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.
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.