- By noon eastern on Sunday, the selection committee will have finalized a playoff field guaranteed to leave out two of three teams that arguably improved their résumés on championship weekend.
The 13 members of the College Football Playoff selection committee are the pigskin versions of the people who hire models for runway shows. They must look at the most beautiful examples of the form and then discuss all the warts. All day Saturday, committee members picked apart the best college football teams in America. By noon eastern on Sunday, the members must decide which four of those teams are the most beautiful and the least flawed. And more than likely, the committee will make someone mad.
We can safely assume Alabama (13–0, SEC champion), Clemson (13–0, ACC champion) and Notre Dame (12–0) are in. So who gets the No. 4 spot? Georgia came in at No. 4 in the committee’s most recent rankings, and the Bulldogs (11–2) pushed No. 1 Alabama to its absolute limit on Saturday before starter-turned-backup quarterback Jalen Hurts replaced an injured Tua Tagovailoa in the fourth quarter and led the Crimson Tide to a 35–28 win. The committee ranked Oklahoma No. 5 this week, and the Sooners responded by playing their best game of the season in a 39–27 win against Texas in the Big 12 title game. With the victory, the Sooners (12–1, Big 12 champions) avenged their only loss and showed the committee that, at least on rare occasions, their defense can get stops. The committee ranked Ohio State No. 6 this week, and the Buckeyes followed their demolition of 10–2 Michigan with a 45–24 win against Northwestern in the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes (12–1, Big Ten champs) led 24–21 late in the third quarter, but they raced away in the fourth thanks to another huge game from quarterback Dwayne Haskins (34 of 41, 399 passing yards, five touchdowns).
So who should get the fourth spot? Since all politics are local, some of you will say Oklahoma, some will say Ohio State and some will say Georgia.
Wait. Georgia? Yes, Georgia.
“Based on what I’ve seen, they're one of the four best teams in the country,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Saturday night.
Then Saban realized he probably was advocating for the team that nearly beat his team to also be his team’s next opponent. “I also said I don’t want to play them again, which is the ultimate compliment, I think, that I can give them,” he said.
But does Georgia really have a chance? In four seasons, the committee hasn’t put a two-loss team into the playoff. Auburn would have been the first last year had the Tigers—who lost at Clemson and LSU early but beat Georgia and Alabama late—beaten the Bulldogs in last year’s SEC title game. But Georgia won that game, and the committee selected 11–1 Alabama, which did not win the SEC West, for the No. 4 spot instead of 11–2 Ohio State, which had just won the Big Ten title.
So history says the Bulldogs are out. (But if they do get in, it’s time for the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 to begin pushing for a playoff system that guarantees their champions a chance to play for the national title.) The comments of selection committee chair Rob Mullens for the past few weeks and the results on Saturday suggest Oklahoma has the best chance to join the undefeated trio. The committee has serious reservations about the Sooners’ defense, which allows an abysmal six yards a play. But Oklahoma also may have the nation’s most explosive offense (8.7 yards a play), and quarterback Kyler Murray should wind up in New York alongside Tagovailoa and Haskins at the Heisman Trophy ceremony next week. Oklahoma’s consistency gave the Sooners the edge over the Buckeyes coming into Saturday. Oklahoma tended to win close shootouts against good teams, but they performed about the same every game.
With a team that has similar strengths and weaknesses to the Oklahoma team that fell to Georgia in overtime in the Rose Bowl, Sooners coach Lincoln Riley believes this team belongs in the semifinals just like that one did. “I know how close we were to it last year, to being right there in the last one, and I have every bit as much confidence in this team, this offense, this defense and special teams as I did sitting on this stage last year at this time,” Riley said. “I know we can. I have zero doubt.”
But will the committee have doubts? Ohio State has tried hard the past two weeks to make its case, and in the Michigan win and the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Big Ten title game, the Buckeyes looked as if they might have the highest ceiling of the trio of teams we’re discussing. But Ohio State also has the biggest stinker of a loss (49–20 at Purdue, which finished 6–6). Still, one guy who has been a joy to watch this season—and who saved the Buckeyes’ bacon in close wins against Nebraska and Maryland—believes we’d love watching Ohio State in the playoff. “If the committee decides to put us in the playoff, I’m going to put on a show,” Haskins told Fox reporter Jenny Taft on Saturday night.
So let’s break down the nitty gritty of these teams.
Strength of schedule: 27
Strength of record (an ESPN stat that measures how difficult it is for a team to achieve its record given its schedule): 6
Conference champ: Yes
Wins against teams in the most recent playoff committee top 25: No. 14 Texas, 39–27; at No. 16 West Virginia, 59–56; at No. 23 Iowa State, 37–27.
Worst loss: 48–45 to No. 14 Texas in Dallas
Best non-conference win: 28–21 (OT) vs. Army, which is 9–2
Most promising stat: The Sooners entered Saturday leading the nation in offensive yards per play (8.7) and held on to that lead thanks to Alabama’s tough win against Georgia.
Least promising stat: Prior to Saturday’s win, the Sooners had allowed an average of 47.3 points in their previous four games.
Strength of schedule: 46
Strength of record: 4
Conference champ: Yes
Wins against teams in the most recent playoff committee top 25: No. 7 Michigan, 62–39; at No. 12 Penn State, 27–26; No. 21 Northwestern, 45–24
Worst loss: 49–20 to Purdue, which finished 6–6
Best non-conference win: 40–28 against TCU, which finished 6–6
Most promising stat: Haskins has thrown for 405, 396 and 499 yards in his past three games. He’s averaged 11.8 yards an attempt in those games, which is in Murray-Tagovailoa territory.
Least promising stat: Ohio State’s defense has allowed 38 plays of 30 yards or more, which puts the Buckeyes in the 100s in the national rankings.
Strength of schedule: 9
Strength of record: 5
Conference champ: No
Wins against teams in the most recent playoff committee top 25: No. 9 Florida, 36–17; at No. 15 Kentucky, 34–17; at No. 24 Missouri, 43–29
Worst loss: 36–16 at No. 10 LSU, which finished 9–3
Best non-conference win: 45–21 against Georgia Tech, which finished 7–5
Most promising stat: It’s not really a stat, but the Bulldogs had Alabama—everyone’s No. 1—on the ropes. Their best argument is that Nick Saban doesn’t want to play them again.
Least promising stat: The two in the loss column.
Those are the three teams the committee will spend Sunday morning discussing. My guess is the committee will choose Oklahoma. The numbers suggest the committee will choose Ohio State. Nick Saban thinks the committee should pick Georgia, and he usually wins at everything.
But we won’t know the answer until noon Sunday.