Maybe because the Big Ten Championship Game was too fresh in my mind, I came away Saturday night thinking Ohio State would edge out Alabama for the fourth and final spot in the College Football Playoff when the committee announced its field Sunday morning. I wasn’t about to bet the farm on that happening, but with the Buckeyes (11-2) beating Wisconsin for the Big Ten title, having a pair of solid wins over Penn State and Michigan State, and benefiting from the Big Ten’s influence, I could see a very slight nod going to Ohio State.
Turns out, the committee didn’t see it as a coin flip. It clearly considered Alabama (11-1) the better team, even though it wasn’t a conference champion, let alone a division winner. Losing once is better than losing twice.
“As we saw Alabama play week in and week in out, the selection committee believed Alabama was the better football team,’’ committee chair Kirby Hocutt, the athletic director at Texas Tech, told ESPN. “When we looked at Ohio State, when you looked at their resume it was impressive, but it wasn't enough for the selection committee to place them in above Alabama.’’
Here are four takeaways from the announcement:
1. The committee isn’t trying to placate every Power Five conference.
The fact that there are five major conferences and only four spots in the playoff means one league will be snubbed. This year, two got the stiff-arm – the Big Ten and the Pac-12 – while the SEC landed its champion, Georgia, and Alabama.
Was it the right call? That depends on whose ox is being gored. Alabama went 11-1 but did not play in the SEC title game. That drew howls from those favoring conference champions being rewarded. Ohio State won the Big Ten title, but it had two serious blemishes that diminished 11 wins – a 15-point home loss to now-No. 2 Oklahoma and a 31-point road loss to Iowa. Ohio State certainly had better high-end wins than Alabama, using the current playoff rankings. The Buckeyes beat No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 9 Penn State and No. 16 Michigan State, while the Crimson Tide’s best wins were over No. 17 LSU and No. 23 Mississippi State.
Pac-12 champion USC didn’t really have a chance to crack the top four, which its status at No. 8 behind No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 7 Auburn shows.
2. Don’t lose twice, and make sure it’s not by 31 points to Iowa.
When Ohio State rallied in the fourth quarter to beat Penn State 39-38 on Oct. 28, it seemed the Buckeyes had a clear path to crack the top four. They were sitting at No. 6 in the first CFP ranking of the season and had chances to move up with Michigan State, Michigan and a potential Big Ten title game waiting on the schedule. But they put up the most head-scratching result of the season, getting blown out 55-24 at Iowa. Ohio State dropped to No. 13 in the next ranking and, it turns out, couldn’t fully recover to move into the top four.
“You lose the way you lost, it sends a message to the committee that they couldn’t forgive,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said Sunday.
That a two-loss Buckeyes team was passed over shouldn’t be stunning. A similar situation happened last year, when Penn State won the Big Ten Championship Game but had two losses. The committee picked the 11-1 Buckeyes, who didn’t win their division, over the 11-2 Nittany Lions for the third spot in the playoff, while Washington got the fourth. What sunk Penn State’s chances last year was its 49-10 loss at Michigan.
3. Is the bloom off the Big Ten’s rose?
In 2014, a red-hot Ohio State team routed Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship Game and rode that momentum to stun No. 1 Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl semifinal and dominate No. 2 Oregon 42-20 in the championship game. Since then, however, Big Ten representatives in the playoff have been outscored a combined 69-0 in the semifinals (Alabama over Michigan State 38-0 in 2015 and Clemson over Ohio State 31-0 in 2016). Did that factor in when the committee picked Alabama over Ohio State on Sunday? Only committee members can answer that, but you can see how that might be in the back of someone’s mind.
4. Can Alabama-Clemson III match the first two?
That’s a tall order to fill, but let's hope it happens, because the Crimson Tide and Tigers played thrillers in the past two title games. After the 2015 season, Alabama prevailed 45-40 in a game that wasn’t sealed until 12 seconds remained. Following the 2016 season, Clemson returned the favor with a 35-31 victory that came on Deshaun Watson’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with 1 second remaining.
The committee has given us Tide vs. Tigers III. As threequels go, here's rooting for something like “Return of the Jedi’’ rather than “Hangover III.’’