Forde-Yard Dash: Three Big Decisions Facing the Playoff Committee

Ohio State or LSU at No. 1? It's a decision the playoff selection committee will likely have to make by Sunday, and it's not the only one.
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SECOND QUARTER

THE THREE BIG DECISIONS FACING THE PLAYOFF COMMITTEE

It’s down to crunch time for the College Football Playoff selection committee. The penultimate rankings come out Tuesday night, and then the final rankings Sunday, and then their work is done for 2019. But as usual, it’s not easy. The Dash looks at their three hardest calls:

The first big decision: Who is No. 1? There are two candidates, and you can make a strong case for either.

Ohio State (11) is currently on top. There are no weaknesses in the Buckeyes’ résumé, which is an unbroken string of double-digit victories from late August through late November. They’ve played four currently ranked teams—Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan—and beaten them by a combined 113 points. Ohio State (12-0) got the “complete team” stamp of approval from the College Football Playoff selection committee last week, a nod to being ranked in the top-five nationally in both total offense and total defense. Adding a demolition of Michigan to the body of work should only strengthen the hold on the top spot.

LSU (12) was demoted last week from first to second, and they responded with a vigorous pummeling of Texas A&M, 50-7. The seven points allowed was particularly pertinent, because the knock on the Tigers in comparison to the Buckeyes has been their defense. Only once has a Jimbo Fisher-coached team scored fewer points than seven in a game, so that was a pretty crisp response to that critique. The undefeated Tigers have played three teams currently in the AP top 11—No. 7 Florida, No. 9 Alabama and No. 11 Auburn—but don’t have the massive victory margins of Ohio State against ranked opponents.

LSU has a slight strength of schedule advantage to date, per the Sagarin Ratings—the Tigers are No. 25, Ohio State is No. 29. That advantage should grow after Saturday, when LSU plays 11-1 Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game and Ohio State plays 10-2 Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. We’ll see what committee chair Rob Mullens says Tuesday night about the difference between the Buckeyes and Bayou Bengals, but it seems entirely possible that if both win Saturday, the look test in that game may be the deciding factor.

As of now, The Dash would put Ohio State on top and LSU in second. But if the Tigers roll impressively against the Bulldogs in Atlanta, that would probably change.

Why does it matter more than ever who is No. 1 and who is No. 2? Because of the huge gap between No. 3 Clemson (13) and whoever winds up No. 4.

You think either LSU or Ohio State wants to play the defending national champions? Not if they can avoid it. Who would relish facing a program on a 27-game winning streak, with a two-time champion head coach, the best defensive coordinator in America and a future No. 1 NFL draft pick quarterback? After looking like a bored team early, Clemson has gotten its act together and crushed seven straight opponents.

If Clemson ends up at No. 3, it would be the best third seed in playoff history. Don’t expect that to satisfy coach Dabo Swinney (14).

He has been extremely chippy about how he believes the committee—and everyone else—has viewed his team. After drubbing South Carolina to close the regular season, Swinney went on a tangent completely untethered from reality: “How important is this game? It’s huge. It’s huge from a national standpoint, because obviously if we lose this game, they’re going to kick us out (of the playoff). They don’t want us in there anyway. We’d drop to 20, you know? Georgia loses to this very same team, and the very next day it’s, ‘How do we keep Georgia in it?’ We’re the team that beat South Carolina, and it’s, ‘How we get Clemson out?’ “

Nobody will keep Clemson out of the playoff if the Tigers take care of Virginia Saturday. Nobody will be trying to, or want to. The only thing holding Clemson back is a weak schedule, which is mostly the fault of the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference, but it doesn’t mean the Tigers aren’t good. It just means they don’t have the résumé to be ahead of Ohio State or LSU.

But one of those two is likely to play Clemson, and the other will be made a heavy favorite over whoever is No. 4. Which is the second big question for the committee. The candidates are:

Either Oklahoma (15) or Baylor (16), whichever wins the Big 12 at 12-1.

Utah (17), if the Utes can get into the clubhouse Friday night at 12-1.

A second team from the SEC/Big Ten (18), if Georgia beats LSU or Wisconsin beats Ohio State and things get really weird.

It will bear watching where the contenders line up in the rankings Tuesday night. Last week Georgia was No. 4, Alabama No. 5, Utah No. 6, Oklahoma No. 7, Baylor No. 9 and Wisconsin No. 12. The key question: are the Utes still ahead of the Sooners heading into championship weekend?

If the favored teams all win their conference title games, it would come down to a likely résumé contest between Utah and Oklahoma. If Baylor wins the Big 12 and Oregon beats Utah, things could get a little more squishy based on the Bears’ dreadful non-conference schedule—would the committee consider putting a two-loss team (Wisconsin if it beats Ohio State, Georgia off a loss to LSU) in ahead of one-loss Baylor?

The committee did a strange thing last week, vaulting the Bears up five spots after beating a disappointing Texas team that finished 7-5. That looked like a move intended to give Baylor a shot at 12-1, not a direct reaction to the quality of its most recent victory.

The last possible wrinkle for fourth place is this: both LSU and Ohio State probably can lose their title games and still make the playoff field. That would certainly be a rebuke of the bogus premise that these conference championships are de facto playoff games.

The committee’s final big task is determining location, location, location. Who goes where?

The first priority is making sure the No. 1 seed is not at a geographic disadvantage. If LSU gets that top seed, the Tigers obviously will want to be in Atlanta for the Peach Bowl (19), driving distance for its fan base. If Ohio State is the No. 1, it could be a little more complicated.

Ohio State is closer to Atlanta than the Fiesta Bowl (20) in Glendale, Ariz., but likely would prefer the desert if the 1-4 matchup puts it against a team from the Southeast. (If Georgia beats LSU and both get in, one of those two almost assuredly would be No. 3 and the other No. 4.) If Utah gets the fourth spot, Arizona becomes a geographic disadvantage for the Buckeyes and that matchup likely would be slotted for the Peach. If Oklahoma or Baylor are No. 4 and Ohio State is No. 1, Atlanta also would be the more geographically sensible site for that matchup.

The committee assuredly will spend time this week laying out site contingencies depending on what happens in the conference title games. If those matchups go according to conventional wisdom, this probably will be fairly simple. An upset or two could make everything more challenging leading up to a noon ET Sunday deadline.

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