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So it’s October, and your conference is (probably) already out of the Playoff

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The four-team era introduced a new early-season pastime: circling like vultures over the likeliest power conference to miss out.

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USC’s mascot at a football game vs. BYU Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society illustration.

As college fans, we like to declare our conferences smarter, braver, and more moral (hello, fellow Big Ten alums!) than their peer leagues. That’s usually because of some mix of regional pride and a desire for comedy. But when it comes to postseason positioning, it’s also about fear: What if those inferior losers take our spot?

This is why we’re conditioned to have an itchy trigger finger when announcing conferences are doomed to the greatest indignity of all: missing the Playoff. It’s why you might see visible Southern internet personalities declaring the Big Ten officially eliminated from the Playoff on September 6, months before this:

Big Ten Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

College football is also our most subjective sport, and that makes it easy to just DECLARE THINGS. Unless it’s a weird year, declaring one power conference out of the field means declaring another league (likely the speaker’s favorite) in.

And sure, if a bunch of people declare a conference already out of the Playoff, that conference is probably going to miss the Playoff.

But I’m here with good news. If you are a Pac-12 fan a fan of a team in a power conference, and a bunch of people are saying before mid-October that your conference has no shot at the Playoff, those people are not guaranteed to be right. These canaries in the coal mine are merely probably right, because the power leagues maintain at least a nominal chance for a longer time than it often appears.

Using a two-loss threshold* for powers (so far in the Playoff era, a solid benchmark) and a “sorry, go away” threshold for non-powers, here’s how long FBS leagues have stayed in:

When conferences have been knocked out of the Playoff race

Year Pac-12 Big Ten Big 12 ACC SEC The Group of 5
Year Pac-12 Big Ten Big 12 ACC SEC The Group of 5
2014 Survived! Survived! Champs Weekend Survived! Survived! Immediately
2015 Week 11 Survived! Survived! Survived! Survived! Immediately
2016 Survived! Survived! Week 12 Survived! Survived! Immediately
2017 Week 11 Champs Weekend Survived! Survived! Survived! Immediately
2018 Week 13 Champs Weekend Survived! Survived! Survived! Immediately
2019 ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? Immediately

* 2017 Ohio State and Auburn are exceptions to the two-loss threshold, sort of. Either could’ve made it in with two losses.

Non-powers are ineligible as long as the event sits at four teams, despite the Playoff’s official insistences. There might be a caveat if one beats a top-five-ish team and another power while going undefeated, but we haven’t gotten to test that.

As for the Power 5, almost every outright, one-loss conference champ has made the Playoff. The one that didn’t was still around until the end.

So let’s consider each conference’s elimination over that span.

The 2014 Big 12 ...

... had a 10-1 TCU at #3 heading into Championship Weekend, as well as one-loss Baylor at #6. Both teams missed out.

“The Big 12 actually eliminated itself by not having a championship game,” many people thought. But that’s a tricky sell, given Oklahoma twice clinched a Playoff spot without having to risk it in a volatile title game.

The team that kept the Big 12 out was the supposedly eliminated Ohio State (one introductory CFP wrinkle in OSU’s favor: the committee ended up treating the Hokies as a .500 team, not a terrible team). The Buckeyes were #16 on October 26, eventually pulling off a literal leapfrog of TCU after destroying Wisconsin and finishing with a tougher schedule than the Big 12’s teams did.

If your league is already being declared out, the 2014 Buckeyes are your reason to hope.

The 2015 Pac-12 ...

... had top-10, one-loss Stanford and Utah in Week 11. Stanford was #7 in a regular season that would finish with just one unbeaten.

The committee ended up with two-loss Stanford at #6, a spot ahead of one-loss Ohio State, suggesting one fewer loss would’ve meant a really good Stanford shot at the top four. Oklahoma might’ve wished for a conference title game after all.

“Stanford was out as soon as it lost to freaking Northwestern,” someone might counter. Northwestern ended up #13 on Selection Sunday, so that close road loss in Week 1 was respectable in the committee’s eyes. Also, the committee partially excused it because of time zones.

The 2016 Big 12 ...

... had a one-loss West Virginia ranked #14 in Week 11 and hosting #9 Oklahoma. OU blew the Eers out.

“The Big 12 was out when Oklahoma lost two of its first three,” a person might say. But a one-loss Big 12 champ WVU would’ve been in the conversation. #4 Washington’s schedule was about as light as WVU’s, and what if Washington had lost again? A one-loss WVU against a superior, two-loss Penn State would’ve been a revealing debate.

There were probably remote corners that thought Clemson’s ACC was out after the Tigers lost to the Pitt superweapon. But eventual champions having bad games is normal procedure.

The 2017 Pac-12 and Big Ten ...

... missed because the SEC got champion Georgia and one-loss Alabama in.

The Big Ten probably came as close as any snubbed conference ever has. Two-loss Ohio State finished #5 in a really close race with a flawed Bama.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12 had Washington at #12 when it lost to Stanford in Week 11. The Huskies would’ve needed a ton of help, and they’re probably the best example on this list of being alive only in the most technical sense.

This same year, a bunch of people swore Bama was out after melting down in the Iron Bowl and losing its division. Weeks later:

CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The 2018 Pac-12 and Big Ten ..

... again missed out in a weird year, this time with Notre Dame taking a spot.

The Pac-12 was a disaster but had the prospect of a one-loss champ until Washington State suffered its annual Apple Cup loss. The Cougars were #8, and three of the four teams separating them from a spot would lose again. Adding an Oklahoma or Notre Dame loss could’ve put a one-loss Wazzu in.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten had a one-loss champion in Ohio State, slotted #6 behind Georgia. But if the Dawgs had gotten trounced in the SEC Championship and OU or Notre Dame lost, the Buckeyes would’ve made it. Let this be an inspiration to fans of other teams who find themselves giving up 49 points to Purdue.

The 2019 Pac-12 ...

... is probably going to miss, but hold out hope. It won’t be over over until Oregon loses at 2:30 a.m. ET or something. We’ll update this if we remember to do so.

Here is a Notre Dame bonus section:

Declaring the Irish out is usually a somewhat bold move, given their actually acceptable and often superior schedule strength.

If you pretend the Playoff existed before 2014, you frequently find similar cases of conferences not being as “out” as they might’ve looked.

One case study, picked and tested at random:

In 1998, the first year of the BCS, there were six power conferences. The Big East finished way out of the picture. Their only teams ranked on Selection Sunday were #18 Syracuse and #24 Miami, both 8-3.

But Virginia Tech had been 7-1 and #16 in Week 10, with two potential high-quality wins to go. The Hokies would lose both. Winning out wouldn’t have gotten them in a hypothetical CFP, but it could’ve, especially if some other one-loss powers had become two-loss powers.

Another case study, also picked at random:

In 2010, the Big East didn’t have a single team go better than 9-3 or place higher on Selection Sunday than WVU’s #22.

Even in this hilariously bad year for a “power” conference, the Big East’s death certificate wouldn’t have been signed until October 23. It’s probably difficult to find many years in which a “power” conference gets eliminated from a (hypothetical) playoff before Week 8.

One takeaway from all this is college football seasons tend to take on similar trajectories.

If it appears at some point like there are too many Playoff teams, it’s a safe bet things will work themselves out organically.

And if it seems like the Pac-12’s going to miss the Playoff, it probably will. But this is a sport in which like 15 of 130 teams ever have even a semi-serious title shot. Holding out a glimmer of hope that things might be different is part of the stupid fun.