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Let us begin with a simple admission. The College Football Playoff selection committee had no great answers here.
Selecting among Alabama, Ohio State and USC (though it appears the Trojans didn’t get any consideration at all) as the No. 4 seed was a comparison of three deeply flawed teams that did not clearly state their case during the regular season to get in.
None of them are in position to complain about how the committee called it.
But the choice of Alabama was the wrong one, both in terms of precedent and message for a committee that pretty clearly went outside of the protocol that was built into this system four years ago.
You think benefit of the doubt doesn’t matter when it comes to Alabama? You think the Big Ten’s Playoff flops in 2015 and 2016 didn’t factor in the subconscious of those committee members?
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All the reverence for protocol and winning conference titles ended Sunday when the committee gave a big, wet, sloppy kiss to Nick Saban and the reputation of his program, not the team he put on the field this year.
“As we looked at Alabama’s full body of work over the course of a season, we favored that body of work over Ohio State,” selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said. “When you go back and look at the weekly rankings that we do … we were consistent. We had said that Alabama was the better football team than Ohio State each and every week. We watched and saw Ohio State strengthen their resume this week with a win over Wisconsin, but it wasn’t enough in the eyes of the selection committee.
But there’s a big problem with putting Alabama in the Playoff, and it has nothing to do with one league getting two teams in, something that was bound to happen at some point in this system. In essence, Alabama slid into the playoff this weekend by doing nothing. It was rewarded for losing to Auburn last week in a game that decided the SEC West title. And that’s simply not the way this process should work.
Don’t reference Ohio State last season, which got in as the Big Ten representative despite losing the head-to-head matchup and division title to Penn State. It’s not comparable.
Last year, Ohio State was already in the top four going into the championship games at No. 2. Though the Buckeyes didn’t have to risk anything in the Big Ten title game, the committee had already deemed them worthy of making the playoff after recording wins over three other top-10 teams. The only question with Ohio State last year was whether the Buckeyes would get passed.
That’s far different from Alabama, which was outside the top four last week after its loss to Auburn in a game that decided the SEC West title. The Tide went from outside the playoff at 11-1 to in it by doing nothing. Based on that precedent, Wisconsin and Auburn would have been better off not showing up at all Saturday.
“It was so important to us to get this right, and our charge is to rank the four very best teams,” Hocutt said. “We were fortunate that we had that flexibility and discretion given to the committee by the commissioners when there’s a non-champion involved to select the four very best teams in college football.”
I get it. Four best teams. Is there a case to be made for Alabama in those vague terms? Sure.
But here’s the entirety of that case: It’s Alabama.
Were you really watching that 24-10 victory against LSU where Alabama actually got outgained 306-299 and thinking this is “unequivocally” one of the four best teams in the country? Were you really watching the Tide’s struggle in Starkville, Miss., and thinking this was the Alabama of old? Were you really watching them get pushed around in Auburn and thinking this is a team worth a second chance as a non-champion?
Where the resumé lacked, the Alabama brand prevailed. Maybe that’s the intent all along.
But I would also suggest we’re starting to veer in pretty significant ways from what the commissioners who created the playoff told us they wanted.
Conference championships weren’t the be-all, end-all of the system, but they were supposed to matter. There’s supposed to be a high bar to clear to get in without one. Alabama didn’t win its division and didn’t record a win over a top-15 team. To put the Tide in over Ohio State and USC — both of whom hail from leagues that play nine conference games — should require more.
Is Alabama “better” than those teams? Maybe. But this isn’t supposed to be a forecast, it’s supposed to be a judgment on the year you’ve had.
So if I’m Urban Meyer, I’m wondering today why I scheduled Oklahoma in Week 2 rather than Akron.
If I’m Clay Helton, I’m lobbying to get out of USC’s annual series against Notre Dame and replace it with UNLV.
If either Ohio State or USC had taken that route with its non-conference schedule and finished 12-1 rather than 11-2, Alabama wouldn’t have even been in the discussion.
As committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said, it was that second loss for Ohio State that created enough separation for Alabama that the Big Ten title meant little.
“Wins matter, losses matter, how you play in the wins matter, how you play in the losses matter,” Hocutt said. “You’re taking a deeper dive about what separates teams.”
Once again, don’t shed tears for Ohio State or USC.
The Buckeyes completely blew it when they got hammered 55-24 at Iowa, a performance so inexplicable and unforgivable that the committee just couldn’t see past it. I would argue that the Trojans should be given a little bit of a pass for their three-point loss at Washington State on a Friday night when three offensive line starters were injured, but they certainly weren’t competitive at Notre Dame in a 49-14 beatdown.
Any choice besides Alabama would have been imperfect, but it would have at least followed the logic the criteria that was established early on to encourage strong non-conference scheduling and allow the committee to see beyond simple won-loss record.
Instead, an Alabama team that feasted on SEC weaklings early in the season but looked quite mortal late in the year gets a pass into the playoff without winning a conference title or beating another elite team.
That’s a bad precedent to set for the committee, no matter what happens from here. If conference championships don’t matter, let’s just say they don’t matter or find a different way to pick the field.