Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 7, 2014

Surprises And Excitement As The Playoff Era Begins

A glance at the scores from this weekend’s final regular season college football games might have led a fan to believe that there would be no drama in Sunday’s announcement of the four teams chosen to participate in the first playoff for the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. Early last week the next-to-last ranking by the 12-member selection committee had Alabama, Oregon, TCU and Florida State as the top four teams in the land. On the outside looking in as of Tuesday were Ohio State and Baylor, at numbers five and six. Beginning with Oregon’s 51-13 manhandling of #7 Arizona Friday night in the Pac-12 championship, and finally ending Saturday evening with Ohio State’s drubbing of #13 Wisconsin in the Big-10 title tilt, all of the top six squads won impressive victories. With no upsets or even a close call to shake up the order for the selection committee’s final vote, the immediate question was what was ESPN going to do to fill the 2 ½ hours it had set aside Sunday afternoon for the selection show?

But to the surprise of many, and surely to the delight of fans in Columbus like Alicia Barnhart, who writes the excellent Ballparks on a Budget blog, the final vote was more than just a routine endorsement of last week’s penultimate ranking. While Alabama and Oregon remained in the top two spots, the rest of the top six were shuffled like so many playing cards. Florida State, the sole remaining unbeaten team in major college football, moved up a notch to #3, meaning head coach Jimbo Fisher’s team will head west to play Oregon in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day in one national semifinal. Ohio State joined the playoff party at #4 in the final ranking, and will face Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Jeff Long, the committee chair and Athletic Director at the University of Arkansas, attributed the Buckeyes’ rise in the rankings to their 59-0 shutout of Wisconsin behind their third starting quarterback of the season. “With the championship game, Ohio State demonstrated that they were a total team,” Long told the ESPN analysts.

That top four left the Big-12 co-champions, Baylor and TCU, as the first two teams out of the playoffs, with TCU tumbling all the way to #6 in the final ranking despite the Horned Frogs 55-3 victory over unranked Iowa State on Saturday afternoon. The final order may have been a small consolation to Baylor and head coach Art Briles, who has been insisting for two months that the Bears should be ranked ahead of TCU; ever since Baylor staged a 24-point 4th quarter rally to beat the Horned Frogs 61-58, handing TCU its only loss of the season.

Despite that small balm the day still ended in disappointment for both Big-12 schools. Baylor had even recently hired a former communications director to President George W. Bush to lobby for a spot in the playoffs. But no amount of spin could disguise the fact that the Bears had the weakest non-conference schedule of all 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. That and the team’s sole loss to a West Virginia squad that barely finished above .500 on the season probably did in whatever chance Baylor had of making the playoffs.

Beyond Baylor’s schedule, both of the Big-12 co-champions were hurt by their shared title. NCAA rules require a conference to have a dozen schools in order to hold a championship game. Despite retaining its name from the days before massive conference realignments swept through college sports, the Big-12 has only ten members. But as the only one of the five so-called power conferences without a title match, the league had no compelling game to offer on the final weekend of regular season play. There was also the irony of a conference that had marketed itself all season with the slogan “One True Champion,” based on the fact that all ten schools play each other, ending with not one champion but two. The lesson for Big-12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is to demand a waiver of the 12-school rule prior to next season.

Of course if either Ohio State or Florida State loses badly in their semifinal matchup, fans of the two Big-12 teams will renew the complaints they were busy making Sunday afternoon. Perhaps that will happen, for both Alabama and Oregon look to be formidable foes. But don’t count on it. First because this has been a year without an obvious standout school all season long. Teams rose to the top and seemed destined for a national championship, only to fall by the wayside. For weeks Ole Miss and Mississippi State were the darlings from the delta, sitting atop the national polls. In the end the former was ranked 9th with a record of 9-3, while the latter was just two spots higher at 10-2. Just like those teams from Oxford and Starkville, for all of their strengths each of the four playoff squads has its flaws, waiting to be exposed.

In short, a semifinal upset is every bit as likely as a semifinal blowout. Selection committee chairman Long’s praise of Ohio State was well-founded. It’s the rare team at either the college or professional level that can suffer injuries to not one but two quarterbacks, and continue to play at a high level. The Buckeyes may well be the “complete team” the selection committee saw. As for Florida State, if one can get past the seemingly endless stream of reports about its players’ legal problems, there is something to be said for being undefeated. In ranking the team no higher than third, the selection committee has offered its opinion that as power football conferences go, the ACC plays really good basketball. Yet the team remains the only major college football squad with a zero for the second number of its record. The defending national champions have now won 29 games in a row. Who’s to say they can’t make it 30?

We’ll find out on New Year’s Day, with the first title game of the playoff era scheduled for AT&T Stadium, that shrine to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, eleven days later. Whatever the outcome this whole process, involving real people making hard calls instead of the old BCS computer models, already feels so much better.

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