Clemson loses to Florida State, but wins the rest of their games to finish 11-1. Michigan loses to Ohio State, but wins the rest of their games to finish 11-1.

Essentially, Athlon projects the committee to have a situation like this:

#1 seed: Alabama (12-1)

#2 seed: Florida State (12-1)

#3 seed: Ohio State (12-1)

#4 seed: Clemson (11-1) OR Michigan (11-1)

Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State are all guaranteed a spot due to conference championships, but Clemson and Michigan will come down to strength of schedule, comparative outcomes of common opponents, game management, and whatever other criteria they use when they make the final decision.

But I think the situation could be a lot simpler. Clemson faces Florida State at the middle of October, so a loss still guarantees that Clemson has time to repair their image by blowing out of the final four teams on their schedule. Meanwhile, Michigan faces Ohio State in their final game of the season. If they get blown out, like they did last season, or even lose a close game, they have no time to repair their image by beating more teams. Simply put, Clemson has time to put up better film for the committee while Michigan does not.

Could two ACC teams make the playoffs? It’s possible, but not likely. The committee has an incentive to reward conference champions and expand their viewer base. Besides, we’ve seen that overall records don’t mean much to the playoff committee. Just two years ago, a 13-0 Florida State team fell to the #3 seed behind two 12-1 teams. Anything can happen.

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