The College Football Playoff era doesn’t mesh well with the Power 5 conference championship model, and that’s on display now more than ever heading into the final weekend before this year’s pairings are announced.No. 1 Alabama takes on No. 4 Georgia in the marquee matchup in the SEC championship game, but the Crimson Tide are 13-point favorites and still could end up in the Playoff if they lose. The rest of the Power 5 conference championships leave little room for drama. MORE: Week 14 bowl projectionsNo. 2 Clemson is a 27.5-point favorite against five-loss Pitt in the ACC championship game. No. 6 Ohio State is a 14-point favorite against four-loss Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game. No. 5 Oklahoma meets No. 9 Texas in a rematch from the regular season in the Big 12 championship, but the Sooners are the only team in that matchup who can make the Playoff. No. 10 Washington and No. 15 Utah play in a Pac-12 championship game that has no impact on the Playoff.That’s the landscape of the Power 5.MatchupSpreadNo. 2 Clemson (12-0) vs. Pittsburgh (7-5)27.5No. 6 Ohio State (11-1) vs. No. 21 Northwestern (8-4)14No. 1 Alabama (12-0) vs. No. 4 Georgia (11-1)13No. 5 Oklahoma (11-1) vs. No. 9 Texas (9-3)8No. 10 Washington (9-3) vs. No. 17 Utah (9-3)5The biggest problem? In the Playoff era, only three Power 5 conference championship games guaranteed the winner would reach the College Football Playoff. That was Michigan State-Iowa in 2015 and Auburn-Georgia and Miami-Clemson in 2017. North Carolina could have created an interesting discussion if it had beaten Clemson in the 2015 ACC championship, but one-loss Ohio State could just as easily sneaked in ahead of the Tar Heels.This year, however, only one game has such stakes: Georgia vs. Alabama.”The playing field is not level for all teams relative to conference championship games,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said on the SEC championship game teleconference Sunday. “They have them. They don’t have them. Who they play; who they don’t play. It is what it is, and it’s the challenge we have before us. I don’t really have an opinion right now on expanding playoffs and eliminating championship games and all that. I really just never, ever thought about it.”Almost everybody else has thought about it and has opinions on the subject. Alabama doesn’t have to think about it as much, especially after reaching the Playoff without winning the SEC championship last season. The call to expand the Playoff and/or eliminate conference championships exists for a reason, and it’s because of that disconnected relationship between the two.Will that disconnect need to be fixed down the line? “There are two ways you can go about it,” Fox analyst Joel Klatt told Sporting News. “You can either fix the conference championships and, in turn, make a small tweak to the Playoff, or you can blow the Playoff up and the conference championship game weekend and try to build something that is an eight-team model. I don’t know what the appetite is.”Oh, that appetite is out there, especially when there are alternatives worth exploring for conference championship weekend.* * * *The intent of conference championship games is to be a de facto quarterfinal round for the College Football Playoff. That’s how Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who has the Tigers in the ACC championship game for the fourth consecutive year, chooses to look at it. “It is a Playoff,” Swinney said on the ACC teleconference Sunday. “Just go lose the game, you’ll find out. There’s no question. I think every game is a Playoff game, to be honest with you. Those games in September matter. Those games in October matter. That’s what to me is great about college football.”That’s where Swinney is right. Clemson is 3-0 in ACC championship games since the Playoff era and would be in an uncomfortable position if it lost to Pitt on Saturday.Where is he wrong? If there’s an upset — and that isn’t happening. Of the 17 Power 5 conference championship games played since 2014, the higher-ranked team is 13-4, and the average margin of victory in those games is 23.5 points per game. Of the four upsets, Michigan State (2015) and Georgia (2017) were the teams that made the Playoff. Penn State (2016) and Ohio State (2017) did not.MORE: Ohio State or Oklahoma more deserving of Playoff?The challenge for coaches like Ohio State’s Urban Meyer is to maintain the focus on the conference championship, even if the debate between the Buckeyes and Sooners for the final Playoff spot is already out in full force.”I don’t believe other than kids staring at their phones that there will be a lot of conversation about it,” Meyer said about the Playoff. “You get a ring when you win this (Big Ten) championship. That’s the conversation always around here.”Perceptions can change with the help of a conference championship performance, which the Buckeyes know well from a 59-0 victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game in 2014. That helped vault the Buckeyes over TCU in the rankings and spur them on to the first championship of the Playoff era.On the flip side, Ohio State could be the third consecutive Big Ten champion to be left out of the Playoff, even if it does beat Northwestern, which heads into Indianapolis looking to play spoiler. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald knows the disparity, but he also points to the player safety issues that come with adding more games.”I haven’t seen anybody articulate how you add more than what we have right now and still keep every game significant,” Fitzgerald said. “It has to protect the bowl season, which rewards teams for having a successful season.”Give us two chances to try, coach. * * * *Klatt offers two possible solutions for conference championship weekend. The first involves a few tweaks to the current four-team model. “You get rid of divisions and let the top two teams play in the conference championship with a more round-robin style of schedule so you would get rid of inequities with cross-division schedules in every conference,” Klatt said. “In the five autonomous conferences, that would give you 10 of the top 12 or 13 teams in the country, in theory. That would be a de facto quarterfinal, with the other tweak being you have to win your conference in order to go (to the Playoff).”How would that look this year if you eliminated divisions within the Power 5 conferences?No. 2 Clemson vs. Pitt No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 9 TexasNo. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 8 Michigan
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Georgia
No. 10 Washington vs. No. 12 Washington StateThe flaw here would be rematches with Washington-Washington State and Ohio State-Michigan, and that would devalue the regular-season rivalry matchups. The Big 12, however, has a no-division formula that creates an intriguing rematch with Oklahoma and Texas. It goes both ways. Klatt offers the more popular alternative, which is an expansion to eight teams.”You can say we’re all going to get rid of our championship game and go to eight and we’re going to play on site on championship game weekend for the round of the quarterfinals, and will (have) 1-8, 2-7 and so on,” Klatt said. MORE: One reason to watch every conference title gameIn other words, ditch conference championship weekend, put the top eight teams in the Playoff at the end of the regular season and put those first-round games on campus.Here’s what that would look like using the latest set of College Football Rankings:No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 8 UCFNo. 4 Georgia vs. No. 5 OklahomaNo. 2 Clemson vs. No. 7 Michigan
No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 6 Ohio StateImagine Oklahoma at Georgia and Ohio State at Notre Dame in the first weekend of December. That’s pretty good, and it would end the Playoff expansion debate at the best possible spot.What’s the biggest drawback to that plan? It wouldn’t look like this every year, and in this scenario the Pac-12 champion still isn’t in. We’d still be arguing over No. 8. “If you go that route, a lot of these games become irrelevant,” Swinney said. “People start resting their players, not playing people just like you see in all the other leagues because they already know they got their spot in the playoffs locked up.”Klatt still sees the fervor for the second one building with each season, even if he prefers the slight tweaks to the first scenario.”There is more of an appetite for the second scenario laid out,” Klatt said.The conference championship has a different meaning for different programs. For Fitzgerald, it’s a chance for Northwestern to win its way into a larger conversation, even if it isn’t the College Football Playoff.”Division I does not have the expanded playoffs that some other (college) divisions or maybe the NFL has, but we really have to think hard if we’re going to change and add more teams,” Fitzgerald said.MORE: Week 13 rankings: Michigan, Washington State fallThe problem is the two scenarios Klatt outlined aren’t perfect either. Some fans want eight teams, perhaps with automatic bids for each of the Power 5 conference champions; others like the current four-team model. Still others preferred the old BCS computer model. It still meshes with the regular season and bowl system — for now.”I love the bowl system,” Swinney said. “I think we got a great mix the way it is. I love the fact that tons of teams get an opportunity to develop and end their season with a win. I think that makes college football unique, but yet also still has an opportunity to settle who the national champion is instead of somebody voting on it.”The conference championships and four-team Playoff have achieved that, but a committee still decides the four teams. No coach knows that more than Meyer. The Buckeyes leapfrogged TCU in 2014 with a conference championship, stayed ahead of Penn State to get in without a conference championship in 2016 and missed the Playoff with a conference championship in 2017. Now, the Buckeyes are in a similar debate with Oklahoma heading into conference championship weekend.”We’ve been involved in the conversation every year and I really don’t believe that has any impact at all on this week of practice,” Meyer said. “It makes for a pretty intense Sunday of watching.”That much is true, but it would be better for the sport if conference championship Saturday was just as intense before the Playoff pairings are announced. That mesh point does not fit like it used to. After Saturday, it will be interesting to see how much more it can take before it truly does need to expand.