USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg previews the two upcoming College Football Playoff matchups and explains why Oklahoma was awarded the final spot.
USA TODAY Sports
After all of the bloviating and occasional analysis, the actual College Football Playoff bracket wasn’t really that surprising, was it? But the debate doesn’t end, of course, for a while yet. Or maybe ever. So let’s start here:
The selection committee got it right.
Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame, we knew. And if the arguments over the fourth and final berth changed over the course of the day – it began as Oklahoma vs. Ohio State, morphed into how Alabama would take that slot, thank you, even if it lost, and then transformed into how Georgia should get in, anyway, because cosmetics – in the end, it wasn’t that difficult a decision.
A 12-1 conference champion was the choice over a two-loss SEC runnerup.
Frankly, the debate always felt a bit manufactured, but perhaps it wasn’t. It should have come as no real shock when Oklahoma was unveiled as the No. 4 seed. What was mildly surprising was when Georgia was ranked No. 5, ahead of Ohio State.
It was an indication the committee actually seriously considered the idea of elevating the “eye test” beyond the few objective measurements we have in this wacky, wonderful sport – that’s how it seemingly went in the evaluation of Georgia vs. Ohio State, anyway – but then repudiated that thought, reverted to its charge and determined that wins outweigh meaningful losses.
Rob Mullens, Oregon athletic director and current selection committee chairman, indicated the committee followed the protocol it has been given. It includes making sure a team that does not win a conference championship is “unequivocally better” than a team that did win one. It’s hard to make that argument with a straight face about Georgia vs. Oklahoma.
“In this instance,” Mullens said during an interview with ESPN, “when one team wasn’t unequivocally better than the other, we went to the protocol. And on this one the one-loss conference champion carried the day.”
This, remember, is how it is supposed to go. You don’t have to like the idea. You can think Oklahoma is better than Georgia or Georgia is better than Oklahoma. But the committee weighs multiple factors including conference championships. Those aren’t tiebreakers, but they matter. And they should.
When it comes to the actual comparisons of the teams, it’s hard to disagree with Mullens.
We all know about Oklahoma’s defensive deficiencies. The Sooners bring the nation’s best offense, but for most of the season, Kyler Murray and company have dragged along one of the nation’s worst defenses (though it’s notable that against West Virginia last week and moreso against Texas on Saturday, that defense made critical plays to help win).
Oklahoma also lost only once, by three points to Texas on a neutral field in a rivalry game. And then in the Big 12 championship, it avenged that loss. And since we’re talking about aesthetics, the victory was competitive but solid; in other words, Murray didn’t have to score on the last possession despite its defense.
As for those Bulldogs, it’s apparent a one-loss Georgia – losing the way it did to Alabama? – would probably have gotten into the Playoff. But let’s not forget that second loss to LSU. Yeah, LSU is ranked No. 11 in the final Playoff Top 25. But losing by three touchdowns to a team that finished with three losses goes down as a bad loss.
Georgia has improved tremendously since then, evolving (as teams do) by the end of the season into something much better than we all watched in Baton Rouge in October. The Bulldogs were impressive in wins against Florida and Kentucky and Auburn. And then Saturday, they didn’t just play with Alabama, they outplayed Alabama for three quarters.
It was the only time this season anybody has pushed the Tide. But while we’re praising them for that performance, let’s not forget that after building a two-touchdown lead and harassing Tua Tagovailoa into a bad performance – and then knocking him out of the game – they lost the lead against the backup quarterback.
Jalen Hurts’ perseverance and redemption is a terrific story line, but it does not further the narrative that Georgia should be in the Playoff, despite the loss. It severely damages that argument.
Georgia is really good, but it took its shot and missed. If it’s unfair that it had to play Alabama, fine. But what about college football is ever uniform?
Of course, that’s where the eye test comes in. Or so we heard, from the moment Alabama knocked Jake Fromm’s final pass away until the Playoff ranking was unveiled (and then even after, of course).
But you can fabricate any argument you want from the eye test. The idea that Georgia is unequivocally better than Oklahoma is all about your preconceptions. It has plenty to do with our sometimes misguided notions about the strength of various conferences, as well as what we think football should look like.
Which brings us to the strange case of Ohio State, and from there to the Big Ten. The Buckeyes pulled away from Northwestern in the second half to win the Big Ten championship. If it wasn’t as dominant or impressive as the Michigan game a week earlier, it was comfortable.
But here’s where the eye test obviously came into play again: The last two games were much different than what we’d seen from Ohio State in its first 11. And of course, there’s that 29-point loss to Purdue. That always seemed pretty hard to overcome.
For two years in a row now, the Big Ten has been left out of the Playoff – and it’s the third consecutive season the Big Ten champion has not been in the bracket. After Ohio State’s victory Saturday, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany seemed somewhat resigned to the fate of the Buckeyes and his league.
“We’d love to be involved,” he told ESPN, “and if we’re not involved, we’ll go out and have a great bowl season.”
But what must Delany really be thinking? And let’s consider for a moment what almost occurred, and what it might have meant.
The Pac-12 didn’t have a Playoff hope; it was all but eliminated from the conversation by midseason, making three of five years without a team in the field.
If Georgia had held on to beat Alabama – or if the committee had decided Georgia should get in, anyway – we might have seen more smoke. With Notre Dame in the field, it would’ve meant the three of the Power Five conferences were shut out, at which point the commissioners and their constituents might actually have begun seriously contemplating whether it was time to seriously contemplate maybe perhaps broaching the subject of, ahem, expanding the tournament.
But even when an eight-team playoff finally arrives – and it will, someday – the process will remain subjective. Conference champions might get automatic bids. We’ll all argue over that, sure. And then about seeding. And so much else.
Until then, we’re stuck with the four-team format, which by design leaves out at least one conference every year and engenders this kind of nutty, sometimes frustrating debate. But the committee got it right this time by sending this message:
Winning just means more.