Seven-Step Drop: College Football Playoff Controversy? Not This Season

After a fairly straightforward Championship Saturday, it made sense to give the final playoff spot to Oklahoma

It wasn’t even a hard decision in the end. At least it shouldn’t have been for those in the room.

 

That’s the takeaway on Sunday after all the games have been played, all the touchdowns had been scored, all the results tallied and resumes compared. In fact, this year’s edition of the College Football Playoff is not at all that controversial unless your zip code happens to contain Athens, Georgia, or Columbus, Ohio.

 

As soon as Alabama capped off their remarkable comeback against the Bulldogs and chalk played out with the rest of the conference championship games, the decision to select the 2018-19 edition of the playoff was a simple one. The Selection Committee had but once choice and an entirely uncontroversial one at that.

 

No 1. Alabama vs. No 4. Oklahoma, No 2. Clemson vs. No. 3. Notre Dame.

 

Three, undefeated conference champions who had separated themselves from the pack and a final spot reserved for the most impressive one-loss team out of the next trio.

 

“There was little debate about Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame. There was a lot of debate about Oklahoma, Georgia and Ohio State. The debate was deep, detailed and occasionally contentious. There was division,” said selection committee chair and Oregon AD Rob Mullens. “As we considered three teams for the No. 4 slot, the committee did not believe that any one team was unequivocally better than the next. That meant we went to our protocol.

 

“Oklahoma was ranked No. 4 because they're a one-loss conference champion with a dynamic offense, and their one loss was a close game to a ranked team at a neutral site. Georgia was ranked No. 5 because of their wins against highly ranked teams, their impressive performance against Alabama in the conference championship game, and because of how balanced a team they are. Ohio State was ranked No. 6 because they're a one-loss conference champion with a big win over Michigan. The committee ranked them behind Georgia because the committee thinks highly of Georgia's body of work.”

 

Underscoring this decision by the committee is that as much as we want to believe that wins trump everything, it’s that you cannot get into the final four with a blowout loss for the most part.

 

Go back to the first controversial decision in 2014, Baylor got trounced by West Virginia and was left out in favor of Ohio State. The following season pretty much played out as you’d expect but in 2016, Washington was in ahead of Penn State thanks in part to the Nittany Lions suffering a blowout loss to Michigan. Same thing last year, where that terrible game against Iowa was plenty of justification to leave the Buckeyes out in favor of non-conference champ Alabama.

 

So that ruled out Ohio State again in 2018 after it was run out of the building at Purdue and, to a lesser extent, hampered Georgia’s case (20-point loss to LSU) compared to Oklahoma. Add in the committee’s standard protocol that Mullens mentioned and it was no surprise to see it fall Sooners, Bulldogs and Buckeyes — though Georgia sitting between the two conference champs will raise eyebrows.

 

“We're looking at every single game, and so of course when there aren't very many losses on the board, we're looking at the wins, we're looking at the losses,” added Mullens. “A three-point loss to a ranked team on a neutral field (Oklahoma to Texas) is different than the only loss amongst that peer group to an unranked team (Ohio State to Purdue), and obviously we did take note that Georgia's two losses were against the No. 1 team in our rankings and what ultimately ended up being the No. 11 team.”

 

“Those are three really good teams,” remarked Urban Meyer, who didn’t seem at all devastated over a trip to the Rose Bowl instead of going up against Alabama again. “I started watching some highlights and they're really good teams. We're one of those great teams that obviously didn't make it, but it's a tough decision to make.”

 

Not this year it wasn’t.

 

Ohio State may be 12-1 but they played well with a different head coach for three of those wins and then were in control for just two others with Meyer in charge. Their defense was clearly not up to the task at all either and even the offense was up and down with how good it was in 2018.

 

Georgia’s best win might have been a loss to No. 1 Alabama in a game where the Tide didn’t play well at all and needed a backup quarterback to complete a comeback. The Bulldogs’ playoff shot may well have died as soon as Kirby Smart tried that ill-advised fake punt at midfield in Atlanta and the team’s best win was probably against an overrated Florida squad. Against the two best teams on their schedule, UGA didn’t play like one of the best teams in the country and fired a blank when it came time to shoot.

 

Then there’s Oklahoma, whose biggest negative has been their defense — a unit that has scored 25 points of their own the past month to go with what the committee continually referred to as a “historic,” “elite” and “dynamic” offense. The Sooners have beaten every team on their schedule and done so in a fairly deep league. At every turn, they proved to be a quality program no matter what situation or opponent was thrown at them. Consistency and a conference title will always put you under consideration for a playoff bid and in this beauty contest, there was no question about who the committee would pick to round out the final four.

 

“When you look at the history of the playoff, look at the number of conference champions that are in the playoff. It's a large percentage, so it carries plenty of weight,” said Mullens. “But there are other factors, strength of schedule, et cetera, and as we went on in this debate, that conference championship was a key piece for Oklahoma, and it did make a bit of a difference.”

 

Indeed it did and everybody should be excited at the prospect of Nick Saban facing off against Lincoln Riley and Kyler Murray as a result.

 

Either way... can’t we all agree this is all just an opening act for Alabama-Clemson Part IV in the national championship game? That’s when the fun — and debate — can really begin after months of barreling toward the same playoff we all should have seen coming a long time ago.

 

Six other thoughts from Championship Weekend:

 

2. Where does the Pac-12 go from here?

While defensive-minded traditionalists may have soaked in Washington’s 10-3 triumph over Utah on Friday night, the vast majority of the country probably tuned the contest out if they were even interested at all. The drab affair was a fitting end to the Pac-12 season, which saw the conference’s issues bubble up to the surface in just about every way and will send the league office into a critical offseason full of big decisions.

 

Let’s face it though, the Pac-12 was not just mediocre this season — it was a reputation-damaging bad year out West.

 

Part of the problem? Look no further than the quarterback play.

 

Only two Pac-12 quarterbacks finished the regular season averaging more than 250 yards per game (Gardner Minshew/ K.J. Costello). A year ago? Five did. In 2015? Six. In 2014? Seven. The conference of QBs was a desert in 2018 and far, far below the standards we typically see. Don’t think the NFL won’t notice this trend either.

 

Then add in the fact that USC continues to be a mess with a sub-par coaching staff and a clueless administration, both Arizona schools failed to transition to new staffs and systems all that well and the North Division beat each other up. Throw in some dreadful non-conference results and there’s a reason why many fans were calling for Larry Scott’s head the past few months.

 

We’ll see if the Pac-12 will be able to dig itself out of this hole. Signing day looms large to see if the conference can help address the talent equation and whether any staff changes will wind up producing results down the road too. A big bowl season would help, especially if the Huskies can upset Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and Washington State takes care of business down in the Alamo Bowl.

 

If not?

 

The “power” conference that has missed the playoff three of the last four years will need to take a long hard look at itself in the mirror and double down on changes.

 

3. UCF finds a way (again) to remain perfect

Leave it to the Knights, a team that has now won 25 straight games, to just find a way.

 

Backup quarterback after your starter goes down with a devastating injury? No problem. Down 38-21 at halftime? You know they’ve got this. Allowing Darrell Henderson to gash you in the first half for 200-plus rushing yards? You definitely could tell the Knights were going to shut him down after emerging from the locker room.

 

In this sport of 18-23-year-olds with varying attention spans, it goes without saying that getting your team back in a game you find slipping away is a tough task but Josh Heupel’s crew has done so several times this year — none more impressive than that feat down in Orlando to beat Memphis 56-41.

 

Darriel Mack Jr. was simply nails on the big stage, throwing for 348 yards and rushing for 59 more in accounting for six touchdowns in the game. His third quarter really sparked UCF to pull away as the game went on and fed energy to the defense that was playing from behind most of the first half due to fumbles.

 

I know a lot of Knights fans wanted to make the playoff but that was always going to be unrealistic unless they had beaten multiple ranked Power 5 teams. Twenty-five games in a row, a conference title and some incredible wins should be celebrated like nobody’s business down in Orlando and anybody who is disappointed needs to quickly realize just how special this run is.

 

Another trip to the Fiesta Bowl against an LSU squad who might be down several key (NFL-bound) players represents a big opportunity. As we’ve seen in the past, this group typically takes that and runs with it. Don’t put it past this group to pull a shocker out in the desert because as we’ve seen, they’re never out of a game and know just how to flip the switch.

 

4. Fresno State gets over the hump on the blue turf

While most of America’s attention was focused on blowout title games in the Big Ten and ACC on Saturday night, smart college football fans were zeroed in on what was happening between Boise State and Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship Game.

 

It had a bit of everything, from smoke blanketing the field after a fireworks show to a missed extra point to a full-on snowstorm raging for most of the night. The ol’ blue turf was a layer of slush by the time this one wrapped up. Even though the scoreboard was paltry by MWC standards, there were still a bunch of impressive plays made and particularly so on defense between two pretty good units.

 

The Bulldogs though, ultimately prevailed to hoist their first conference title since 2013 and cap off an impressive turnaround from the depths of 1-11 two years ago to now. They hadn’t won in Boise since the blue turf was even installed and avenged two earlier losses to the Broncos in the past 12 months to get the last laugh on Saturday night.

 

Appropriately enough, Fresno State got the game-winning score off an option pitch with two of the key pieces of this surge to the top of the standings as transfer QB Marcus McMaryion pitched it to tailback Ronnie Rivers for the overtime touchdown. The latter, whose dad starred at the school back in the '90s, had struggled to get much going in the second half as the conditions worsened (just like his signal-caller) but came up big with the game on the line.

 

The end result: 11-2 on the year with a good chance for elusive win No. 12 against Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl. It was a heck of a season for the Mountain West overall but the most consistent team of the entire campaign will wind up on top. Hats off to the Bulldogs on a well-deserved title and returning to the top 25 with regularity just like they once were.

 

5. UAB, Appalachian State cap off remarkable runs

There’s so much focus on the College Football Playoff nowadays that it really does overshadow some of the better games and stories of championship weekend. Case in point? An excellent back-and-forth between UAB and Middle Tennessee in the Conference USA title game and Appalachian State making big plays to top Louisiana in the first-ever Sun Belt Championship Game.

 

Let’s start with the Mountaineers, who capped off a 10-2 campaign to score their first outright conference title and third overall in a row. Scott Satterfield, who has been connected quite a bit to the opening at Louisville, truly has done a masterful job not only transitioning App State from FCS to FBS but winning at a high level. In a pretty stacked division, the team not only overcame the loss of stud tailback Jalin Moore but also seemed to turn things up a few notches on defense pretty much every game save two and came super close to knocking off Penn State in Happy Valley.

 

We’ll see what the future holds for Satterfield and his excellent staff but hats off to them on the way they’ve navigated this season and kept one of the most successful programs of the past few decades rolling despite the tougher league.

 

Likewise, the job Bill Clark has done has been nothing short of flabbergasting.

 

This was a UAB team that didn’t have a football program two seasons ago and the Blazers not only won eight games a year ago, but followed that up with a conference title and 10-win campaign. The Blazers' defense is as good as they come at the Group of 5 level and that group bounced back from a tough loss the week before to Middle Tennessee to beat the Blue Raiders in a rematch in Murfreesboro. Outside of an inexplicable loss at Coastal Carolina, UAB pretty much ran wild through their schedule. If they can manage to win in their bowl game, it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see them garner some Top 25 love either.

 

There have been a number of great coaching jobs and impressive shows of teams coming together to overcome adversity but it’s all hard to top in 2018 with what happened in Boone and Birmingham.

 

6. Heisman chase has plenty of intrigue heading to New York

I have a Heisman vote like a lot of folks but I can’t remember the last time I was this conflicted leading up to the deadline (5 p.m. ET on Monday). Sure there have been difficult choices like Lamar Jackson over Deshuan Watson in 2016 or the Andrew Luck/Robert Griffin III debate of '11 or going back and forth between Vince Young and Reggie Bush in '05.

 

But there are so many factors heading into this year’s vote to determine the three spots on the ballot and Saturday added even more complications.

 

You can start in Atlanta, where Tua Tagovailoa — the longtime front-runner — was not only injured in Alabama’s fourth-quarter rally, but was very ineffective against one of the better defenses he’s faced prior to leaving the game. While there’s no doubt that he’s been fantastic this season overall and certainly seems like a lock to finish in the top two, I can’t help but continue to notice what Kyler Murray has done in leading Oklahoma to a Big 12 title.

 

And let’s face it, as good as Tagovailoa's numbers are, Murray’s are even more eye-popping. It’s also notable that the OU quarterback is much more of a runner at the position and has meant more to his team’s success (given their defense) because he’s had to play at such a high level every single week in order to get his program the victory. More to the point, Murray has actually played better than last year’s Heisman winner and No. 1 overall draft pick... all while splitting his time for much of the year prior to August with baseball — where he’s a top-10 draft pick.

 

I keep flipping between the two quarterbacks seemingly every hour and I’m sure other voters feel the same. It would not surprise me at all if Tagovailoa holds up the trophy in the end but the decision won’t be a walk in the park like it has been in other years.

 

And then there’s the question as to who might occupy the third spot on the ballot.

 

Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins will probably get a lion’s share of attention given all of the huge numbers (including 51 total touchdowns) he put up for the Big Ten champs. Like Murray, he’s had to play at an extremely high level each weekend to give his team a chance in every game and made jaw-dropping throws every Saturday. Sadly, I think his big game in Indianapolis will overshadow the candidacy of Washington State signal-caller Gardner Minshew because the ’stache was truly outstanding this season, completing better than 70 percent of his passes and leading one of the most improbable runs in the country to 10 wins.

 

Add in the most dominant defensive player in the country in Alabama’s Quinnen Williams and finding three guys, much less putting them in an order one can feel comfortable with for years to come will be a difficult task over the hours to come.

 

7. Most anticipated bowl games

Outside of the big New Year’s Six games, my favorite matchups of the postseason are...

 

*New Mexico Bowl (Utah State vs. North Texas)

Matt Wells has moved on but the two offenses involved in this one will start bowl season off on the right foot.

 

*Boca Raton Bowl (UAB vs. Northern Illinois)

A rare meeting of conference champs pits a feel-good story in the Blazers against the Huskies. Points will be at a premium with these two defenses down in South Florida.

 

*Dollar General Bowl (Buffalo vs. Troy)

Two of the better Group of 5 squads this season will also feature two of the budding big names at head coach too.

 

*Music City Bowl (Purdue vs. Auburn)

Can’t wait to see what Gus Malzahn and Jeff Brohm have in store for this one. Ton of guys who can fly at the skill positions too.

 

*Camping World Bowl (West Virginia vs. Syracuse)

An old Big East rivalry renewed with many, many touchdowns.

 

*Gator Bowl (NC State vs Texas A&M)

Jimbo vs. an ACC team will get the headlines but there are some ridiculously creative offenses involved in this game.

 

*Outback Bowl (Mississippi State vs. Iowa)

Do you want a throwback game to the 1980s? Tune in for this one given the defenses and run games featured here.

 

Stat of the Week

 

 

 

Tweet of the Week

 

 

Superlatives of the Week

 

Best player: Byron Murphy, Washington

Team of the week: Alabama

Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Kirby Smart, Georgia

 

Play of the Week

 

 

Super 16

 

I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s how I voted heading into the postseason:

 

1. Alabama

2. Clemson

3. Notre Dame

4. Oklahoma

5. Georgia

6. Ohio State

7. UCF

8. Michigan

9. Texas

10. LSU

11. Washington

12. Washington State

13. Penn State

14. Florida

15. West Virginia

16. Syracuse

 

Best of the rest: Texas A&M, Kentucky, Iowa State, Fresno State, Appalachian State, Mississippi State, Army, Utah, Cincinnati

 

Pre-snap Reads

 

Cotton Bowl – No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Notre Dame

High-flying offenses are all the rage in college football but I get the feeling this game will turn back the clock a bit given the two defenses involved. I’d trust the Tigers more than the Irish to rip off a big play or two but both sides figure to be fairly methodical in trying to sustain drives and keep things in front of them. We’ll see a bunch of field goals early before Clemson starts converting drives into touchdowns to move on to Santa Clara.

 

Orange Bowl – No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma

Many, many folks will simply write off the Sooners in this one but, as Lee Corso would say, not so fast my friends. While I don’t think Oklahoma will win in the end, I do expect Kyler Murray and Lincoln Riley to team up and put up some points and turn this one into a track meet. Bama’s physicality in the trenches will ultimately win out but don’t be shocked if this one is close into the third quarter before the SEC champs pull away.

 

Rose Bowl – No. 9 Washington vs. No. 6 Ohio State

For the first time in a long while, a traditional Big Ten champion takes on the Pac-12 champion and what juicy matchup this will be. Looking just at the records, folks will pencil in the Buckeyes to roll but that would be a huge disservice to the Huskies’ suffocating defense and giving Chris Petersen a month to prepare. Add in a potential playoff letdown and OSU will need to be careful even if they have the slight edge in what should be a perfect game to ring in the New Year.

 

Sugar Bowl – No. 15 Texas vs. No. 5 Georgia

The Sugar Bowl has been the site of numerous SEC letdowns in years past for missing out on the playoff/BCS title game and we’ll call that happening to the Bulldogs in this one. Mix in Tom Herman’s terrific record as an underdog and the fact that the gap between the two isn’t as great as the rankings suggest and we’ll give the nod to the Longhorns by a field goal in a close, low-scoring affair.

 

Peach Bowl – No. 10 Florida vs. No. 7 Michigan

It seems like everybody is very much over Wolverines vs. Gators but I, for one, am not. This will be a big contest for the Jim Harbaugh narrative tour with a loss and an even bigger one for Dan Mullen to win over Florida fans for real. Both defenses are legit and it will be interesting to see what NFL prospects don’t wind up playing in this one. The Michigan offense has been slightly more trustworthy so they’re the pick but this should be a bit of a rock fight in Atlanta.

 

Fiesta Bowl – No. 11 LSU vs. No. 8 UCF

Calling it now: an unmotivated Tigers squad with a bunch of NFL defections turns the ball over a few times on offense and gets upset by the Knights. LSU has played with fire quite a bit in 2018 and does so again in this game as they lose a close one to UCF, which keeps the streak going in '19.

 

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.

 

(Top photo by Ty Russell, courtesy of www.soonersports.com)

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