The decision will live on for decades. It’ll come up on barstools, tee boxes and boardrooms from Toledo to Tuscaloosa. It transcends the two teams that were in line for the No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff – Alabama and Ohio State. It goes beyond their iconic programs, Hall of Fame coaches and regions that are defined by their success.
The College Football Playoff committee picked No. 4 Alabama over Ohio State on Sunday afternoon as the fourth and final team in this year’s College Football Playoff. It joins No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Georgia, none of which were remotely controversial or surprising. No. 1 Clemson will play No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, marking the third consecutive year those programs will face off in the College Football Playoff. No. 2 Oklahoma will play No. 3 Georgia in Rose Bowl.
But the story of this day and beyond will be the choice of Alabama over Ohio State, marking the first time in the four-year history of the playoff that two teams from the same conference will be included in the CFP. It sets an intriguing precedent, as the committee chose an Alabama team that didn’t win its conference and lacked a defining win. The committee’s decision hinged on Alabama being unequivocally better than Ohio State, as committee chair Kirby Hocutt stated: “Alabama was clearly the No. 4 ranked team in the country as a non-champion.”
The decision came down to two flawed teams, neither with perfect résumés. The committee decided that Ohio State was more flawed, as the Buckeyes suffered a pair of blowout losses to Oklahoma (31-16) and unranked Iowa (55-24). Essentially, one bad night in Iowa City kept Ohio State out of the playoff, as the committee’s decision hints that it didn’t think the two teams were close enough to favor Ohio State because of the conference championship. “More damaging,” Hocutt said, “was the 31-point loss to unranked Iowa.”
Here’s a phrase from the playoff committee’s criteria that many thought would end up winning the day for Ohio State: “When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable, then the following must be considered.” The first criteria is “Championships Won.” Ohio State led that, 1-0. But Hocutt’s most telling comment may be this: “The margins weren’t close enough.” That meant the committee felt like Alabama was so much better than Ohio State that it didn’t really matter that the Buckeyes won the Big Ten title. No one is certain if this opinion would have changed if the Buckeyes blew out Wisconsin on Saturday night – they won a taut game 27-21 – but it doesn’t appear so.
In other words, the “cluster” of teams ranked Nos. 5 to 8 heading into the weekend weren’t really that closely clustered. Ohio State’s victory over No. 4 Wisconsin simply opened the door for Alabama to waltz in.
For the Big Ten, the decision means that it’s left out of the playoff for the first time in four seasons. Commissioner Jim Delany did some not-so-subtle lobbying to Yahoo Sports on Saturday night while leaving Lucas Oil Stadium. He poked at the SEC’s eight-game conference schedule – as opposed to the Big Ten’s nine-game slate – and the penchant for SEC teams to play FCS opponents. (Alabama played Mercer in November). “We try and play nine games and major intersectional,” Delany said. “We try and avoid the lesser.”
By choosing Alabama, the committee avoids a rematch of Ohio State and Clemson. The Tigers crushed Ohio State, 31-0, last year in one of the most lopsided games in the history of the College Football Playoff. It marked the second consecutive year that a Big Ten team got shut out in the College Football Playoff, as Alabama blanked Michigan State 38-0 two years ago.
This will mark the third consecutive season that Alabama meets Clemson, and the first two ended up being all-time classics. Alabama outlasted Clemson to win the 2015 national title after a gutsy call and execution of an onside kick. Last season, former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson led the Tigers to a victory with a last-second touchdown pass.
The third installment of this classic will be highly anticipated, yet somewhat unexpected. The committee veered into uncharted territory by ignoring a solid but flawed conference champion and giving a nod to a second team from one league for the first time.
The first raging controversy of the CFP era has ended up with a victory on paper for Nick Saban over Urban Meyer, the Tide over the Buckeyes and the SEC over the Big Ten. The CFP committee made a decision that will resonate for years to come. Consider it the most revealing data point in the College Football Playoff’s brief history.
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