College football’s conference champions have a methodical way of determining its champion. A team finishing first in their league then plays for the College Football Playoff championship — often played in a couple of weeks — against the nation’s No. 1 team.
The Atlantic Coast Conference has done that twice in the past three years. Each year the winner of the Atlantic Division has reached the CFP championship game: Clemson (2016) and then, most recently, Florida State (2014). The CFP has run overtime games to settle one division champion, which caused Clemson to be the No. 1 seed the last two years.
The Pac-12 Championship has also been necessary to determine the College Football Playoff’s champion the past two years. Stanford beat USC last season to earn a No. 2 seed and went on to make a 42-16 loss to eventual national champion Alabama. USC was a No. 2 last year, then beat Utah to secure a spot in the championship game against Clemson.
Washington was the Pac-12 South’s representative the past two years. That didn’t work out as well: the Huskies didn’t even get to play in the championship game and went on to lose 49-20 to Alabama. The SEC came into this season with a reputation for wide-open conference races and will likely do the same in 2019, so the Pac-12 has no reason to feel too hard done by as it tries to keep its title streak alive.
Atlantic Division winners have almost always won the CFP’s national championship, but there are a few exceptions to the rule. Ohio State won the Big Ten title the past two years before losing to Clemson in the national championship game. And before Clemson’s blowout of Alabama in the 2017 championship game, the SEC’s only CFP championship came in 2012, when undefeated Alabama beat top-ranked Auburn in a title game that was abruptly halted after an excessive celebration penalty against Auburn. (The first 2016 title game between Oregon and Ohio State was also eventually abandoned because of dangerous weather in Glendale, Ariz. The second 2016 title game was rendered meaningless by a blown 10-point lead with two minutes to play.)
Reaching the Rose Bowl for the Rose Bowl Championship remains a long shot even with six of the top 14 teams from the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC in the current Power Five rankings. The Rose Bowl has bounced back from a disappointing record the past two years, winning the Rose Bowl and the national championship game the past two seasons, but it could need another miracle to get back to No. 1.
Nick Saban has yet to lose a CFP championship game as Alabama coach. Since taking over in 2007, he has coached the Crimson Tide to five national titles. Saban’s sixth would match the all-time record held by the guy who hired him: Bear Bryant.
Alabama has spent most of the season ranked No. 1, and is currently No. 2 after winning another SEC championship. Clemson has been ranked No. 1 for most of the season and reached No. 2 briefly before losing to Miami in a conference championship game. Georgia ended up at No. 1 until losing to Auburn in the SEC championship game. Miami, Miami and Georgia have all been ranked in the CFP’s top 10 all season. For the first time in several years, there is not an obvious top four. That makes the Alabama-Clemson matchup that much more important, but there is no guarantee it will lead to a national championship.