GRAPEVINE, Texas — The College Football Playoff is down to two polarizing teams, with only one spot left.
Regardless of the decision the selection committee makes — whether it’s a one-loss Alabama that didn’t win its division or a two-loss Ohio State that was embarrassed in a 55-24 loss to Iowa — a controversy is likely brewing behind the closed doors of “Selection Central,” and quite frankly, the 13 members in that room don’t really care.
“Our charge is very simple,” committee chair Kirby Hocutt said on Saturday, “to come in and select the four very best teams for selection into the semifinals for the playoff, and that’s what we’ll do. We’ll base our discussions and our debates over what has transpired over the 12 or 13 opportunities that we’ve had to watch these teams play.”
For Alabama, it’s 12. For Ohio State, it’s 13, after the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin on Saturday night to win the Big Ten championship.
Nick Saban and Urban Meyer wasted little time in making the case for their respective teams.
“It shouldn’t matter when you lost,” Saban told ESPN’s Chris Low on Saturday night. “All that should matter is getting the four best teams, and it’s also supposed to be your whole body of work. Let’s say we had lost by 30 points to Texas A&M; do you think we would even be considered?”
Meyer cited Ohio State’s schedule: “We played the three top-5 teams and won two of them,” Meyer said after the Buckeyes’ victory over the Badgers. “It’s amazing how important this playoff is and how the whole world revolves around it. I hope we get a shot.”
For the first and only time this season, committee members watched games together on Saturday at the Gaylord Texan Resort, as they met to deliberate the final ranking, which will be revealed on Sunday (noon ET on ESPN and ESPN App). Their jobs were made easier after wins by Clemson (ACC), Oklahoma (Big 12) and Georgia (SEC) in their respective conference championship games; but their decision on which team will fill out the top four is sure to be among the most controversial decisions made in the CFP era.
Alabama was nowhere to be found on any of the five flat-screen televisions they watched. Instead, Alabama’s assistant coaches remained in Tuscaloosa to entertain recruits on official visits, while Crimson Tide players were free to gather on their own and watch the other title games together. At 11-1, with its lone loss coming to the three-loss SEC runner-up Auburn, Alabama’s last hope to get into the playoff hinges on a debate with Ohio State. As far as public perception is concerned, it’s a lose-lose decision for the committee. Alabama and Ohio State are teams many love to hate, and skeptics and critics of the system have been screaming brand bias for weeks.
For three years, Ohio State has been an outlier in the system, for one reason or another. And both teams have obvious flaws this season. In spite of their warts and their glaring résumé differences, the next step for the committee is determining if they are similar enough to resort to tiebreakers.
If the committee considers Alabama and Ohio State to be “comparable” — a subjective determination in an already ambiguous system — then CFP protocol requires it to lean on criteria that include conference championships, strength of schedule, common opponents and head-to-head competition. Only the first two would apply to a debate between Ohio State and Alabama, and only the Buckeyes have a league title, but even that might not be enough.
“This week obviously the selection committee thought Alabama was the better football team,” Hocutt said on Tuesday. “If that should change, if Ohio State wins a conference championship, I don’t know how the selection committee would make that decision until it happens, and I’ll be prepared to answer it next Sunday, for sure.”
First, we need to know how the committee members each weigh the value of a conference title, something that could vary among them. Would Ohio State winning the Big Ten title by beating No. 4 and unbeaten Wisconsin change that perception? Depends on which committee member you ask.
“To what degree, how that will be weighted is subjective with each individual in that selection committee room,” Hocutt said. “So when comparing comparable teams, like teams, that conference championship designation is important.”
Keep in mind that some committee members won’t be in the room for deliberations for certain teams. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith will recuse himself from any discussion concerning Ohio State. Clemson AD Dan Radakovich and Frank Beamer, whose son, Shane, is an assistant coach at Georgia, also will have to leave the room when the Tigers and Bulldogs are being discussed.
It’s important to remember that a conference championship is a distinguishing factor and not a requirement. Nowhere does it say in the CFP protocol that teams have to win their conference title. If the committee thinks a one-loss Alabama is better than a two-loss Ohio State, so be it. The Buckeyes know how this goes.
Last year, they were the ones who sneaked into the top four without even winning their division. Penn State beat Ohio State during the regular season and went on to beat Wisconsin to win the Big Ten, but it didn’t matter, because the Nittany Lions had two losses. The committee ultimately didn’t think PSU and Ohio State were comparable, so it didn’t feel obligated to lean on those tiebreakers. The committee thought Washington and Ohio State were both simply better than PSU.
Will the committee ultimately determine that Alabama is simply better than Ohio State? The Crimson Tide’s case isn’t helped by the fact that Auburn lost to Georgia in the SEC championship game, as strength of schedule also will come under the microscope. Alabama’s best wins are against LSU, Mississippi State and Fresno State. Ohio State, meanwhile, has two top-10 wins (Wisconsin and Penn State), as well as one against No. 16 Michigan State.
Does all of that outweigh the fact that Alabama was ranked No. 1 or No. 2 by the committee for four straight weeks until its loss to Auburn? ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight gives the edge to Ohio State, projecting a 40 percent chance the Buckeyes make the playoff, compared to 28 percent for Alabama.
Oklahoma, Georgia and Clemson made it easy. There’s only one spot left for debate, and it’s a debate the committee probably can’t win, no matter what argument it makes.