If the national championship is the ultimate destination for every college football program in America, then the college football playoff is the road that must be traveled.
The CFP’s four teams find themselves in a two-game race with the eyes of the sports world watching. Urban Meyer and Ohio State were the first to taste CFP glory in 2014-15. Fittingly, legendary coach Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide were up next in 2015-16.
As an invite-only exclusive tournament, most schools (and some conferences) find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes time for college football’s Final Four. That’s what makes the New Year’s Six so special.
What is the New Year’s Six, you ask? To break it down simply, it’s the six traditional bowl games that rotate as hosts for the CFP semifinals. The Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl make up the New Year’s Six. Two bowl games get the semifinals and the others are still prestigious enough to be lumped into the NY6 category.
For conferences, just being in the New Year’s Six (and especially the CFP) is a great opportunity to pick up some important publicity and perhaps some bragging rights along the way.
In 2014, the SEC was the big perception winner (at least beforehand), sending three teams to the NY6. The matchups were as follows:
*winners in bold.
Cotton Bowl: No. 5 Baylor vs. No. 8 Michigan State
Peach Bowl: No. 6 TCU vs. No. 9 Ole Miss
Orange Bowl: No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 Georgia Tech
Fiesta Bowl: No. 20 Boise State vs. No. 10 Arizona.
The two semifinal games in 2014 were Oregon vs. Florida State in the Rose Bowl and Ohio State vs. Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Oregon beat FSU, 59-20. OSU beat Alabama, 42-35. The Buckeyes went on to win the championship, beating Oregon, 42-20.
The 2015 season saw the Big Ten as the big perception winner heading into the NY6, sending three teams to the party.
Peach Bowl: No. 18 Houston vs. No. 9 Florida State
Fiesta Bowl: No. 8 Notre Dame vs. No 7 Ohio State
Rose Bowl: No. 6 Stanford vs. No. 5 Iowa
Sugar Bowl: No. 16 Oklahoma State vs. No. 12 Ole Miss
In the CFP, Clemson defeated Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, 37-17. Alabama defeated Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, 38-0. Alabama defeated Clemson in the national championship, 45-40.
It’s not always the conference with the most teams in the NY6 that comes away the big winner. The SEC went 0-3 in 2014 and came back for vengeance the following season. In 2015, the Big Ten’s three teams went 1-2, with Iowa and Michigan State getting blown out in their respective games.
Still, it’s hard to argue the importance of getting as many teams as possible into the NY6. So, which conference can send more than a couple teams there this season?
That question boils down to strength of conference, and it ultimately boils down to championship contenders. If only four teams can make the CFP, there are naturally going to be contenders left out of the mix — or at least programs that look like they could be contenders.
So which conference has the most contenders?
The SEC is always the natural starting point, especially with the defending champion among its ranks. Look for Alabama to be a heavy CFP favorite again this year, but Ole Miss and Tennessee appear to be two dark horses as well — especially the Volunteers.
The Big Ten is another deep conference with Ohio State and Michigan poised to be contenders. With the hype coming out of Ann Arbor, its easy to forget that the Michigan State is the defending Big Ten champion. It’s also easy to forget that Iowa was the runner-up, and the Hawkeyes are poised to be even better in 2016.
The Big 12 and Pac-12 are both interesting this season, though Oklahoma seems like the only sure contender and the Pac-12 has a lot of question marks outside of Stanford that need to be answered.
And then finally there’s the ACC, which is quietly becoming one of the deepest conferences in college football. Clemson is a favorite to get back to the CFP, but Florida State is going to make it tough on the Tigers. Louisville is always a program that can be dangerous and North Carolina, Pitt, Duke and even Miami can all make noise in the ACC Coastal.
It’s tough to say which conference will dominate the NY6 invite list in 2016, but the Big Ten seems like the most logical choice. The conference is packed with a bevy of contenders. Of course, the SEC will have something to say about that, and watch out for that sneaky ACC — a conference on the rise.