The day after Alabama was placed into the BCS title game against LSU instead of Oklahoma State, I was in New York to interview all of the commissioners, athletic directors and coaches who gather this week every year for the National Football Foundation’s Hall of Fame dinner. Leagues use this opportunity to gather their ADs to shape policy, and the Big 12 held such a meeting on that Monday.
As I chatted with people in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, someone from the Big 12 approached. The league is having a reception upstairs. You really should go up there. When I arrived, I saw the league’s entire power structure. Everyone I spoke to told me off the record that what happened to Oklahoma State could not stand, and they were going to do something about it. In an informal poll of the ADs that day, the majority had supported a four-team playoff. The ACC and SEC had already come out in support of such a system, so the math was easy. College football was about to change, and from that moment came the playoff that we’ve spent the last four seasons arguing about.
Did we witness a similar moment Sunday?
The only certainty leading into Sunday was that the College Football Playoff selection committee would do something it hadn’t done before. Either it was going to place a two-loss team in the playoff, or it was going to place two teams from the same league in the playoff. One of those would bother college football’s power structure a lot more than the other. All along, more people were worried about one league providing half the playoff field than a team with two losses making the playoff. That the league providing two teams this year is the SEC and the team that squeezed in ahead of the Big Ten champion is Alabama will only add to the angst. The question is whether the people in charge of the other leagues will do something about it like they did in December 2011. The last time Alabama got a chance to play for a national title without winning its division, college football’s power brokers responded by creating the playoff. Will they respond the same way this time?
The committee did exactly what it was told on Sunday. The members chose what they believed were the four best teams based on what they had seen this season. Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia were easy choices. But would Alabama or Ohio State get the last spot?
If they were choosing the most deserving teams based on résumé, they might have chosen Ohio State. But the committee’s charge is to choose the four best teams. That gave Alabama the edge. Why? Try this mental exercise, which almost certainly was used in the committee room. Who has a better chance to beat Clemson: Ohio State or Alabama? Who would win if the two teams played: Ohio State or Alabama? Most people who watched college football this season would have answered Alabama for both questions. Those questions produce the best, even if the best isn’t necessarily the most deserving based on résumé.
The problem this season is that neither Ohio State nor Alabama had an impeccable résumé. Ohio State’s two best wins (Penn State and Wisconsin) were better than Alabama’s single best win (LSU). But Ohio State lost by 15 at home to No. 2 seed Oklahoma (bad but forgivable) and lost by 31 at Iowa, which finished 7–5 and unranked. “More damaging was the 31-point loss to unranked Iowa,” committee chair Kirby Hocutt told ESPN on Sunday. Alabama, meanwhile, didn’t win its own division, didn’t have a signature non-conference win—because Florida State went 6-6—and lost to the best team it played (Auburn). But the committee chose the Crimson Tide because the Tide stand a better chance against Clemson than Ohio State does. “The selection committee believed Alabama was the better football team,” Hocutt said.
Hopefully committee members did not consider last year, when Ohio State got shut out by Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl and Alabama took Clemson into the final minute in the national title game. The committee is only supposed to consider the current season, though it would be tough to block out the difference between those two games. It might also be possible they considered 2014, when the committee had to choose between Ohio State, Baylor and TCU for the No. 4 spot. In that year, Ohio State had the best chance of those three to actually win the playoff. And that’s exactly what the Buckeyes did. Alabama is in the same boat this year. With a few weeks to get healthy, Alabama has a roster that can go toe-to-toe with all three of the other teams in the field.
This was going to happen at some point. Either one league would get two teams into the playoff—thus leaving out two Power 5 conference champions—or Notre Dame would get in—thus leaving out two Power 5 conference champions. I used to favor a move to eight teams, but I’ve since changed my mind. This is more fun to argue about for 11 months. It’s also more fun to watch the people who run college football lose their minds when they realize they created a system that is guaranteed to stiff their own leagues.
So now three Power 5 conferences have been left out of the playoff entirely. (The Big Ten’s champion was left out last year, but Jim Delany and company didn’t complain because non-division winner Ohio State made the field.) Only the SEC and the ACC—the two leagues that fought for a four-team playoff before anyone else did—will have played in every one. And now the SEC—the league the other leagues feared would place multiple teams in the playoff—has done just that.
When the lords of college football met multiple times in 2012 to hammer out the details of the playoff, most of the arguments were about criteria. Because the wounds from Oklahoma State getting left out of the BCS title game in favor of Alabama were so fresh, some commissioners demanded language be placed in the selection criteria to keep this from happening. But they weren’t powerful enough. Committee members were recommended to weigh conference titles heavily, but they weren’t commanded to do it. Last year, had the votes fallen slightly differently, the Big Ten would have been the first league to place two teams into the playoff with Ohio State and Penn State. But instead it’s the SEC with Georgia and Alabama, and that could make all the difference.
When the power brokers meet in New York to go over the season, will they want changes? Would they demand conference champions make the playoff? This might be a popular idea with fans, but every commissioner will wonder if he’s potentially taking away a playoff spot in the future for one of his own teams.
Would some of them push to expand the playoff to six or eight teams? A six-teamer could feature the Power 5 conference champs and a wild card (Alabama this year or Ohio State last year, for example). An eight-teamer could feature the Power 5 conference champs, the highest ranked Group of Five conference champ and two wild cards. But there would be fights over when the games are played. There also would be arguments about lengthening the season for athletes whose compensation doesn’t change regardless of how long they play. Also, having two wild card slots could have sucked the drama from some of those championship games, which are moneymakers for the leagues.
There is no solution that will make everyone happy, and that’s the point. The strife, chaos and conflict created by this system keep everyone engaged all year. We might be just as engaged if more teams made the playoff, but that would be a risk. We’ll see if the non-SEC leagues are mad enough to take any such risk after Alabama once again usurped one of their own.
A Random Ranking
Because the College Football Playoff is always on our minds, here are the top five versions of “Always On My Mind”.
1. Willie Nelson
2. Elvis Presley
3. Pet Shop Boys
4. Susan Boyle
5. Brenda Lee
Big Ugly of the Week
This week, we’re honoring the three finalists for the Piesman Trophy, which goes to the lineman who makes the best play in which he does a non-lineman thing. Dan Rubenstein and Ryan Nanni of SBNation dreamed up this award, and the competition this year was fierce. Here are the final three…
St. Francis DE Louie Gartner
Wyoming DE Carl Granderson
Heidelberg OT Brock Riggs
Three and Out
1. Shortly after UCF claimed the American Athletic Conference title with a double-overtime win against Memphis, Nebraska announced the hiring of Knights coach—and former Cornhuskers quarterback—Scott Frost. Frost and the assistants who are coming with him to Lincoln still plan to coach UCF in the Peach Bowl. Nebraska is totally O.K. with this, and so is UCF—thus proving that occasionally everyone involved in a particular coaching change can act like grown-ups and handle the situation with grace.
2. Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic team won the Conference USA title by beating North Texas on Saturday. So naturally Kiffin wants Bama.
3. Behold the majesty that is college football…
For Your Ears
George Schroeder of USA Today joins to discuss the College Football Playoff selection committee’s decision to choose Alabama as the No. 4 team instead of Ohio State. Will two SEC teams in the playoff enrage the other leagues enough to force changes? Or will they live with it? We also break down the matchups, and I explain why you should never wear new turf shoes at Popeye’s.
What’s Eating Andy?
The conference championship game halftime tuition throwing contests have become completely perverted by the chest pass. While I don’t blame the contestants one bit for choosing the surest way to get the most throws into the giant Dr. Pepper bottle, I do blame the organizers. Back them up 10–15 yards next year. That’ll make them use the laces.
What’s Andy Eating?
The amazing thing about chicken wings is that they taste so great even though most places that serve them choose the fourth-best way to prepare them. But maybe that’s also the biggest problem with wings. It’s so easy to drop a wing into a deep-fryer. After a few minutes, it emerges crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. This method produces an awful lot of consistent satisfaction and requires very little work.
The better ways all contain a greater element of risk. Do it wrong, and the wings might taste terrible. A nationwide chain trying to maximize profits probably isn’t going to take that risk. Fortunately, some places do. The third-best method of cooking wings is to smoke them. Done correctly, this produces juicy meat that isn’t as greasy. Still, it requires careful tending to get the skin crispy despite using a lower cook temperature. Fortunately, plenty of barbecue joints across the country smoke great wings.
The second-best method is to cook them in a coal oven. Anthony’s, the coal-oven pizza chain that started in Fort Lauderdale, makes amazing wings. Bob Baumhower, the former Alabama player who brought the concept of chicken-wings-as-entrée to that state after eating them in Buffalo as a Miami Dolphin, also serves coal-oven wings at Bob’s Victory Grille in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The wings are charred on the outside but just as juicy. Plus, the cooking process produces a jus that makes a better dipping sauce than any cup of ranch dressing ever dreamed of being.
The best method for cooking wings, though, is the one practiced at Minero. Sean Brock, the chef behind Husk, started Minero in Charleston, S.C., and recently added a location in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market. At Minero, they grill the wings over charcoal. This is a high-degree-of-difficulty assignment. Take them off the grill too early and they’ll be mushy. Leave them on too long and they’ll be bone-dry. But take them off the grill at the perfect moment and they’re the perfect wing. Juicy but not greasy. Charred but not burned.
When I visited the Atlanta location on the day of the SEC title game, the wings were big and plump. A Minero staffer serves the wings in a brown paper bag with a clear plastic viewing window on the bottom half. For those dining in, the server then takes a bottle of Valentina hot sauce, sprinkles the sauce into the bag and shakes vigorously. They could toss the wings in the kitchen, but this little bit of ceremony only adds to the mystique. It says, “This may be a humble appetizer, but it is a very special humble appetizer.”
In truth, it should be the meal. These might be the best wings in America. I’ve eaten the wings at Portland’s Pok Pok on multiple occasions, so I don’t make this declaration lightly. Even though the other menu items are prepared with exquisite care and fine ingredients*, you’ll leave wondering how soon you can get back for more wings. And for those of us who don’t live in Atlanta or Charleston, you’ll start thinking of excuses to go to either city.
*I also ordered the al pastor, carnitas and fried catfish tacos. They were wonderful, and they probably would have received their own dedicated review had I not tasted those wings. The al pastor, with fresh pineapple and avocado puree, is especially great. Still, eat as many of the wings as you can.
It’s probably for the best that most of the places that serve wings opt for the fourth-best method of preparation. If wings like the ones at Minero were available in every shopping center in America, we’d never do anything but eat wings.