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The CFP Is Supposed to Feature 'The Four Best Teams,' But Will It?

The College Football Playoff Section Committee will announce this year's semifinals, which are sure to be controversial, and bowl pairings on Sunday.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — "So you're saying there's a chance?" has been the mantra here for more than a month. Ever since the the Alabama Crimson Tide took its second loss, with both having been on the final play of a game in an insane atmosphere, crimson and white fans have been hoping, but not believing. Not really.

One can't blame them. A two-loss team has never made the College Football Playoff. A lot had to fall into place for Alabama to even have a shot, never mind a semifinal spot, and a lot did. So there's been hope, yet still plenty of doubt. 

Even one evening two weeks after a group from BamaCentral decorated our tree as part of Tuscaloosa's holiday Tinsel Trail, complete with a Nick Saban straw hat on top, someone couldn't help but ask, "You don't really think Alabama can still make the playoff, do you?"

"Absolutely," was my response because I had essentially seen it before, both in 2011 and 2012, when the Crimson Tide won back-to-back national titles during the Bowl Championship Series era. 

In 2011, when Alabama lost the Game of the Century to LSU, 9-6 in overtime, Oklahoma State moved ahead of it in the rankings, while Stanford and Boise State lurked, still undefeated. They all lost, the Cowboys famously at Iowa State, and the rematch with the Tigers was on. 

A year later, Alabama was playing back-to-back-to-back games against teams ranked in the top 15, and stumbled over the final hurdle, Texas A&M. 

The Crimson Tide subsequently dropped from No. 1 to No. 4, and over the next three weeks needed two teams ahead of it to falter to secure a spot in the BCS championship. They did, just seven days later: No. 1 Kansas State at Baylor, and No. 2 Oregon to Stanford in overtime. 

The lesson learned was don't ever count on teams winning out, especially when they aren't used to being in that kind of spotlight.

Ten years later, here we are again, only this time it's a little different. Back then, Alabama fans knew they were in. This time, they don't.  

After Championship Weekend, everyone's resumes are complete, there are no more qualifying games to play. Undefeated Georgia and Michigan are clearly the top two seeds in the four-team College Football Playoff, and deservedly so.  

Behind them, though, is an epic logjam, with four teams that have good arguments, yet only two will secure spots in the semifinals. The College Football Playoff Selection Committee has to pick between Alabama, Ohio State, TCU, Tennessee and USC to fill out the field, and can pretty much justify whatever pairings it wants. 

We'll start with the latter two.

USC played its way out of contention with the 47-24 loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game. At 11-2, the Trojans went 2-2 against ranked teams and are without a win against a team better than No. 15 at the time. 

Tennessee (10-2) is also out of the running thanks to the 63-38 loss at South Carolina. Chair Boo Corrigan has made that pretty clear. 

So it's really down to TCU, Ohio State and Alabama, and that was the order following last week's rankings. 

It led to Saban to do some lobbying on Saturday, including on ESPN's "The College Football Show" and on Fox at halftime of the Big Ten Championship Game.

"If we played these teams in question, would we be underdogs in the game or not?" the Alabama coach said. "That should answer everybody's questions relative to who the best teams are at present. That's how this should play out."

His other major point was that quarterback Bryce Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner, played with an injured shoulder during the Crimson Tides's two losses, especially at Tennessee. 

Maybe that shouldn't factor in much with the committee, however Alabama's road schedule of Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU and Ole Miss is still jaw-dropping. 

When the Horned Frogs lost in the Big 12 Championship Game, and as gutsy of a performance as it was for TCU quarterback Max Duggan, the game was being played about 30 minutes away from Horned Frogs campus in Fort Worth, in Arlington. It was essentially a home game. 

Ohio State's loss was at home, albeit to a tough Michigan team that only had to beat unranked Purdue to secure the Big Ten title (which doesn't scream that the conference is deserving of a second team in the tournament). 

If anyone wants to make the argument TCU should get a little extra consideration because it lost in overtime, then the same should hold true for Alabama at LSU.  

The key play was the Horned Frogs going for it on fourth down (and inexcusably taking the ball out of its best playmaker's hands), giving the Wildcats the opportunity to close out the win. That decision will be second-guessed for a long time.

Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide never had the chance to answer the two-point conversion that was the difference in Death Valley before 100,000-plus crazed fans.

TCU also wants to play the strength of schedule card, but actually that works in Alabama's favor as well. 

The strength of schedule rankings (ESPN FPI) for the leading contenders Saturday morning were as follows: 

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  • Tennessee 7
  • Alabama 8
  • Kansas State 32
  • USC 34
  • Ohio State 35
  • TCU 36

As for some other things that the committee will likely discuss. 

Which team of the three is most deserving? 

There's a good argument to say that TCU (12-1) made it through the regular season, and regulation time of the Big 12 Championship Game unbeaten, and that the Horned Frogs shouldn't be penalized for having to play an extra game. 

However, that second part especially is moot because TCU is part of a conference that preferred a big payday over anything else. All the leagues know this is the risk that comes with playing championship games. 

It also hasn't helped the Big 12 win a national title since 2005. What's the Southeastern Conference's record in the playoff again?

But I digress.  

Which team has the biggest win? 

That should be a push. Some will try and argue Ohio State at Penn State, but the Nittany Lions were No. 13 at that point. The Buckeyes' only other win against a ranked team was against a vastly-overrated Notre Dame team in the opener. 

Ole Miss was at No. 11 when Alabama won on the road on Nov. 12, and we all know how desperately Lane Kiffin wants to beat Saban.  

TCU's biggest win on paper was at home, in double-overtime 43-40 against then-No. 8 Oklahoma State on Oct. 15. The Cowboys lost four of their last five games, depriving the Frogs of a signature win. 

Which team has the worst loss?

That easy, Oho State by 22 points to Michigan, at home. 

Which team would be the toughest to play?

Saban tried to change the mantra into a rallying call with "Let's just get the best teams in there." 

That's important because remember the selling point of the BCS was that it would pair the best two teams, and when the College Football Playoff came around executive director Bill Hancock swore that it would be the four best teams in college football "no matter who it is."

"It'll be the best four teams and team five will be unhappy. We get that," Hancock said back in 2014. "There will always be a No. 5. There always will."

With all the athletic directors on the committee it would be really tempting to throw out the question: "Which semifinal matchup would get the best ratings," but that's not supposed to be part of the selection process. Nor that one of those three teams under consideration would probably be favored to be blown out in the semifinals, especially against Georgia in Atlanta (the other site is the Phoenix area).

There are three former head football coaches on the committee: Jim Grobe, R.C. Slocum and Joe Taylor. Someone should ask them if they were at Georgia or Michigan which of the three teams would they not want to play?

We all know the answer to that, and also how dangerous the Crimson Tide can be when given another chance. 

The College Football Playoff selection show will be at 11 a.m. Sunday, on ESPN.

See Also:

Championship Week Edition: All Things CW

Alabama's CFP Chances Boil Down to One Thing

Don't Expect the Same Alabama Team When it Next Plays

A 12-Team Playoff Comes With One Big Concern For Nick Saban

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