By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 3, 2017
When the BCS ranking system was scuttled in favor of the College Football Playoff committee following the 2013 season, the presumption is that the change was made specifically to keep another 2011 from happening.
Alabama fans know that year well. That was the year Alabama lost to LSU in the regular season by a 9-6 score, got a second bite at the apple after Oklahoma State lost to Iowa State, and whipped LSU in a Sugar Bowl rematch to claim the national title.
The SEC was at the peak of its dominance, and the rest of the country was just then approaching the summit of “Bama fatigue,” not to mention “Saban fatigue” and a lot of other cute phrases that allowed them to avoid having to use words like jealousy, fear and hatred, along with having to come to grips with why the best college football players always seem to come out of the South. So 2011, which is remembered fondly in the Southeast, is pretty much The Day The Music Died everywhere else.
In its stead, the CFP committee was born, although the designers left only four playoff spots for five power conferences (and the obligatory Notre Dame) to use, and somehow didn’t expect we’d get a day like today.
There was no doubt about the candidacy of Oklahoma or Clemson, and Georgia played its way into the thing by giving a nice rebuttal to its awful performance a few weeks ago at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn. That left Alabama, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Southern Cal and, theoretically, Central Florida to haggle over the fourth spot.
Just getting into the nuts and bolts of analysis, if anyone watched either the Central Florida-Memphis game or the Ohio State-Wisconsin games saw exactly why none of those four teams really deserved to be in the conversation. Still, Alabama needed the entire day to break a certain way in order to grab a playoff spot. Georgia needed to beat Auburn to avoid having to talk about getting Alabama in while there was already a two-loss SEC team in the playoff, and then Ohio State had to beat Wisconsin to knock out the previously undefeated Badgers, but do it in a way that didn’t make the Buckeyes look like anything special.
Done, and done.
Georgia’s win over Auburn, which was fairly convincing, made the Tigers look both like a product of home-field advantage, and also exposed Auburn as being too dependent on injured running back Kerryon Johnson. The Ohio State- Wisconsin game, on the other hand, was something out of a different dimension – a dimension where the players are slow, the quarterbacks noodle-armed, and the whole world spins on a wobbly axis.
With the committee obviously not thinking much of the PAC-12 as a whole – and with the results posted, you can’t really blame them for doing so – Southern Cal’s candidacy was already an uphill battle. That the Trojans lost 49-14 to Notre Dame certainly didn’t help, nor did it help the the Trojans never held an opponent to single-digit points on the year, finished with the 76th-ranked defense in the country, and was one of the sloppiest teams in the country: one of FBS’ five most-penalized teams, and finishing below the midline in turnover margin.
Once the committee moved beyond USC, it was left with a three-way choice: a Central Florida team that nearly fell to Memphis in its league’s championship game, or the winner or loser of the Big Ten Championship Game. A handful of pundits suggested Wisconsin should be allowed to go ahead of Alabama as a one-loss Big Ten representative, given that the Badgers won their division. But most centered on the comparison of Ohio State to Alabama.
As Ohio State showed Saturday, it just wasn’t a fair comparison to make. The Alabama that lost to Auburn still came out of that game looking like a titan compared to what Ohio State looked like after losing to Iowa 55-24 on Nov. 4. There was a second loss, by 15 points to Oklahoma at home, and then the general softness that seemed to permeate Big Ten football as a whole in 2017.
For that matter, the fact the Big Ten was outscored 69-0 in its last two playoff appearances was probably relevant to the committee. So, too, the fact that Ohio State had been granted a pass of sorts to get into the 2016 final four, and the Buckeyes subsequently repaid the committee’s confidence by all but laying down for Clemson.
As the hours counted down to the committee’s decision, the debate back and forth in the media over resumes, whether bad losses were worse than a lack of good wins, or conference fairness was dominating the airwaves and, especially, Twitter. But there was little acknowledgment of, or appetite for, actually letting the committee do what it was chartered to do: Pick the four best teams.
A lot of people don’t like the word “best” because it tends to be subjective to at least some degree, but that’s exactly the purpose of this committee, and it’s what the committee did. Anyone who watched Ohio State slog around against Wisconsin could tell Alabama was clearly a better team, more talented, and better-equipped to handle the rigors of a four-team playoff. Las Vegas oddsmakers agreed; Alabama was made a 6.5-point favorite in a hypothetical matchup against Ohio State, and no one really bothered to figure out how many more points would have been added to a line against Wisconsin.
For that matter, Auburn, with three losses, is still a better team than both Ohio State and Wisconsin, and probably Central Florida as well. To the latter, Auburn will get a chance to prove it, as Central Florida and the Tigers are set to match up in the Peach Bowl.
Unless or until Division-IA football goes to an eight-team playoff, with five automatically-qualifying conference champions and three at-large teams, there is always going to be some measure of controversy around how the CFP committee picks its playoff representatives. But what did the country expect when it decided four playoff spots for six to eight deserving teams was enough?
It’s not a simple answer for the Big Ten. Unlike the PAC-12, Big 12, SEC or ACC, there are no consistently strong recruiting zones within its conference borders, particularly for skill-position talent. One of the primary reasons Ohio State selected Urban Meyer as its most recent head coach was because Meyer was perceived as able to go into Florida, Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas and swipe talent. When Jim Harbaugh was hired at Michigan, that’s what pundits zeroed in on then, too.
Alabama might very well lose to Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. The Tigers are a strong team, Alabama is still without arguably its most intelligent defensive player (MLB Shaun Dion Hamilton), and suddenly, the Crimson Tide has a production problem at quarterback. Clemson is just as talented as any SEC powerhouse. But it’s a safe bet Alabama won’t get flattened 31-0 like Ohio State did a year ago when it faced Clemson in the semifinals.
For anyone still complaining about the CFP committee selecting Alabama over Ohio State, you basically have two choices: Wait for the system to change again, or educate yourself on the differences between SEC football and Big Ten football in the year 2017. Don’t take it out on the committee for getting it right, given the circumstances.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN