Chuck Culpepper (c) 2014, The Washington Post.
As college football nears the summit of its new landscape, a handful of teams will spend the weekend trying to make final and lasting impressions upon 12 people in a fourth-floor hotel boardroom near the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
The first College Football Playoff selection committee has six more pivotal games to study to wrap up seven weeks of national evaluations by midday on Sunday, when it will announce the inaugural four-team playoff. Those final exams stretch from the Friday night in Santa Clara, California, with the Pac-12 title game to Saturday afternoon and evening in three Eastern Time Zone cities to perhaps the biggest game, Saturday night in Waco, Texas. There, No. 6 Baylor will play No. 9 Kansas State, giving the Bears one last shot to land a noteworthy victory and impress the committee.
“This is what you want,” Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty told reporters in Waco this week.
As the top seven teams — No. 1 Alabama (11-1), No. 2 Oregon (11-1), No. 3 TCU (10-1), No. 4 Florida State (12-0), No. 5 Ohio State (11-1), No. 6 Baylor and No. 7 Arizona (10-2) — play this weekend, all have gotten much of what they wanted. Five of them have reached the four major-conference championship games, including those of the Southeastern Conference (No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 16 Missouri), the Pacific-12 Conference (No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 7 Arizona on Friday night), the Atlantic Coast Conference (No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 11 Georgia Tech) and the Big Ten (No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 13 Wisconsin).
No. 3 TCU and No. 6 Baylor play in the Big 12, which no longer stages a conference-championship game, yet their regular-season finales might stir the most chatter. At midday, TCU will play Iowa State (2-9), then 88 miles down Interstate 35 at night, Baylor will battle against Kansas State (9-2).
A win by Baylor could bolster the argument the Bears have been making all late autumn: that they deserve inclusion among the coveted top four in the playoff. That argument has flared for weeks while Baylor has lagged in the playoff rankings behind TCU, which Baylor defeated 61-58, because the committee has preferred TCU’s overall work. What would a Baylor win over Kansas State affect that standing? If nothing else, the argument for inclusion would grow in intensity.
“With a win over Kansas State we would be 11-1,” Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said at the weekly media gathering in Waco this week, “We will be the Big 12 Conference champion based on the tiebreaker and winning the head-to-head against TCU. We would be the only school among the top six that will have a win against another top-six team and we would have three top-15-caliber wins at that point. I think we would make an incredible case and would be very hard to keep out in that circumstance.”
The committee, of course, is not bound by the Big 12’s conference tiebreaker methods. Week after week, it has fancied TCU’s more abundant wins over winning teams (five to Baylor’s two thus far), and TCU’s better non-conference schedule, which has included a home win over oft-ranked Minnesota. The committee even widened the TCU-Baylor gap this past Tuesday, raising TCU two spots to No. 3 and Baylor by just one to No. 6.
In the mix with Baylor and TCU swirls the curious case of Ohio State, sitting in the aching No. 5 spot three months after a home loss to Virginia Tech left it disrespected. The Buckeyes will try to solve Wisconsin without quarterback J.T. Barrett, who steered their resurgence with uncommon pluck for a freshman until he broke his ankle on the first play of the fourth quarter last Saturday against Michigan.
That leaves Ohio State attempting to put a balm on its gutting, derailing loss in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game with third-string Cardale Jones at quarterback, and with a redshirt backing up Jones. Asked if he might call fewer running plays for Jones, Buckeyes Coach Urban Meyer said, “We have to win this game. We’re not saving him for next week or the week after. We’re not saving anything.”
If TCU, Ohio State and Baylor all win, those three might comprise the central argument for the golden No. 4 spot. Yet if anything unexpected happens up top, the chaos could mushroom.
Among the raft of two-loss teams, No. 7 Arizona ranks highest, and the Wildcats could elbow into the argument if they could upset No. 2 Oregon on Friday night. That’s partly because they already upset the Ducks once, at Oregon, back on a Thursday night, Oct. 2.
“It’s tough to beat a good team twice, although it’s definitely not impossible,” Arizona senior safety Jared Tevis said at the Arizona media session this week.
If recent history repeats, No. 4 Florida State would have to make another in its litany of escapes — and against its highest-ranked opponent to date. The Seminoles also played Georgia Tech and its triple-option attack in Charlotte two years ago, winning 21-15 after leading 21-6 at halftime. As the committee has continued to be blasé about the only unbeaten team at the top level of the game, dropping Florida State along the way from No. 2 to No. 3 to No. 4, the Seminoles have slogged through some blasé first halves, during which 14 of quarterback Jameis Winston’s 17 interceptions have come.
They also have stressed that the Seminoles do win.
“I said it the other day: We’re turning into figure skating,” Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher lamented this week.
The judges are bound for Dallas-Fort Worth.