This story will appear in the Dec. 15, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. To purchase a subscription to the magazine, go here.
A dozen people mingled in a Dublin, Ohio, living room on Sunday, attempting in vain to make small talk over the high-decibel commentary on television. As the minutes dwindled before the estimated 12:45 p.m. announcement of the four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff, Urban Meyer’s left thumb kept hammering the volume button. The Ohio State coach likes to be in control, and the remote was the only place where he could exert his influence.
Amid the noise, no one else knew quite what to do. The night before, Meyer’s No. 5 Buckeyes had eviscerated 13th-ranked Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten title game. “Shocked,” Meyer said of his team’s dominance. “Shocked. I thought Wisconsin was really good.” Ohio State returned from Indianapolis to Columbus after 3 a.m., and Meyer’s electronic wrist tracker informed him that he’d since slept for three hours and 10 minutes. He sat in a white upholstered chair, looking equal parts anxious and exhausted, dissecting his team’s chances.
Meyer said he felt strongly that No. 6 Baylor had a better claim to a playoff berth than No. 3 TCU because of the Bears’ 61-58 head-to-head victory on Oct. 11. Both schools won on Saturday to finish 11-1, but because the Big 12 has too few members to hold a conference championship game, they had one fewer win than OSU and were co-champions, both of which could hurt their standing. He hoped the blowout of Wisconsin would keep the Buckeyes a spot ahead of Baylor. “Let’s have a playoff to clean up the BCS,” Meyer said sarcastically. “Have at it, tiger.”
About 20 minutes before the big reveal, athletic director Gene Smith bounded into the living room beaming and said, “We’re in!” The entire room responded in unison: “Really?” He smiled and replied, “I have no idea.” A few minutes later an equally unsatisfying text arrived from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, proving that even the highest-ranking officials were being kept in the dark by the 12-member playoff committee. “They don’t call anymore,” Smith said. “This is a brand-new system.”
Time passed. Meyer pushed the volume to 70, loud enough, it seemed, to drown out a Metallica concert. His left foot twitched relentlessly atop his right knee; he closed his eyes and tilted his head back against the chair. He fidgeted again, propping his elbows on his knees, pressing his fingers into his graying temples and staring at the floor. If we don’t get in, Meyer later said he was thinking, what am I going to say to my team?
That tortured pose illustrated the stakes in the post-BCS era. Few will weep for the first team out of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, No. 69. (Sorry, SMU.) Professional baseball, football, hockey and basketball have so many playoff slots that there’s little pity for the teams hovering around .500 that don’t qualify. But college football’s selection process involves both unfortunate math -- four teams from five major conferences -- and serious consequences: Teams that get in earn $6 million for their conferences. Simply put, there’s no bigger gap in sports than the one between No. 4 and No. 5 in college football.
As the announcement began, Meyer kept his eyes off the screen. At 12:44 p.m., when ESPN finally revealed Ohio State as the playoff’s fourth contender -- joining No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State -- Meyer didn’t see his team’s name flash on the screen, but he heard the excited screams of his houseguests and reflexively jumped out of his chair. When he landed, his knees buckled, seemingly in disbelief. Meyer took one step away from the crowd gathered on the outskirts of his living room before raising his right arm in triumph and enveloping his daughter Nicki in a long embrace. “I kind of melted,” Meyer said later.
His wife, Shelley, cried tears of joy. Neighbors Jeff and Bonnie Roby stepped forward and popped a $180 bottle of 2004 Dom Pérignon for a celebratory toast, the cork’s explosion coinciding with a merciful decrease of the TV volume. Meyer circled the room and gave everyone a hug, his look a mix of joy and relief. “Wow,” he said at one point. “This is history.”
After each guest offered a separate tribute while holding a champagne glass aloft -- to the players, to the coaching staff, to the coaches’ wives --Meyer disappeared upstairs. He shed his khaki shorts and Ohio State pullover for suit pants, a pressed white shirt with an Ohio State logo and that familiar, distant look of an overwhelmed coach. “Time to go to work,” he said. “Exams. Practice schedules. Travel. All of that.”
Within 20 minutes the party was clearing out. As Smith headed for the door with a smile on his face, he turned back and asked a question that punctuated the new reality of college football’s playoff era: “Did anyone notice who finished No. 5?”