ATLANTA — In the end, after the Great Wisconsin Scare had been neutralized, the College Football Playoff selection committee’s final task was radically simplified.
There is no question about which four are in. The only question is which one is on top—and this year that’s a vitally important distinction. We’ll know the answer shortly after noon ET on Sunday.
Second-ranked LSU emphatically stated its final claim here Saturday, burying (Burrowing?) No. 4 Georgia 37–10. Later Saturday, No. 1 Ohio State had to show some resolve and perseverance for the first time all season, rallying from 14 points down in the second half to defeat the Badgers 34-21.
The margin between the Tigers and Buckeyes had to be thin heading into Championship Weekend. Coming out, the decision is close but clear: LSU belongs on top.
Stack the dominating win over the Bulldogs on top of victories at Alabama and at home over Florida and Auburn. Throw in a road win over Texas early and an annihilation of Texas A&M late.
Ohio State’s resume is quite good—two wins over Wisconsin, plus one each over Michigan and Penn State. The second-tier wins are wipeouts of Cincinnati and Indiana. It’s a narrow call—but a critical call.
By the committee’s own rankings, this tilts toward purple and gold.
Georgia came into the weekend ranked ahead of Wisconsin. Florida was ranked ahead of Penn State. Auburn and Alabama were ranked ahead of Michigan.
And if the final look test matters, LSU was far more impressive Saturday.
What LSU did to the Bulldogs was arguably the most impressive victory any team has had all season. The Tigers shredded a top-five defense for the most points and total yards (483) allowed by Georgia since 2017. They never trailed, and led by double digits for the entire final three quarters.
Ohio State, meanwhile, was playing from behind for nearly three full quarters in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes showed their mettle and talent in the second half, but they were on the ropes in a manner which LSU has never experienced all season.
If the committee does the right thing and makes LSU No. 1, it would pit the Tigers against No. 4 Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. That’s the far more favorable matchup than what would await the Buckeyes.
Namely, what would await them is undefeated Clemson, defending national champions, on a 28-game winning streak and rolling into the playoff after another annihilation of an overmatched Atlantic Coast Conference opponent. The latest victim was Virginia in the ACC championship game, a 62–17 mismatch that marked Clemson’s eighth straight victory by at least 31 points.
Ohio State has had an awesome season, but neither the Buckeyes nor LSU want to tangle with Clemson until they absolutely must. Far better to take on Oklahoma, which was fortunate to survive against Baylor in the Big 12 championship game earlier Saturday.
Bears starting quarterback Charlie Brewer was injured in the first half and never returned, continuing a theme of Oklahoma matching up with backup quarterbacks in big late-season games over the years.
Just last week, the Sooners faced an Oklahoma State team without starter Spencer Sanders. In 2017, on the way to Oklahoma earning a playoff bid, West Virginia was without star QB Will Grier. In 2015, their playoff bid was paved in part by three straight games against teams with injured starters.
This time around, Baylor’s backups nearly engineered a shocking upset. Second stringer Gerry Bohanon, who threw his only college touchdown pass in the season opener against Stephen F. Austin, drilled one in from 33 yards out on a third-and-20 play. Then third-string freshman Jacob Zeno delivered shocking completions of 81 and 78 yards.
But the big plays stopped coming, and Oklahoma was able to prevail in overtime, 30–23. It was hardly a ringing endorsement of the Sooners as a slam-dunk playoff team—and for a long time Saturday night Wisconsin presented an intriguing alternative if the Badgers could have finished the upset.
That could have left the committee poring over a 24–23 Wisconsin loss to Illinois into the wee hours of the night, but ultimately it became a moot point thanks to Ohio State’s rally.
In the end, the committee has three rolling powerhouses and one wobbly Sooner Schooner.
In shouted voices that could barely be heard over the booming Fat Tuesday dance party that erupted in the LSU locker room Saturday, the Tigers proclaimed indifference about opponent or location.
“We like Phoenix, we like Glendale,” said defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence. “But we’re real good here, too. We’ll take anybody.”
Said fellow lineman Brandon Fehoko: “It doesn’t matter who we play or where we play. If we have an LSU performance, we’ll be straight.”
If they have a standard Joe Burrow performance in the semifinals, they’ll definitely be straight. The LSU quarterback has locked up the Heisman Trophy and is rocketing up draft boards after this breakthrough season. Against Georgia, he added one more near-flawless performance to a season of superlatives.
I asked Burrow’s backup, Myles Brennan, if Burrow made a single incorrect read or decision while he ripped the Bulldogs for 349 yards and four touchdowns. He thought about it, smiled, and shook his head.
“No, I don’t think so,” Brennan said. “But that’s Joe Burrow. That’s his level of preparation and expectation for himself and for his team.”
Said receiver Ja’Marr Chase: “We call him Joe Perfect sometimes.”
This was one of those times when the nickname fit. Someone mentioned in the Tigers’ locker room that former USC coach John Robinson, who has become part of the LSU entourage, compared Burrow to Joe Montana—and Robinson would know, his Trojans teams have tussled with Montana when he was at Notre Dame.
“To be honest,” Chase said with a smile, “I don’t know who Joe Montana is.”
He’s worth Googling, young man. But the comparison is an apt one—in terms of both the passing precision and the uncanny feel for the game.
Burrow may never go on to win four Super Bowls and make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he has a good chance to match Montana’s one college football national title.
This much is clear: LSU should begin the title chase as the playoff top seed. It surpassed Ohio State on the final Saturday, and the reward should be a game as a heavy favorite against Oklahoma, while the Buckeyes do battle with Clemson.