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College Football Playoff: Conference champions only need apply

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A rule needs to be put in place to prevent the inclusion of at-large bids in the playoff.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

With the final release of the College Football Playoff rankings this week, two teams made their first appearance in the top four.

No. 2 Auburn (10–2, 7–1 SEC) earned its spot among the top four with its win over previous No. 1 Alabama (11–1, 7–1), who dropped to No. 5 as Wisconsin (12–0, 9–0 Big Ten) entered the fray at No. 4, remaining the only unbeaten team in a Power Five conference.

No. 1 Clemson (11–1, 7–1 ACC) and No. 3 Oklahoma (11–1, 8–1 Big 12) round out the top four. Wisconsin's Big Ten Championship Game counterpart Ohio State (10–2, 8–1 Big Ten), checks in at No. 8.

As we approach the fourth “Selection Sunday” of the College Football Playoff era, the process is missing the one rule that needs to be in place for the playoff selection to truly make sense.

In order to qualify, you must win your conference championship game.

This was not the case last season when Ohio State made it into the field without even competing in the Big Ten Championship Game. This season, Alabama head coach Nick Saban is hoping his team is afforded the same luxury.

In a recent press conference, Saban said that Alabama “deserves an opportunity to get in the playoff.”

Ohio State made the field last year,even though Penn State represented the Big Ten East in the Big Ten Championship Game and defeated Wisconsin. Penn State later competed in the Rose Bowl.

Depending on how today’s games pan out, we could be in the same spot as last year, having three conference champs and one at-large team. In my opinion, that would be a mistake.

The historically significant fact that works in Alabama’s favor is the unlikelihood of a two-loss team making its way into the field. No two-loss team has competed in the playoff up to this point, including last year, when again, Penn State checked in at 10–2 and the committee chose one-loss Ohio State instead—even though the Buckeyes’ only loss was to the Nittany Lions.

However, that very well could change this weekend, as two-loss Auburn will be playing in the SEC Championship Game against No. 6 Georgia (11–1, 7–1).

With the Tigers’ current position in the final four, there is a good chance that if they win, they will be a lock for the playoff. Especially given the fact that they would be crowned champion of the committee’s favorite conference, the SEC.

Since Auburn is in prime position to be the first two-loss team to make the playoff, other two-loss teams should be considered as well, provided they win their conference title, instead of Alabama.

Such as No. 11 TCU (10–2, 7–2), who will compete with Oklahoma for the Big 12 crown. TCU’s only losses of the season came against opponents who were ranked at the time of their matchups (No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 25 Iowa State).

One two-loss team that likely will not be afforded much consideration is Pac 12 champion, No. 10 USC (11–2, 8–1), who defeated No. 12 Stanford (9–4, 7–2) Friday night 31–28. The Trojans’ losses came at the hands of two ranked opponents as well (No. 13 Notre Dame and No. 16 Washington State). With USC coming into the final weekend ranked so far back in the pack, it is unlikely the Trojans will be competing in the playoff.

Most see the door being open for Alabama to find its way in provided TCU knocks off Oklahoma, as that would give us yet another two-loss champion. However, a Horned Frogs win would give them three wins against ranked teams in 2017, including two against top-10 teams—something Alabama does not have on its résumé.

One of the biggest things that has plagued most teams this season (and in seasons past)—specifically Wisconsin—is strength of schedule. The Badgers just managed to crack the top four despite being undefeated at each release of the rankings.

Most have said that Wisconsin’s schedule is very soft, as the Badgers did not play a ranked opponent until Week 10 against Iowa, ranked No. 20 at the time and coming off of a 55–24 win over then-No. 6 Ohio State. Wisconsin limited Iowa to only 66 yards in a 38–14 victory.

Wisconsin followed up its Week 10 ranked matchup with a Week 11 win over Michigan, ranked No. 24.

Recently, the strength of Alabama’s schedule has been called into question as well. While the Crimson Tide do have three wins over ranked teams, one is Florida State, who finished the season at 5–6. Not to mention Alabama played Mercer, an FCS school in Week 11.

Even with Wisconsin’s “soft” schedule, it did feature Florida Atlantic (9–3, 8–0) who will be competing in the Conference USA title game this weekend.

Regardless of how difficult or easy your schedule is and no matter what conference you play in, it’s extremely difficult to go undefeated in a season. The other three teams ranked in the top four all suffered losses to unranked opponents: Clemson lost to Syracuse, Oklahoma lost to Iowa State, and Auburn lost to LSU. Previous No. 2 Miami (11–1, 7–1 ACC) also suffered a loss to unranked Pitt (5–7, 3–5), dropping the Hurricanes down to No. 7 ahead of their matchup against Clemson in Saturday night’s ACC Championship Game.

Since the playoff is in place to crown the NCAA champion, why not limit the pool of potential teams to the list of Power Five conference champions? Given the rankings of the two Pac-12 teams, this year’s playoff should be limited to the winners of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and SEC championship games.