The College Football Playoff selection committee has spoken, and its diction was perfect.
It got the four-team bracket right.
Alabama is the clear No. 1 and will play in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve against Washington, the semi-controversial – but justified – No. 4 choice. Clemson is No. 2 and will play No. 3 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes were a mildly controversial inclusion, but only to the Honor Thy Conference Champion dinosaurs still roaming the earth.
Penn State and Michigan were Nos. 5 and 6, left out in the playoff cold but still destined for a cushy bowl game against a quality opponent. It could be worse.
The playoff is a million times better than the BCS, but still well short of as good as it could be. I’ve championed a six-team tournament that would give the top two teams byes and play an opening round as home games on campus sites. The motivation would be very high to attain the top two seeds and get a bye, and similarly high to be seeded third or fourth and get a home playoff game to reach the semifinals.
But as it is, the committee did its job the way I would have done the job. Its members broke the 2-year-old CFP mold when it needed to, but maintained the one dynamic that has to be central to their deliberations: pick the four best teams.
The committee chose a non-champion (Ohio State) because it was definitive that the Buckeyes had a top-four résumé and the best résumé in the best conference, the Big Ten. Yes, Ohio State lost to Penn State in State College, Pa. On a neutral field, the Buckeyes almost certainly would be favored in a rematch. And Ohio State has both one fewer loss and more good wins than the Nittany Lions – for instance, they beat Michigan, a team that walloped Penn State by 39 points.
The committee also chose Washington over Penn State because the Huskies had a better record (12-1 to 11-2), and because their one loss (to red-hot USC) was certainly superior to the Nittany Lions’ two losses (to four-loss Pittsburgh and the aforementioned blowout against Michigan). Yes, the Huskies played a soft non-conference schedule consisting of Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State. But they also dominated Pac-12 South champion Colorado and a ranked Stanford team: combined margin of victory in those games was 85-16, against teams that finished a combined 19-6.
Ten of Washington’s 12 victories were by 24 points or more. The two that weren’t: a seven-point win at Arizona (a legitimately poor performance) and a seven-point win at a Utah team that is in the final CFP Top 25, according to Hocutt.
Penn State has four wins by seven points or less, all of them quality opponents: Temple, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The 14-point margin over Indiana was deceptive; Penn State trailed by 10 late in the third quarter and scored 10 points in the final 1:07 to make it look more convincing.
There is not a chasm separating Washington from Michigan and Penn State. But there is a difference, and it favors the Huskies.
As for the semifinal matchups themselves: Clemson-Ohio State should be fantastic. The game will feature a lot of elite athletes, two play-making quarterbacks who can fracture a defense with both arm and legs, and a pair of coaches accustomed to winning big games.
Washington will be hard-pressed against Alabama, but so would everybody else.
Chris Petersen has rehabbed the Huskies in three years, but are they mature enough physically to stand up to the physical onslaught from Alabama? Washington had 17 rushing yards in 27 attempts against USC, which is the most physically imposing team the Huskies played this year, and quarterback Jake Browning was harassed into his worst game of the year (17 of 36 from the field, two interceptions).
Alabama leads the nation in rushing defense and is third in the nation in sacks with 45. Petersen has four weeks to figure out how to keep the Crimson Tide’s front seven from destroying his offensive line. Hopefully Washington can keep it closer than Michigan State did in the semifinals a year ago.
So the playoff is set, and the playoff will bring together the four teams that should be there. Keep arguing if you want, but the CFP selection committee got it right.