When the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick established the protocol for the College Football Playoff selection committee, they allowed for the group to have a great deal of flexibility. They also instructed them to consider four criteria when evaluating comparable teams: conference championships, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, and outcomes against common opponents.
It's important to remember as the committee meets to select this season's playoff participants. Should the fourth spot boil down to two or more comparable teams on Selection Day, this criteria would essentially be used as tiebreakers by the committee. But it's not as simple as suggesting that a conference championship for a team like Ohio State would give it the edge over one-loss Alabama, as each of the 13 members will have their own way of evaluating teams and weighing that criteria.
"To what degree, how that will be weighted is subjective with each individual in that selection committee room," chairman Kirby Hocutt said.
The value of winning a conference title was called into question last season when Ohio State earned the No. 3 spot without even winning its division and in spite of a head-to-head loss to Big Ten champion Penn State. Here's the catch, though: The committee didn't think Ohio State and Penn State were comparable last year. It believed the Buckeyes to be the better team, which essentially nullified any obligation to resort to those tiebreakers, which diminished the value of Penn State's head-to-head result and Big Ten title.
This season, Alabama is hoping to do the same by making the top four without winning the SEC West. Let's say Ohio State beats No. 4 Wisconsin to win the Big Ten title, and the fourth spot comes down to the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide. The biggest question the committee would have to answer is if it thinks a one-loss Alabama and a two-loss Ohio State are even "comparable," yet another subjective determination in the already ambiguous process. If not, it might not matter if the Buckeyes win the Big Ten, just as it didn't matter for Penn State last year.
One thing is certain: The No. 5 Crimson Tide need somebody in the top four to lose, but even then nothing is guaranteed.
Here's a ranking of the final and most important games of the season:
(Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on FOX)
If Ohio State wins: The two-loss Buckeyes knock the Badgers out and open the door for a great debate against 11-1 Alabama. Hocutt said a Big Ten title for the Buckeyes would be "an important designation to have on their résumé when comparing them to any comparable team."
The question then becomes: Are Alabama and Ohio State comparable? It would seem they are not at the moment, as evidenced by Alabama's No. 5 ranking, though Hocutt did say there is "very little separation" in teams five through eight right now.
"If that should change, if Ohio State wins a conference championship, I don't know how the selection committee would make that decision until it happens, and I'll be prepared to answer it next Sunday for sure."
In that case, Ohio State would have two top-10 wins, against No. 9 Penn State and No. 4 Wisconsin, and No. 16 Michigan State. Would that be enough to overcome two losses, including a dreadful 55-24 loss at Iowa?
If Wisconsin wins: The Badgers are in. They would finish the season as the only undefeated Power 5 team. While their strength of schedule is currently No. 65 according to ESPN's FPI -- the lowest of any ranked Power 5 team -- they are No. 4 in ESPN's Strength of Record metric, which measures how difficult it would be for an average top-25 team to achieve the same record as the Badgers.
Rooting interest: Alabama should be cheering for the Buckeyes. At the very least, it needs Wisconsin to lose.
(Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET on FOX)
If TCU wins: The Horned Frogs and the Big 12 probably would be snubbed again. The league's championship game was brought back for the sole purpose of increasing its chances of having a top-four team, but it could achieve the opposite effect and eliminate it entirely.
The committee doesn't even think TCU is a top-10 team, let alone anywhere near the bubble. It's highly unlikely that perception will change with a win over Oklahoma, even though it would avenge one of TCU's regular-season losses. The Horned Frogs also lost to Iowa State and their only regular-season win against a ranked opponent was at No. 19 Oklahoma State. That doesn't stack up against the other contenders' résumés.
If Oklahoma wins: The Sooners should be in and the resurrected Big 12 championship game works in the league's favor. OU is ranked No. 1 in the country in offensive efficiency, and has the leading Heisman hopeful in quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Rooting interest: Alabama should be rooting for TCU, which is the Tide's best-case scenario for getting back into the top four. While it would also help Ohio State to have another top-four team go down, don't forget the Buckeyes lost at home to Oklahoma and the committee compares common opponents. It might be more beneficial for Ohio State to be able to claim at least one of its losses came to the eventual Big 12 champ.
(Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC and ESPN App)
If Miami wins: The Canes should leap back into the top four with a win over the No. 1 team in the country. The question is if a two-loss Clemson that didn't win its conference title would be eliminated. It probably would. The committee dropped Georgia from No. 1 to No. 7 after it lost to Auburn. It dropped Alabama from No. 1 to No. 5 this week after its loss to Auburn. Odds are it would do the same for Clemson, unless wins by TCU and Ohio State change that equation.
If Clemson wins: The Tigers should finish the season as the committee's No. 1 team, and knock the Canes out for good. Clemson currently has seven wins against teams above .500, including five opponents with at least eight wins. Adding a top-10 win to its résumé should secure the top spot.
Rooting interest: This game isn't going to make any room for anyone, as the winner should be a lock, but Ohio State and Alabama should root for Clemson just to be safe and sure that two ACC teams aren't getting in.
(Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on CBS)
If Georgia wins: The Bulldogs should finish in the top four after avenging their Nov. 11 regular-season loss to Auburn, eliminating what could have been the first two-loss team in the CFP semifinals, unless, of course, Ohio State sneaks in. Georgia is one of three teams to be ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, along with Clemson and Alabama.
If Auburn wins: The Tigers become the first two-loss team in the CFP semifinals after beating a top-10 Georgia team for the second time.
Rooting interest: If Alabama and its fans can somehow bring themselves to root for their rival, an Auburn win would mean, that at the very least, Alabama could say it's only loss was to the SEC champs.
(Saturday at noon ET on ABC and ESPN App)
If Memphis wins: It would earn the New Year's Six bowl bid as the committee's highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion.
If UCF wins: Same as the Tigers, it's about earning a bid to a New Year's Six bowl, but there's a greater, perhaps more frustrating, significance if UCF finishes the season undefeated. The Knights moved up only one place in this week's rankings and Hocutt has stated repeatedly that strength of schedule is holding them back.
According to FPI, UCF's schedule strength is ranked No. 90, lowest among top 25 teams.