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  • Outside of the SEC, the conference division races have been mayhem. It could all lead up to a wildly important championship Saturday ... or not.
By Joan Niesen
November 07, 2018

This week, we got our second set of College Football Playoff rankings, and somehow, we’re less than a month out from conference championship weekend. Those two concepts are related, of course, in the sense that the latter often feeds the former. In the playoff committee’s criteria for selecting its final four teams, which it does immediately after the title games, the first bullet point it lists are “conference championships won.” And we can debate all day how closely the committee hews to those guidelines, but quiet that urge for a second, because this year might present a special case.

In 2018, we may have the wonkiest slate of conference title games of the playoff era—which could make them utterly meaningless or wildly disruptive.

Sure, we’re still three games out—just far enough removed from the title games to have possibilities to explore, but not so far that any permutation is unimaginable. The SEC, at least, seems like it’s carrying on with relative sanity, in the sense that the matchup is already set: Georgia will face Alabama in Atlanta on Dec. 1. The best team in the West vs. the best team in the East. At least that makes sense. But around the rest of college football, it’s mayhem. We have more than one lopsided conference title game in store, which could ruin the drama of Selection Sunday if all goes as the odds will dictate. One upset, though, could throw the whole playoff into chaos.

STAPLES: How the 10 Teams Still Alive for the Playoff Can Make It

ACC: The mess in the Coastal

Barring disaster (Boston College upsetting Clemson this weekend qualifies as such), Dabo Swinney and company will represent the Atlantic Division in the ACC title game. On the other side of the bracket, though, there are currently four teams with either three or four conference wins thus far. Pitt is 4–1 in ACC play, Virginia 4–2, Virginia Tech 3–2 and Georgia Tech 3–3. (Technically, Miami and Duke are still in the hunt for the division as well, although at 2–3 in conference play, it’d be a long road for either.) Pitt probably has the best chance of capturing the division, but no matter what, the ACC will at best have either a three- or four-loss team in its title game.

Big 12: Iowa State in the title game?

The Big 12 is unique in that it’s without divisions; the conference’s two best teams, regardless of their geography, will face off in Dallas. Right now, those teams are West Virginia and Oklahoma, and objectively, that’ll be the case come Dec. 1. But there’s a wrinkle: both teams have a conference loss, and they still need to play each other, on Nov. 23. Meanwhile, there are two teams with two conference losses: Texas and Iowa State. They also play each other, on Nov. 17. Between these four programs, we should get our Big 12 title game.

The conference has to hope for Oklahoma vs. West Virginia, which would be its best shot at getting a team into the final four. But because of two October upsets—Texas beating Oklahoma and Iowa State beating West Virginia—that won’t be a simple proposition. Assuming there aren’t any bizarre outcomes in November, the best path to that matchup would involve Texas defeating Iowa State and Oklahoma beating West Virginia the next week. That would leave Oklahoma with one conference loss, West Virginia and Texas with two—but West Virginia beat Texas last week, so it’d have the tie-breaker. Still, both the Sooners and Mountaineers are at the mercy of their losses, and it’s not hard to imagine an Oklahoma-Iowa State title game, or Texas-West Virginia. Both of those matchups reek of upsets that could keep the Big 12 out of the playoff altogether.

Big Ten: The West will come down to the final weeks

The Big Ten East is going to be decided when Michigan plays Ohio State in Week 13, and the Wolverines control their destiny that day. Win, and they’re in the conference championship game. Lose, and Ohio State is going to Indianapolis. These are the conference’s two most talented teams; only one will get a shot at the big game and, ultimately, the playoff. In the West, meanwhile, it’s been a bloodbath. Wisconsin, once the favorite, has two conference losses, to Northwestern and Michigan. It’s Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats, actually, who are in the driver’s seat with a 5–1 conference mark. Purdue (at 4–2 in the Big Ten), the Badgers and Iowa (3–3) are also in the race.

Northwestern could knock Iowa out of division contention this weekend with a win. That would go a long way toward guaranteeing the Wildcats’ supremacy in the West. Wisconsin is an underdog against Penn State on Saturday, and a loss would set it back a step. And next weekend, the loser of Purdue-Wisconsin will also likely be done in the division. Ultimately, Northwestern controls its path, but if it loses to Iowa, that path gets a tad trickier.

RAPAPORT: Way-Too-Early SEC Championship Preview

Pac-12: The South could wind up in one giant tie

The Apple Cup is probably going to decide the North in Week 13, and Washington State will be the favorite in that game. In the South, though, insanity looms. Every single team—every single team—currently has a conference record in the margin between 4–3 and 2–4, which is a tiny one. Check out this scenario:

Utah loses to Colorado but beats Oregon.

Arizona loses to Washington State and beats Arizona State.

USC loses to UCLA but beats Cal.

Arizona State loses to Arizona but beats Oregon and UCLA.

Colorado wins out.

UCLA wins out.

If that were to play out, the entire Pac-12 South would finish the season with a 5–4 Pac-12 record. It involves a million dominoes—but only one of them, Colorado defeating Washington State on Saturday—is far-fetched. In this hellish scenario, the South’s conference title game representative would be determined by the highest ranking in the SportSource Analytics poll among Utah, Arizona State, Colorado and UCLA; that’s the fifth tiebreaker the conference lists, but the first four would only be good enough to winnow out two teams.

If sanity prevails, Utah probably has the best path to the conference championship against Washington State. By then, it’ll likely be a three- or four-loss team.

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