Four early playoff questions to consider as spring ball kicks off

A two-loss team has yet to finish in the top four of the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame has yet to take the place of a Power 5 champ. Alabama has yet to miss the playoff.

"Every year is different in terms of what the dynamics will be and how the season will play out," said former selection committee member and coach Tyrone Willingham. "There will be an issue they will be looking at next year that will be totally different from what you've had to deal with in the four previous years."

As the season unfolds, so do the storylines, but with spring practice upon us, the work to finish in the top four officially begins. Here are four big-picture questions surrounding this year's CFP race:

1. Can Georgia overcome a weak nonconference schedule?

Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, UMass and Georgia Tech -- four teams that combined for a 24-24 record last year (including the 8-4 record from FCS Austin Peay) -- give the Dawgs little to no wiggle room. Georgia Tech is the only Power 5 nonconference opponent, and the Yellow Jackets finished 5-6 last year.

The importance of strength of schedule is not up for debate within the selection committee meeting room. Alabama earned a spot in the top four last year, but in the committee's lengthy final deliberations, its game against FCS Mercer was certainly a part of the debate against Ohio State for the fourth spot.

"If you want to be considered for a spot in the college football championship, you need to go out and schedule up," former selection committee member Tom Jernstedt said. "When the bracket is so small, there aren't many things you can use to separate Team A from Team B, C and D, and someone that can demonstrate that they went out and made a real effort to schedule up -- that's important. If you schedule down and end up undefeated, that should not be rewarded for scheduling down. You constantly encourage people to schedule up so the committee really has something to work with as it goes through its deliberations."

Georgia faces Florida, a road trip to LSU, and gets Auburn at home. One loss would put it in a precarious playoff position. In 2016, Washington was hammered for its strength of schedule all season. Last year, Wisconsin's résumé was under the microscope. Now it's Georgia's turn.

2. Will it be a big year for the Big Ten?

The Big Ten, at least heading into the spring, appears to have the potential to be best-positioned among the Power 5 conferences to get two teams into the top four. The league has five teams ranked in the top 12 of ESPN's early 2018 FPI: No. 4 Ohio State, No. 8 Penn State, No. 10 Michigan State, No. 11 Michigan and No. 12 Wisconsin.

Here's the problem: The first four teams mentioned are in the Big Ten's East Division, which means it's survival of the fittest. Wisconsin also has a much more difficult schedule, including road games at Penn State and Michigan, than it did a year ago, when it went into the Big Ten title game undefeated. The Big Ten could either get two teams in from the East, or it could have a similar situation to the SEC last year, with Wisconsin winning the Big Ten and being selected along with the runner-up from the East, similar to Georgia and Alabama in 2017.

3. Can the Pac-12 rebound?

It certainly can't get much worse, not after an embarrassing 1-8 finish this past bowl season. Utah, which finished 3-6 in conference play, was the only Pac-12 team to win its bowl game. It was the worst finish in bowl season by a Power 5 conference.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott wasn't deterred. "This is a year where we had nine bowl teams, and two teams in the New Year's Six, which I think sends the exact opposite message," Scott said at the national championship game. "That message is the committee highly values the Pac-12 such that we got a second team in the New Year's Six. If the conference seems down and weak, you don't get a second team in the New Year's Six. Having said that, a 1-8 bowl record is not good, it's disappointing, but in the last five years we've had some of our best bowl records as well. ... I don't think we'll let one year, a 1-8 record -- I don't think anyone is going to overreact to that."

The Pac-12 has three teams in ESPN's first FPI (No. 6 Washington, No. 13 Stanford, and No. 15 USC).

4. Who will be this year's Auburn?

Every year, one team is prematurely doomed in the court of public opinion and then somehow manages to resurrect its playoff hopes in November. Last year, after losing to both Clemson and LSU before the committee's first ranking was even out, Auburn was deemed done.

With November wins over No. 1 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama, though, Auburn was an SEC title game win away from becoming the first two-loss team in the playoff.

It's the second loss that is typically the dagger. But what if Michigan, for instance, suffers close losses to Notre Dame in the season opener and Wisconsin on Oct. 13, yet goes on to win the East and beats the Badgers in the Big Ten title game?