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In the new playoff era, possible to lose this late and still stay alive

DENVER -- The moment did not pass unnoticed Saturday in Tuscaloosa.

But a lot of Alabama's loss was misunderstood.

It made a lot of losing possible -- losing in the new playoff era. Think ahead two years. Alabama's epic loss to Texas A&M wouldn't have potentially ruined its season, it would have altered its seeding. The Tide dropped from No. 1 to No. 4 Sunday in the BCS.

In this moment, it needs help to defend its national championship. In two years, it would need an outlet to print playoff tickets.

Is that protecting the regular season -- Alabama playing Texas A&M for seeding?

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Saturday gave us this snapshot: While a playoff future is improved, it is also a bit complicated and not altogether perfect. It is now possible to envision Alabama -- or any undefeated team going into a conference title game -- able to lose late and remain in the playoff hunt.

Is that protecting the precious jewel that is regular season?

“I think we did,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said during Monday's BCS meetings. “The good thing about college football is there are also cautionary tales about college basketball. The regular season is diminished.”

College hoops has been reduced to March. Not to hoop heads like Goodman and Parrish, but for John Q. Turnover who can't swing a dead cat without hitting Fresno State-BYU at midnight on ESPN The Ocho.

College football may have taken the first tiny steps in making theirs a January sport when an undefeated No. 1 can drop to No. 4 this late in the season without much consequence. It would be all up to the undetermined, unselected selection committee.

“I could see a selection committee viewing Alabama differently than the polls do,” Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick said. “I think the selection committee dynamic is different. I don't think you see the automatic elevation of undefeated teams with a selection committee. Look at the basketball example. A lot of very good Big Ten teams are going to lose to [No. 1] Indiana twice this year. That's not going to count against them in any way with a selection committee.”

There's a lot we don't know about that selection committee which will begin picking playoff teams in 2014. The commissioners moved forward Monday giving access to the Group of Five in the playoff system. But it did not move on the next complicated process of selecting the selection committee.

They keep telling us there will be an emphasis on conference champions. In other words, Oregon would have made it into a playoff last year over higher-ranked Stanford. But what Swarbrick is suggesting is that there will be a lot of comparison shopping by the committee. The old “eye test” of a team that looks better than its record.

“The real conference championship upsets are going to be really hard to figure out,” Swarbrick said.

When it is finally picked, the committee -- believed to be in the range of 15-20 people -- will give that weight to conference champions. It will look a lot like the basketball selection committee. Individuals will leave the room when their team is being vetted. But in basketball it's a hell of a lot easier picking 37 at-large teams and seeding 68 than it is making a Sophie's Choice in college football.

What Swarbrick is saying is the committee could value a one-loss power over an undefeated school from a lesser conference with a clear conscience. Remember, the computers and polls are going to be gone in two years.

At the moment, if two of the top three lose, Bama would most likely move up into that No. 2 spot if it beats Western Carolina, Auburn and Georgia in the SEC title game. In two years such a scenario wouldn't matter.

Is that protecting the regular season -- playing a conference championship game for fun?

OK, some of that is overstated but critical thinking is required. The realization was not lost on SEC commissioner Mike Slive.

“Our championship game has become a very significant part in the whole process,” Slive said. “I think it will maintain that. Maybe moreso.”

At least for two more years. After that, in the nation's strongest conference, in the new playoff era, in certain years it may not matter who wins that game.

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