In the end, a committee of the establishment, by the establishment and for the establishment arrived at the safe and predictable decision establishmentarians tend to make.
Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame were easy calls. Then it got hard. And when it got hard, the College Football Playoff selection committee chose 12-1 Oklahoma for its fourth and final spot, over 11-2 Georgia.
It was the far less controversial choice, for the following reasons:
* It allowed a third Power Five conference room at the feed trough, as opposed to keeping the majority of the five out.
* It clung to the simplistic but timeless college football devotion to win-loss record, strength of schedule be damned. Better to stack up the Power Five unbeatens 1-2-3, then add the most attractive one-loss team, then call it a day. (If you want controversy, put a two-loss Power Five team in the playoff over a one-loss Power Five team — five years in, it hasn’t happened yet. From the invention of the polls in 1936 to the present day, there is no more powerful single metric than the number of losses next to a team’s name. The teaching term is “number sense,” and we learn it in kindergarten or earlier, and it still rules in college football.)
* It avoided a second straight year of the Southeastern Conference earning two berths, which would have increased the caterwauling about that league’s perceived favorite-son status. (Never mind the fact that the league has produced nine of the past 12 national champions.)
* It embraced the hoary concept of conference champion as an elevating factor, because that’s easier than defending a “better team” litmus test. “No one was unequivocally better than the other,” committee chair Rob Mullens said, citing the debate between Oklahoma, Georgia and Ohio State. “So then we leaned on the protocol.”
The protocol likes conference championships, even though conferences ceased being anything more than national media companies years ago. This was a triumph of political expedience.
It would have taken some outside-the-box boldness from the committee to pick the Bulldogs over the Sooners. It would have required inclusion of a team that just lost, and it would have set up a rematch game 28 days after the first meeting, both of which would have been criticized.
Alabama-Oklahoma is less easy to criticize. It also is likely to be less competitive than Alabama-Georgia.
BetOnline.AG sports book released an early line favoring the Crimson Tide by 14 over the Sooners. Saturday in Atlanta, Georgia lost by seven to Alabama after leading most of the game. The ‘Dogs didn’t trail until 64 seconds remained. It was a great game, by far the toughest the Tide has had this season.
“I sure as hell don’t want to play them again,” Nick Saban said afterward.
He got his wish. He got an easier semifinal path to the playoff championship game.
Now, there definitely will be some walk-up appeal to Alabama-Oklahoma. In quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray, you are likely to have a matchup of the Heisman Trophy winner and Heisman runner-up. In Saban and Lincoln Riley, you have the grand master of defensive football and the ascendant genius of offensive football. The Sooners have the nation’s No. 1 offense, and Alabama is second to them nationally in yards per play (Oklahoma averages 8.75, the Tide averages 7.92).
But unless Oklahoma intends to win a game in which both teams score on every possession, the Sooners will have to stop ‘Bama at some point in time. A defense that ranks 108th nationally in yards allowed per game (448.1), 102nd in yards allowed per play (6.03) and 96th in points allowed per game (32.4) will now be facing the best offense it has seen all season. And the best defense.
Oklahoma is a one-dimensional team. Ohio State is close to it, albeit not quite the same sieve defensively. Georgia is good on both sides of the ball.
National rankings in terms of yards gained per play: Oklahoma No. 1, Georgia No. 5, Ohio State No. 10.
National rankings in terms of yards allowed per play: Georgia No. 28, Ohio State No. 80, Oklahoma No. 102.
And there is the fact that the Bulldogs racked up those rankings while playing a more difficult schedule than the other two teams. Strength of schedule, via the Sagarin Ratings: Georgia No. 6, Oklahoma No. 31, Ohio State No. 40.
Yes, Georgia lost to Alabama on Saturday. So would anyone else who played the Tide — probably by a wider margin. For those who opposed a rematch of an instant classic, congrats on the potential mismatch you get instead.
But this is what we should have expected from the College Football Playoff selection committee. On Selection Sunday, the most rigid, risk-averse, politically sensitive, establishmentarian sport on the planet simply did what comes naturally.
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