For years I’ve said that the college football regular season is basically a four-month long soap opera. From Labor Day to the first weekend in December, it’s got so many plot twists, character arcs and narrative flips, the sport should be nominated for a daytime Emmy every year.
Therefore, it’s only fitting that in a sport that feels like one long soap opera, that the best twist is saved for the final Sunday of the season. With Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia all winning their conference title games comfortably on Saturday, there is just one playoff spot left. And incredibly it comes down to the two biggest name brands in all of college football (sorry USC and UCF, you’re not getting in). Ohio State and Alabama. Alabama and Ohio State. Only one can make the playoff. Who ya got?
Before I get into who I think will get the spot (different than who should get it), let’s quickly look at the team’s two resumes.
If the committee follows its criteria and guidelines, the choice will be Ohio State. Alabama is probably better, but the standard for a non-champ over a champ is "unequivocally better," and that's a high bar.
— Brad Edwards (@JBradEdwards) December 3, 2017
On the one side you’ve Alabama. The Crimson Tide enters this debate with a sparkling 11-1 record, including wins over three teams currently in the Top-25 (LSU, Mississippi State and Fresno State). Their one loss was on the road at Auburn, to a heated rival, which finished the season at 10-3 and is unquestionably a Top-10 team.
It obviously goes without saying however that the Crimson Tide did not win their conference’s championship. They didn’t even win their division. It also doesn’t help that one of those Top-25 losses will be gone by tomorrow (Fresno State lost in the Mountain West title game), and that Alabama’s loss to Auburn isn’t quite as “impressive” (if you believe in good losses) after the Tigers lost in the SEC title game.
So that’s Alabama’s argument, and here’s what you need to know about Ohio State. The Buckeyes finished the season at 11-2, and are Big Ten champs. Ohio State has the same number of Top-25 wins as Alabama (three), but their two best wins – against Wisconsin and Penn State – are significantly better than anything on the Crimson Tide’s resume. At the same time, they also have one more loss, and their second loss – by 31 points against a 7-5 Iowa club – is significantly worse than anything on Alabama’s resume. Heck, it’s worse than just about anything Alabama has done during the Saban era, period.
So those are the resumes, and it’s time to stop messing around around. Who do I think will get the final spot in the College Football Playoff? I think it will be the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Now that’s not to say that I think Ohio State deserves the spot. To me, that’s Alabama. Admittedly, the Crimson Tide don’t have the big wins that the Buckeyes do, but they don’t have the bad loss either. Specifically, for any of us who watched Ohio State throughout the season, it’s hard to shake that beatdown at Iowa.
Understand it’s not just that the Buckeyes lost – but how it happened. Put simply, they quit. Ohio State gave up 487 yards to a team which finished 107th nationally in total offense, and were outscored 24-7 down the stretch in that game. As future Arizona State coach Herm Edwards once said, “You play to win the game,” and not only did Ohio State not win that game, they were embarrassed. If results on the field matter, no one in serious consideration for the playoff had anything close to as bad a result as the Buckeyes did in that game.
Therefore, if it really is about putting the four best teams in the playoff – which is what it’s supposed to be about – than Alabama has the edge. And by the way, that’s not just an opinion, it’s a fact. Las Vegas lists Alabama as a 5.5 point favorite in a hypothetical meeting with the Buckeyes.
Unfortunately, while both Vegas and I think Alabama is better, the committee doesn’t use “eye test” as one of its variables in picking the four playoff entries. And from everything other than eye test and straight up win-loss record, the advantages go to Ohio State. Overall, they have the better resume, and the committee has said in the past they weigh big wins more heavily than bad losses. The Buckeyes have those thanks to victories over the Badgers and Nittany Lions. Unfortunately, Alabama has essentially no real key wins to hang its hat on, even if it doesn’t have any bad losses either.
Furthermore, whether we want to admit it or not, you’ve got to think a little backroom politics could come into play here. That’s not to say any of it will be explicit. But at the same time, these are humans who will make this decision. And humans can be influenced by external factors.
The first factor is, does the committee really want to set the precedent of letting two teams in from the same conference into the playoff?
While there’s nothing hypothetically wrong with that, we’re talking about major power players here (specifically Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany) who won’t like it very much, and any member of the committee voting in Alabama over Ohio State has to realize that it could be their school or conference who is in a similar situation next year.
So again, is this the precedent they want to set? Where an Alabama and a Georgia can comprise half the playoff field, forsaking the Big Ten and Pac-12? Maybe, but considering how much money is at stake, maybe not. Especially, when again next year it could be a different school or conference that is on the fence and gets left out, costing them millions in the process.
Speaking of money, don’t forget about the broadcast partners here. While it isn’t fair, do you think that ESPN – which pays hundreds of millions of dollars to broadcast this event – would really be excited about having a hyperregionalized final four of Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama, with three teams coming from the Southeast and four from the Southern part of the country overall? Whether it’s fair or not, you’ve got to think that’s got to be at least a bit of a factor as well.
In the end, Alabama may be the better team, but they don’t have the definitively better resume and simply have too many other factors working against them.
No one will know for sure until mid-day Sunday, but it feels like the Ohio State Buckeyes will be the fourth team in this year’s playoff.