Rabalais: To understand how the CFP works, let’s go back to last season

The new College Football Playoff system is widely being celebrated as a more equitable way of deciding the national championship than the BCS. But the CFP system is also decidedly more complicated — bordering on tax law.

With the new season about to begin, this is a good time for a primer. Using last season’s final BCS standings from Dec. 8, the standings that set up the national championship matchup, let’s take a look at how the CFP would have worked out if those same rankings were in place at the end of this season.

First, some background noise

The 13-member CFP committee will put out its top 25 every Tuesday from Oct. 28-Dec. 2.

The final CFP poll will be released Sunday, Dec. 7 (save your Day of Infamy comments for later in case your team is ranked No. 5). It is from that top 25 — no coaches’ poll, no computer rankings — that the teams for the two CFP semifinals and the four other CFP bowls will be selected.

Setting up the semifinals

The top four teams in last year’s final BCS rankings were Florida State (1), Auburn (2), Alabama (3) and Michigan State (4).

If those were the top four teams in the CFP committee’s poll, here’s how the semifinals would turn out:

The first semifinals are New Year’s Day 2015 in the Sugar and Rose bowls. By CFP rule, the highest-ranked team must be kept as close to home as possible. That means No. 1 Florida State would play No. 4 Michigan State in New Orleans.

Though the expectation is that the CFP committee will try to select four conference champions, for our purposes the other semifinal pits No. 2 Auburn in a rematch with No. 3 Alabama. But instead of being played in the Sugar Bowl, this Iron Bowl redux must be played way out west in the Rose Bowl.

Setting up the four CFP bowls

The committee must then seed the remaining CFP bowls which will host semifinals in other years: the Cotton, Peach, Orange and Fiesta.

The Orange Bowl must get an ACC team since it has a tie in with that conference and lost ACC champion FSU to the semifinals. The highest ranked available ACC team is No. 12 Clemson.

Pac-12 champion Stanford is No. 5 in our poll, so geographically it would likely be sent to the Fiesta Bowl. At No. 6, Big 12 champion Baylor goes up I-35 to the Cotton.

Here’s where it gets confusing. In the eight years the Orange Bowl does not have a CFP semifinal over the 12-year run of the current CFP contracts, the Orange must take a Southeastern Conference team three times, a Big Ten three times and Notre Dame a maximum of two times.

Since No. 7 Ohio State is the highest-ranked team among those choices, the Buckeyes go to the Orange to play Clemson. Later in the CFP contract, this will get complicated when, say, a lower-ranked SEC team gets picked over a higher-ranked Big Ten team because the SEC is owed one of its three Orange Bowl slots.

No. 8 Missouri could go to the Fiesta, Cotton or Peach. To avoid a Pac-12 rematch we’ll see later, the Tigers play Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl. No. 9 South Carolina is an easy choice to make the trip to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl.

Two slots left (Cotton and Peach). One goes to No. 10 Oregon in the Cotton Bowl, again for geographic reasons. We kept the Ducks out of the Fiesta to avoid a Stanford rematch, though there could be years this can’t be avoided.

Another confusing factor: Each year, the Fiesta, Cotton or Peach bowl must take the highest-ranked conference champion from the so-called “Group of Five” conferences: American Athletic, Sun Belt, Conference USA, MAC and Mountain West. This is the group just below the “big five” conferences: SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12.

The highest-ranked team from the “Group of Five” is American Athletic Conference champion UCF at No. 15. The only slot remaining is in the Peach Bowl.

So here’s what the six CFP bowls would have looked like:

Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Michigan State

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 3 Alabama

Cotton Bowl: No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 10 Oregon

Peach Bowl: No. 9 South Carolina vs. No. 15 UCF

Orange Bowl: No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Clemson

Fiesta Bowl: No. 5 Stanford vs. No. 8 Missouri

Who gets shafted?

Obviously, No. 5-ranked and Pac-12 champion Stanford would be hollering that it got passed over in favor of a non-champion Alabama (sound familiar?). The counter argument is, the teams in the CFP semifinals all have one loss or less while Stanford had two before the bowls. No. 11 Oklahoma gets left out instead of going to the Sugar Bowl as it really did and probably winds up in the Holiday or Alamo.

What about LSU?

LSU finished No. 16 in the BCS rankings, so the Tigers wouldn’t have sniffed one of the six CFP bowls. However, one day a team ranked that low from the SEC, Big Ten or Notre Dame could get picked for the Orange Bowl for contractual reasons.

Per new SEC bowl agreements, the Capital One Bowl gets to pick the best SEC team left over after the CFP bowls are announced. With Auburn and Alabama in a semifinal and Mizzou and South Carolina in CFP bowls, the Cap One would have chosen between LSU (9-3), No. 21 Texas A&M and No. 22 Georgia (both 8-4).

Last year’s A&M team with Johnny Manziel could well have been the Cap One’s pick. Without him this year, the Capital One likely would choose LSU.

If not, LSU would have gone into a pool of SEC teams for these bowls: Outback, Taxslayer (formerly Gator), Liberty, Belk, Music City and Texas. Chances are, the Tigers would have still been in the Outback, possibly the Taxslayer.