The Nightmare in Grapevine is upon us.
What is often a formality — making four obvious choices for the four-team College Football Playoff — is anything but for the committee this year.
The 13-member group, huddled in a hotel in Grapevine, Texas, will have to make the most consequential and controversial decision in its 10-year existence — and in the final season before the playoff expands to 12 teams. Their decision will be revealed at noon Sunday on ESPN.
After that, there are three teams for two spots and there is no obvious answer.
• Florida State is 13-0 and champion of the ACC.
No unbeaten Power Five champion has ever been left out of the playoff. However, while the Seminoles beat Louisville 16-6 Saturday night, they haven’t looked as good since losing star quarterback Jordan Travis to injury last month. Freshman third-string quarterback Brock Glenn was average at best in passing for just 55 yards against Louisville. But they won, and second stringer Tate Rodemaker would likely be back for a playoff game.
• Alabama is 12-1 and champion of the SEC.
On Saturday, it defeated two-time reigning national champion Georgia, 27-24, snapping the Bulldogs' 29-game winning streak. No SEC champion has ever been left out of the playoff and a team from the league has won 13 of the last 17 national titles. The Tide passed the eye test against the Bulldogs — albeit a week after needing a near miracle to survive a massive upset at Auburn.
• Texas is 12-1 and champion of the Big 12.
One of those 12 victories — a 34-24 triumph back in September … at Alabama. If the debate comes down to choosing between who is better — Crimson Tide or Longhorns — then how could such a decisive head-to-head result not matter? The Horns' only loss came in the final minute against rival and No. 13 Oklahoma.
Whatever team gets left out will howl in protest.
Not since the first College Football Playoff, when Ohio State bested TCU and Baylor for the final spot, has the decision been so heated. The Buckeyes proved the committee correct by going on and winning the national title that season.
This is even more significant, if only because of the size of the programs and their fan bases, not to mention the strength of each argument. There is also the impact on aggressive non-conference scheduling — would penalizing Alabama for an early-season loss against a top-flight program discourage future early-season scheduling between top-flight programs?
“If we would have played a Group of Five game instead of Texas, there’d be no debate right now,” Alabama AD Greg Byrne told the Tuscaloosa News.
He’s right about that, which wouldn't be a good thing.
Of course, the long-term health of the sport isn’t on the consideration list for the committee. It's officially tasked with choosing the “four best teams” — not necessarily the four “most deserving” or the four with the “best resume.”
However, through the years the group — heavy on college administrators — has favored a path of least resistance, or the most easily justifiable.
It also can consult myriad data, stats, criteria, protocols and everything else. It allows almost any decision to be justified, including just the opinion on who is best.
In this case, how can the committee:
• Tell a Power Five team that hasn't lost they don’t deserve the opportunity to compete for a national title?
• Tell a team that just beat the sport’s Godzilla and won the historically most dominant league that they're not one of the best four?
• Tell a team that beat the team crowned champion of the most dominant league that they're not good enough?
No good answers. A tough decision to come.
Someone is going to be angry. Playoff expansion can’t come fast enough.