Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 8, 2019

The Playoff Selection Committee Got Off Easy

Dammit. Less than two weeks ago pundits were pondering the distinct possibility that when all of college football’s regular season games had been played, the committee responsible for picking the four contestants advancing to this season’s College Football Playoff would be faced with an impossible situation, one in which the supporters of at least one and possibly a couple teams were going to be outraged when the names of the four participants did not include their squad. For those without a rooting interest, chaos is fun!

This is not to wish ill on the august members of the CFP selection committee. The seven present or former athletic directors who are joined by six other members including former coaches and players often have the unenviable task of disappointing some perfectly fine football team that had the misfortune of suffering a single loss to the wrong opponent at the wrong time. Two years ago, that team was Wisconsin. The Badgers opened the season ranked 9th in the AP poll, scored win after win to move steadily up, all the way to 3rd going into the Big 10 conference title game against Ohio State. But there Wisconsin stumbled, suffering their first loss 27-21 in what amounted to a final audition for the Playoff. Alabama also had one blemish on its record, but the Tide was idle during conference championship week after losing both the game and the SEC West crown to Auburn in the intrastate Iron Bowl one week earlier. The committee gave Alabama the nod, and Wisconsin fans howled with outrage. Of course, when Nick Saban’s team went on to beat first Clemson and then Georgia to win the national title, the committee members looked pretty smart.

But to the dismay of those of us in the cheap seats, no sooner had assorted writers at sites like FiveThirtyEight.com laid out scenarios that would cause the committee to lay in extra supplies of Pepcid and Tums, than results on the field wound up paving the way for a final selection devoid of controversy. The potential for delicious chaos turned into bland and predictable order.

That process began on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when underdog Auburn claimed the Iron Bowl yet again, upsetting Alabama in a thoroughly entertaining shootout, 48-45. The result gave the Crimson Tide two losses on the season. Given ‘Bama’s impressive recent history and Saban’s constant lobbying for his squad, a one-loss Alabama team was still very much in the mix for a spot in the Playoff. But the second defeat finally pushed the Tide out of the Playoff for the first time since the current format was adopted for the 2014-15 season.

Then Ohio State won out, beating archrival Michigan in the final game of the regular season and once again handling Wisconsin in the Big 10 championship by rallying in the second half. The Badgers’ hopes had already been dented by a late season loss to Minnesota. The second loss erased Wisconsin from the board while the perfect record ensured the Buckeyes of a place as one of the chosen four.

SEC East champion Georgia was one of those four in the committee’s next to last rankings, but the Bulldogs had the very large task of beating LSU in the conference title tilt. Unfortunately, that job proved too great, eliminating the possibility of angry fans from other conferences denouncing the committee for either real or imagined SEC favoritism. Meanwhile both Oklahoma from the Big 12 and Utah from the Pac-12 had their sights set on a spot in one of the Playoff semifinals, to be contested this year on the Saturday before New Year’s at the Fiesta and Peach Bowls. Georgia’s loss opened the door for both schools, but only the Sooners were able to walk through after beating Baylor in overtime to win the Big 12, while the Utes were clobbered by the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship, a result that gave both division winners from that conference two losses on the season.

Taken together those results left just three teams from Power 5 conferences with undefeated records – LSU, Ohio State, and defending national champion Clemson from the ACC. As the only other one-loss squad from those conferences, Oklahoma was the easy pick as the fourth seed, completing the field for this season’s Playoff. If there is a team among the four that will take the field with a chip on its collective shoulder, that is certainly Clemson. Largely because of the association with the Atlantic Coast Conference the Tigers are seeded third, and it is true that as Power 5 football conferences go, the ACC has a lot of schools that field good basketball teams. Still, Dabo Swinney’s team has won the national championship two of the last three years, humiliated both Notre Dame and Alabama in winning last season, and now sports a twenty-eight-game winning streak. Seedings aside, it’s not surprising that in Las Vegas the opening line on the semifinal between Clemson and Ohio State has the Tigers favored by two.

With order restored at the top, the only controversy as this year’s bowl season looms is the one that has been around for far too long. Do we really need thirty-nine bowl games, a number that of course requires seventy-eight teams to be deemed “bowl eligible?” That standard has grown increasingly flexible in recent years, as results from conferences both big and small have simply not produced enough teams with strong winning records. The scope of the problem is best illustrated by bowl promoters celebrating that this season no 5-7 team had to be invited in order to fill out the bowl schedule. But there are plenty of teams preparing for games later this month on the “strength” of 7-5 records during the regular season, and an even dozen squads that still have one contest on the schedule after scrabbling to an even 6-6 mark over the past three months. Pittsburgh at 7-5 versus 6-6 Eastern Michigan, or that fine .500 team from Florida International versus 7-5 Arkansas? No thanks.


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