Utah, Baylor have a unique opportunity to inject new blood into the College Football Playoff

One of the biggest criticisms of the College Football Playoff has been its lack of variety. With the CFP now at its sixth-year halfway point, all you need are two hands to count the participants. Only 10 teams have filled the 20 CFP spots over the five years it has existed. Only three have won the national championship.

Outsiders need not apply.

Until now, maybe. One sentence that absolutely wasn’t written before the season is absolutely possible going into this weekend’s championship games: Who do you like to get in the playoff, Utah or Baylor?

Two teams that have spent exactly zero weeks at No. 1 in the 83-year-old history of the AP Top 25, find themselves not only with CFP aspirations but also worthy of them.

“It’s not really a national championship if it’s not national,” Baylor coach Matt Rhule said. “It’s really a regional championship if it’s limited to certain parts of the country. I’m sure they [the CFP Selection Committee] recognize, for the good of the game, [they have to consider] teams all across the country people are talking about.”

On Friday night, No. 5 Utah plays No. 13 Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. No. 7 Baylor meets No. 6 Oklahoma on Saturday morning in the Big 12 Championship Game.

If Oklahoma and Oregon win, no problem. The Sooners are in if the top three — Ohio State, LSU and Clemson — win their respective conference titles.

If not, this field could be blown wide open.

By Saturday night, the CFP bracket may be in as much flux as it has been since its debut in 2014. If the top three all win, that would eliminate No. 4 Georgia from the playoff picture.

The main discussions would then be at No. 1 (between Ohio State and LSU) and No. 4 where — as of now — Utah, Oklahoma and Baylor are in contention.

The headache would be all the committee’s as it considers how to compare Utah vs. Oklahoma (or Baylor) for that fourth spot. It gets easier if the top three win and Oregon beats Utah.

The Big 12 Championship Game becomes an elimination match. Just not in real time. The ACC, SEC and Big Ten title games come after the Big 12’s Saturday morning kickoff.

All of it means at least half of the Football Four could be new for the first time since 2015, the second year of the playoff. More than that, the bracket could be populated with non-traditional powers.

“We understand the big picture,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It’s not like we’re oblivious.”

So much so that the internet blew up a little bit when a tweet appeared Saturday with Whittingham joyously telling his team, “Alabama lost today!”

Whittingham, as buttoned-down as they come, said that was an “isolated comment.” Its meaning was not lost. That Alabama loss further reduced the field of contenders. For the first time, the Tide will not be in the playoff.

The closest the Bears and Utes have been to the CFP is a big-screen TV.

That highlights the closed nature of the CFP. Four of the five CFP champions have come from the South. Clemson and Alabama have two title wins each. Schools from the region have populated 11 of the 20 available spots in the five years of the CFP (Alabama 5, Clemson 4, Florida State 1, Georgia, 1).

Certainly, those teams earned it. But so has UCF, at least in the minds of the Knights vocal supporters who hijacked part of the national conversation in 2017-18 when the team went a combined 25-1. Before UCF, it was Boise State in the BCS era that was shut out from access to the championship game.

Even though Utah and Baylor are Power Five, they share a kinship.

Here we are again with name brand vs. no brand in 2019. Utah has to feel good about itself. In four of the previous five seasons, the No. 5-ranked team in the penultimate CFP Rankings has made the Football Four.

At No. 7, Baylor would be coming from the furthest behind of any team in the final week to snag a playoff berth.

“I won’t even talk about it,” Rhule said. “I won’t even talk about the last game. I won’t talk about the championship.”

Hey, a little campaigning can’t hurt. This is still a subjective, secret process that is subject to the whims of 13 people in a room.

Will the new barbarians at the gate get proper recognition?

“I have no idea,” Rhule said. “I trust the people on the committee to do their job. It doesn’t seem like a very easy job. To me, it’s not really about Baylor. It’s about the Big 12. If any team wins the Big 12 and doesn’t get proper consideration, they’re not recognizing what the league is all about.”

The Big 12 is the only FBS conference to play a round-robin schedule. That guarantees the conference title game is always a rematch.

But the CFP itself is the reason the Big 12 is playing a championship game. The game was reinstated three years ago after Baylor and TCU split the Big 12 crown in 2014. Both were beaten out by Big Ten champion Ohio State.

No. 2 LSU is all but guaranteed to be a CFP first-timer, win or lose this week in the SEC Championship Game. The difference is you don’t think of the Tigers as disenfranchised. They’re a football factory of the highest order that simply has not been at this level since the introduction of the CFP.

Add Utah or Baylor to the field and some sort of boundary would be crossed.  

As mentioned, the best chance for either is predicated on the top three in the CFP Rankings — Ohio State, LSU and Clemson — all winning their respective conference championship games.

LSU knocking out Georgia would open a possible spot in the bracket for Utah if it beats Oregon on Friday. The decision for the fourth spot would likely come down to the Utes and the Big 12 winner of Oklahoma vs. Baylor on Saturday.

“I’m still a proponent of we need to take it a step further and get to eight [teams] at least, ” Whittingham said. “To me, it seems silly there are five Power Five conference and only four slots. To me, if you’re a Power Five champion, you get an automatic spot. You shouldn’t have to worry about someone voting you there.”

What happened to get us to this place in CFP history? The Pac-12 is back … to respectability, at least. Oregon was considered the Pac-12’s best team for most of the season. Utah is on the brink of winning its first Pac-12 title. Baylor is chasing its third Big 12 title, all since 2013. The Bears have gone from 1-11 to 11-1 in three seasons.

What didn’t happen? Among other things, Alabama participating in a record sixth-straight playoff. Until now, there hasn’t been a CFP without the Tide. There would be some sort of justice in one of the game’s great dynasties being replaced in the bracket by a school with a stadium less than half the size of the one Alabama plays in (Utah).

As such, there are only seven playoff contenders going into the weekend: LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, Utah, Oklahoma and Baylor. (Here are the paths for each team to make the CFP, via Jerry Palm.)

The committee will have a headache on its hands if it has to judge for the fourth spot between some combination of Utah, Oklahoma and Baylor.

Utah and Baylor share the same NCAA schedule strength, both at 92nd. Oklahoma is 67th. Utah and Baylor have yet to defeat a currently-ranked team. Oklahoma has beaten two (Baylor and Oklahoma State).

Still, the committee seems to have fallen in love with the Utes at No. 5. They were No. 6 last week before the Tide lost, ahead of the Sooners and Bears. To get to this point, Utah had to win eight in a row after losing its only game this season without star running back Zack Moss.

Utah, one of the biggest winners of conference realignment, has been so stable that two members of Urban Meyer’s Fiesta Bowl team from 2014 are still around, including Whittingham, Meyer’s defensive coordinator. The Utes have never stopped punching people in the mouth as perhaps the most physical team in the West.

This decade, Baylor has won 11 games twice, gone 1-11 once and muddled its way through a massive sexual assault scandal. It is still under an NCAA investigation that could result in major penalties.

For now, Rhule is the miracle worker he was expected to be. The Bears had their own damaging loss, blowing a 25-point halftime lead to Oklahoma at home on Nov. 16. Split with OU, and Baylor will have its first win over a ranked foe this season. That might be enough to get the Bears into the playoff.

“No brands” everywhere would be celebrating.

“Don’t define yourself based on what people say you are,” Rhule told his players. “”You can’t really win the presidential election without winning the nomination, right?”

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