By Kevin McGuire-
(CBS Local) The College Football Playoff will determine college football’s first national champion in the new playoff model in January, but the real playoff begins this weekend. The conference championship games in the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC all have teams looking to secure a spot in the playoff, and there is no team that can afford to suffer a loss this week with the pool of playoff candidates already crowded.
Let us start in Atlanta, home of the SEC Championship Game. The nation’s number one team in the polls and in the eyes of the selection committee is Alabama, with one loss. A loss this weekend to Missouri in the SEC Championship Game would drop Alabama into two-loss territory, and that is a category no team wants to be in this week. The possibility of the SEC champion being left out of the playoff may be a tad mind-boggling, but Missouri has an opportunity to claim a conference championship and get a wave of chaos going before the playoff field is set. Maybe Missouri can crack the four-team playoff field with a win over Alabama, but the Tigers may still need some help after coming out of the weaker of the two SEC divisions and wins against Arkansas and Texas A&M and a loss to Indiana not to be forgotten. This would be a terrible week for Alabama to lose.
Florida State has been playing with fire all season long, but the Seminoles continue to string together wins. Even when Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston has an off performance, the defending BCS national champions just dig deep and find a way to win. The committee has not been kind to Florida State, but a 13-0 team with an ACC championship is not going to be left out of the mix. A one-loss team without one may be a different story. Georgia Tech has been finding a way to finish strong this season, and the Yellow Jackets will be the last obstacle standing in the way of Florida State’s spot in the playoff.
On Friday night, Oregon will look to pick up some revenge against the only team to defeat them this season. Arizona claimed the Pac-12 South on the final day of the Pac-12 regular season, and Rich Rodriguez has a chance to do something he has not done since his West Virginia days – win a conference championship. Marcus Mariota and Oregon have put some of their demons to rest this season and look poised for a playoff run, but Arizona has the right ingredients to block the Ducks from advancing. A loss by Oregon would remove them from the playoff conversation, and could be enough to boost Arizona up just enough to take a spot.
The Big Ten has become a bit more complicated. Ohio State looked to be on pace to move into the fourth and final playoff spot, but the loss of quarterback J.T. Barrett last weekend against Michigan may throw a wrench in the plans. In will step Cardale Jones at quarterback, but the bigger concern will be stopping Wisconsin’s running game. The Badgers are led by Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon, on pace to set a new single-season rushing record. Ohio State is the team in most need of a big win this week to make one final plea to the selection committee for inclusion in the playoff. Even with a win though, the Buckeyes could need some help, especially without Barrett on the field. Wisconsin likely will not move up enough with a win, but playing spoiler for Ohio State is not only possible, it is now expected. Wisconsin is the favorite this week in Las Vegas.
The other part of the equation is the Big 12. TCU continues to hold firm ahead of one-loss Ohio State and one-loss Baylor. With the lack of a conference championship game, Baylor’s only claim at representing the Big 12 comes from a head-to-head victory over TCU if they can get by Kansas State this weekend. Ending the season with identical records may be enough for the committee to respect the head-to-head win for Baylor, but the committee has been waiting a while to find any reason to knock down TCU.
The mission is simple for any team with a chance to sniff the playoffs this week: just win. No team can afford a loss this week, which means the playoff is now on.
Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football.