CLEMSON - What scares a number of college coaches used to controlling almost every aspect of their football programs is the wild unknown.
The defunct Bowl Championship Series was such a confusing mathematical formula that it became easy for coaches to simply worry about football wins and losses, and not spend a lot of time worrying about how the BCS Standings might unfold.
Going from two teams to four in the College Football Playoff's battle royale debuting in 2014 was almost universally welcomed. But the idea of humans, not computers, determining the final contenders brings cause for caution.
"It'd be interesting if a one-loss team goes over a zero-loss team if the strength of schedule is that much greater," said Jimbo Fisher, coach of the last BCS champion, Florida State. "I think if you win (them all,) you'll be in. But it helps if you do have great strength of schedule, because they say it's going to be pivotal."
The College Football Playoff rules state on the criteria for finding the best four teams: "Selection Committee members will have a wealth of information including review of video, statistics and their own expertise to guide them in their deliberations."
It was revealed Thursday following the committee's latest meeting - the last one it will hold before reconvening for its first set of rankings Oct. 28 - that the top principles for choosing the final four include conference champions, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and comparative outcomes of common opponents, while devaluing wide margins of victory.
"We don't want to give incentive to teams for running up the score," College Football Playoff director Bill Hancock told The Post and Courier on Thursday.
The committee also will consider other relevant factors such as key injuries (or suspensions) that may have negatively impacted a team's regular-season outcome or could affect its postseason performance.
Just last year, it appeared one-loss Auburn had a heck of an SEC-infused case to sneak into the championship game vs. FSU ahead of undefeated Ohio State; only a Buckeyes loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game averted chaos.
Now that the margin for error between No. 4 and No. 5 could be razor-thin - and it's 13 individuals, not five computers, making the final decision - politicking could be more prominent than ever.
To which conventional wisdom says, start replacing those FCS foes with big boys from the Power 5 leagues. The SEC is requiring all its members to schedule at least one non-conference matchup against an ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12 team beginning in 2016, though the SEC will stick with an eight-game conference slate.
"The strength and depth of the SEC was certainly a determining factor in this decision," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said, "since the concept of strength of schedule is based on the entire 12-game schedule."
Alabama coach Nick Saban wanted a nine-game SEC schedule, but was overruled by his own league. He still suggested at SEC Media Days a future where lesser-league and lower-division opponents are further shunned by the Power 5 conferences.
"I was in the NFL for eight years. We had 32 teams in the league. We all played the 32 teams in the league," Saban said. "I'd be all for playing all of our games against those guys. I'm all for playing as many good quality games for players, fans and the betterment of our game."
The Big Ten will move to a nine-game conference schedule in two years, and the ACC introduces Notre Dame as a football partner this fall as a non-conference opponent to five teams each season.
The best news for Clemson and South Carolina: they have each other, at both programs' peaks, to beef up that non-conference resume.
"We sit in a good place," said Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich, a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee, "because we have a scheduled sure-enough, all-the-time game against a great opponent in South Carolina."
Clemson also seeks a second major-conference partner each fall to give the Tigers 10 Power 5 opponents every season. Clemson closes a home-and-home agreement with Georgia on Aug. 30, hosts Notre Dame in 2015 and begins another series with Auburn in 2016, after facing Auburn three straight years from 2010-12.
Meanwhile, South Carolina took on North Carolina and Fiesta Bowl champion UCF in 2013, and on Sept. 6 will take on East Carolina - a new American Athletic Conference member - for the third time in four years.
"Playing East Carolina is a lot tougher game than maybe picking up one of those bottom Big Ten teams," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier told reporters Aug. 3, "and a lot of fans around here would rather see a team that's close by."
Playing in the SEC naturally gives South Carolina and the 13 other teams all the ammo they need to convince the committee they're tough enough for the Playoff. ACC teams like Clemson, by reputation, must show more evidence, though boasting the defending national champion doesn't hurt.
"You're gonna tell me if we go beat Georgia and win eight conference games, and go to Tallahassee and win down there, and all of a sudden we haven't played anybody? That ain't gonna happen," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "That's really all that needs to be said. Now that it's expanded to four, I don't think there's any question the opportunity our league has is even further enhanced."
With so much doubt entering the new era, Georgia coach Mark Richt isn't spending time analyzing how the final four teams will be determined.
"I really don't know for sure how they're going to go about their business with the Playoff," Richt said. "I'm just going to try to win as many games where they don't have a choice but to put us there."
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