The balance of power tends to swing pretty heavily in college football, even from year to year, as coaches switch jobs and key players graduate or are injured. Generally the SEC is by and far the most loaded conference but this season the league was pretty down.
LSU had a great team but their QB was Danny Etling. Texas A&M ended up putting together a pretty interesting team but then QB Trevor Knight went down and that was that for the Aggies' season. Florida consistently ranked in the top 15 of S&P but this was due to a fantastic defense, their offense was stagnant and their QB position a revolving door.
Across the south this was a consistent them. Chad Kelly couldn't carry Ole Miss through a brutal schedule without hiccups and ultimately went down with injury, Florida State had growing pains with a new signal caller in Deondre Francois, Mississippi State started to move towards the future with Nick Fitzgerald and move past the Dak Prescott era. Alabama plugged in Jalen Hurts and ran over everyone, we all know they are the no. 1 seed and a scratch favorite to win it all again.
The only nationally competitive southern team in either the SEC or ACC who had a strong, veteran QB was Clemson with Deshaun Watson. The Tigers have to be in after winning the ACC title against Virginia Tech, who's starting to make noise in that league again thanks to Justin Fuente revitalizing their offense by infusing his spread teachings and JUCO QB Jerod Evans.
The Big 12 is largely an irrelevant mess. The Oklahoma Sooners have a dominant offense that no team in the Big 12 was able to solve, but they also have a porous defense that would inevitably get them into big trouble against the elite teams of the nation. No one else here would even remotely intrigue the committee.
The Pac-12 has been in a similar boat as the Big 12 with USC, the only truly blue blood program in that league, languishing and underachieving over the last few years and thus hurting the perception of the greater conference. But by the end of the year, USC had finally started to realize its potential thanks to plugging in freshman QB Sam Darnold and tearing every one else apart down the stretch. This year also saw Washington officially edge Oregon out as the THE program in the Northwest.
Here's one of the big problems for the committee, Washington was excellent this season and just finished dismantling Colorado in the Pac-12 championship. It's not like Colorado is a nationally elite team, particularly with Sefo Liufau playing hurt, but that win was still fairly impressive. One of the more intriguing parts of that game was how Washington was able to control the game and run the ball between the tackles with RB Lavon Coleman. Myles Gaskin has been their main back this season but he's a slasher who likes to dart through creases and win the edge, but if you can tend the edges with speed like Colorado did in their 3-4 defense then he's less effective. That they can now turn to Coleman in those times to power the ball down main street is a big deal.
Their defense was never really in question and their destruction of the Buff offense without LB Akeem Victor was enough for me, I think you have to include the Pac-12 champion. It's one of the deeper leagues in the country even if the top isn't as dominant as the cream of the 2016 Big 10 crop.
That leaves one spot for a host of Big 10 teams that all seem like they could be competitive in the playoff. I honestly think Michigan might be the best team of the bunch but their two league losses to Iowa and Ohio State (barely) disqualified them from the Big 10 championship.
Ohio State seems the favorite to be chosen (always) but their loss at Penn State cost them the tiebreaker to go to the Big 10 championship game where they may or may not have beaten a Wisconsin team that they barely took down in overtime earlier in the year in Madison. The main argument for Ohio State vs Penn State is that the Buckeyes beat Oklahoma in Norman in their non-conference slate and weren't blown out by anyone in the Big 10 while the Nittany Lions lost to Pitt in Pittsburgh in a close loss and were blown out early in the year by Michigan.
The main argument for Penn State is that they beat Ohio State, won the Big 10 East, and then won the Big 10 title in a comeback win over Wisconsin.
Some people are going to anoint Ohio State essentially due to the eye test that tells them Ohio State is one of the best teams in the nation. But, if we're truly going by the eye test to determine which Big 10 team is the best and would be most competitive in the playoffs, we should choose Michigan.
Others will argue for Ohio State because they have one loss this season while Penn State has two, but the Buckeyes have two OT wins and have played in five one-score games on the year (winning four). In terms of wins and losses, they have a minor advantage over the Nittany Lions, but when you look closer their resume is not clearly better than that of Penn State. Since the Lions took down Ohio State and got rolling with young QB Trace McSorley they've been blowing people off the field.
There's even an eye test argument to be made that Penn State is peaking at the right time to provide a compelling playoff product for the game to sell.
This kind of argument is hard to suss out, which is why we have divisions, conferences, title games, and tiebreakers that are supposed to do that work for us. When that process was applied, Penn State was declared the champion.
So now the committee can either substitute their own judgment for that of the game and choose Ohio State, or they can defer to the process and roll with Penn State. Should be very revelatory to see how this goes, I'm guessing they protect the bluer blood by picking the scarlet and grey.