By Choosing Oklahoma Over Georgia, Committee Puts Playoff Expansion Frenzy on Hold (for Now)

Andy Staples
Sports Illustrated

The members of the College Football Playoff selection committee haven’t considered the wider ramifications of their choices when they rank teams. It’s a fine conspiracy theory to believe they do, but based on discussions with people who have been in the room, What It All Means hasn’t really been a consideration. I doubt very seriously that the 13 committee members thought about what might happen next off the field as they argued spots four through six on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

But even though they considered only what might happen on the field, they probably headed off a firestorm off the field by choosing 12–1 Big 12 champion Oklahoma over 11–2 Georgia as the No. 4 team in this season’s playoff. And we know there was a serious debate about whether the Bulldogs deserved that No. 4 spot, because otherwise 12–1 Big Ten champ Ohio State would have been No. 4.

So now Oklahoma will face 13–0 SEC champion Alabama in the Orange Bowl and 13–0 ACC champion Clemson will face 12–0 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. The idea of electric Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray facing Alabama’s defense is thrilling, as is a game matching the Tigers’ excellent defensive line and the Fighting Irish’s bruising run game.

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But we also know that the committee considered the 10–2 Bulldogs, who lost a 35–28 heartbreaker to the top-ranked Crimson Tide on Saturday in the SEC Championship, to be better than 12–1 Big Ten champ Ohio State. Which means the committee probably wouldn’t have been opposed to placing Georgia ahead of Oklahoma if, say, the Sooners hadn’t played their best game of the season in a 39–27 win against Texas in the Big 12 championship.

If the committee had made that choice, all hell would have broken loose.

Hell breaking loose wouldn’t have been a bad thing if you desire an eight-team playoff, but it would have gotten as ugly and angry and messy as it got in 2011 when 11–1 Alabama was placed into the Bowl Championship Series title game against LSU instead of 12–1 Big 12 champion Oklahoma State. That move prompted the Big 12 to flip its support from the BCS to a four-team playoff, and with the ACC and SEC already pushing that format, the BCS was a dead concept walking. The current television contract for the College Football Playoff runs seven more years, but you would have seen some conference commissioners—who spent two years trying to ensure that conference championships mattered—fuming about two consecutive years with a non-champion from the SEC getting invited alongside that league’s champion. That might have started the push for an eight-team format that includes automatic bids for all five Power 5 champions, a bid for the highest ranked Group of Five champion and two wild cards.

That format is eventually going to come, just as it was inevitable that the four-team format would come even as commissioners swore their fealty to the BCS. But Sunday’s decision may have delayed that inevitability by a few years. Sunday’s choice maintained a status quo that hasn’t ever quite been followed by the committee and still wasn’t followed this weekend.

“No one was unequivocally better than the other,” committee chair Rob Mullens told ESPN on Sunday. “Then we leaned on the protocol.” By that he means that once the committee determined that it didn’t think any one of the group including Oklahoma, Georgia and Ohio State would soundly whip the other two, the committee then began going down the list the commissioners crafted when they spent two years arguing about how to administer the playoff. So they looked at conference championships, head-to-head results and common opponents.

“In this one, the one-loss conference champion carried the day,” said Mullens, who is Oregon’s athletic director.

Except for the time it didn’t. Remember, Georgia finished ahead of one-loss conference champ Ohio State. So the committee wasn’t viewing the championship distinction as some sort of sacred mandate. Mullens said at least one committee member staked out a firm position for each of the trio as the No. 4 team. So that means when they all voted, most of them thought Georgia was better than Ohio State—conference title be damned. And despite what Mullens said about protocol—which can’t be followed in the four/five argument if it’s ignored in the five/six argument, it also means committee members thought Oklahoma might just be slightly better than Georgia.

Who is actually better? We don’t know. Ohio State had the best wins and the worst loss. Oklahoma was the most consistent, but that consistency included breathtaking offense and horrific defense. Georgia had a troubling 20-point loss to LSU on its résumé, but the Bulldogs also challenged everyone’s No. 1 Alabama in a way no one had.

All three options were flawed, which is why the debate was so robust. And that’s the beauty of the four-team model. It ignites passion. It makes people scream and cry. It also usually ensures only the best get a chance to play for the national title. Is it the best model? Probably not, and like the BCS, it’ll probably get replaced eventually.

But when the committee chose Oklahoma on Sunday, it ensured that day remains a little further off in the future.

Complete Schedule for All 39 Bowl Games of the 2018–19 Season

A Random Ranking

On the day college football’s final four is announced, we rank the best groups of four.

1. The Beatles
2. The Rolling Stones (Mick, Keith, Bill And Charlie lineup)
3. The A-Team
4. Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin
5. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion
6. The Four Tops
7. The Four Horsemen (you choose whether it’s Notre Dame’s Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden or pro wrestling’s Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Ole Anderson, and Tully Blanchard)

8. The Ghostbusters
9. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
10. The Fantastic Four

Big Ugly Of The Week

Oklahoma’s defense has been maligned with good reason this season, but the Sooners played their best game on that side of the ball in Saturday’s 39–27 win against Texas in the Big 12 title game. One big reason for that was defensive end Kenneth Mann, whose four tackles included 1.5 tackles for loss and who helped get pressure on Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger and keep him uncomfortable for much of the day. If you’ll recall, it was Mann’s sack and strip of West Virginia’s Will Grier that was the biggest play in the Sooners’ win in Morgantown. So after an incredible eight-day stretch, Mann brings home the final Big Ugly Of The Week of the season.

Three And Out

1. Why are sports the best? This is why.

2. Hey, it worked for that guy on the other side of the Big Ten’s best rivalry 27 years ago …

3. It was a weird week for James Madison coach Mike Houston. He interviewed at Charlotte and got a job offer. But after East Carolina fired Scottie Montgomery, Houston put the brakes on the Charlotte talks. This led to Charlotte withdrawing its offer and claiming in a release that Houston had pulled the coaching version of “I’m committed, but I want to take all my official visits.”

On Saturday, Houston’s Dukes lost to Colgate in the second round of the FCS playoffs, meaning he’ll have more time to look at other jobs. Sunday, WNCT-TV reported that Southern Miss athletic director Jon Gilbert would be hired as the AD at East Carolina. Having an AD should make the Pirates’ coaching search go smoother. We’ll see if Houston now winds up in Greenville, too.

What’s Eating Andy?

The Pac-12 played its championship game Friday night. You probably didn’t watch it. It wasn’t pretty, but it was fun if you love hitting and defense. The only touchdown came on a pick-six that bounced off a receiver’s thigh. Washington’s 10–3 win sent the Huskies to the Rose Bowl, but the conference will miss the playoff for the second consecutive year and the third time in the five seasons of the College Football Playoff.

The most infuriating moment of the night came when Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott addressed reporters. Here’s what he said when asked about the possibility of expanding the playoff as transcribed by the excellent Jon Wilner: “We spend a lot of time discussing that when we agreed to evolve from the BCS to the College Football Playoff. Felt then, feel now, four is absolutely the right number. It’s a great balance between the importance of the regular season, conference championships, having a playoff, which is about determining who is No. 1, and maintaining the importance of the bowl system, the importance to our student-athletes, our schools, our fans.”

This is the wrong answer from Scott, whose job is to protect the Pac-12’s interests and not the bowl system’s interest. No league needs an expanded playoff with automatic bids for Power 5 champs more than the Pac-12. The league is behind the other four leagues financially and in terms of football relevance. Scott should be beating the drum to find a way to ensure his league has a chance to play for the national title. Because if the Pac-12 keeps missing the playoff, it may become so irrelevant in football that some schools may go looking for a league that cares about football when the current round of media rights deals expire.

What’s Andy Eating?

One of America’s finest contributions to the culinary world is the act of smothering. Few things on earth are more satisfying than a piece of fried meat covered in gravy. But one of those things is the Ultimate Gumbo at Chef Ron’s Gumbo Stop in Metairie, La.

Remember, gumbo is basically gravy soup. The preparation of both begins the same way. Mix fat and flour and stir like hell. And while most gumbos include meat of some kind, few double down on the decadence and include something fried. But Chef Ron Iafrate isn’t worried about decorum or about your arteries. He just wants to make your taste buds happy.

That’s why he throws fried catfish and fried oysters into the Ultimate Gumbo. Sure, you can get chicken and sausage gumbo at Chef Ron’s, and it’s delicious. You can get traditional seafood gumbo, and it’s also delicious. But you can get those anywhere. You can’t get smothered catfish and oyster gravy soup anywhere. But if you’re driving along Interstate 10 and you want an amazing meal without fighting your way through traffic into the French Quarter, you can get something truly amazing at Chef Ron’s.

And if you don’t want gumbo, order the bronzed drum covered in crawfish etouffee. Tender, spicy fish sits under savory etouffee. Try and get a bite that includes a hunk of fish and a crawfish covered in sauce. And don’t worry if you don’t see that dish on the menu or on the specials board. Chef Ron will make it for you anyway.

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