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Seven-Step Drop: College Football Playoff Selection Committee's Conundrum Sums up Season

Nick Saban

Nick Saban

Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn

When the College Football Playoff was announced with just a four-team setup, many instantly clamored for eight, 16 or even more teams. It was a natural reaction after years of being limited to just two teams for the ultimate prize and four just felt too small.

But the powers at be realized far quicker than most fans that in just about every season there has only been six or so teams who are really deserving and capable of playing for the national title. In most years, the list is even shorter. Such is the case in 2017 as chaos has shaken up the postseason picture after Week 13 and turned everything into much more of a muddled mess.

Every team is flawed, of course, because that’s the nature of college football. But this year feels like those flaws are even more glaring in the title contenders than they have been in other years. That’s why the CFP selection committee’s current conundrum sums up the season at large: there are only a handful of decent options and a whole lot of question marks after that.

Defending national champion and top-ranked Clemson seems to be the most well-rounded of the bunch. The defense is one of, if not the, best in the country and the Tigers have plenty of experience and speed on offense to keep up with just about everybody. Their biggest issue is their lone loss is the worst of any contender but otherwise the resume is strong overall. And the way the program has been built, this might be the safest bet come January when the pressure gets turned up to the max.

Then there’s Oklahoma, which has the best player in the country leading the best offense in town. Their lone loss many months ago doesn’t seem terrible like it did at the time and the Sooners might have a road win over a fellow conference champion when Selection Sunday rolls around. The most glaring weakness is the defense but it’s not like the group is lacking for players with the likes of Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and others.

Then things get somewhat murky. The winner of the rematch between Auburn and Georgia is all but assured a spot in the final four. TCU similarly could beat Oklahoma and have a solid case to take the Sooners’ spot too. But what happens after that for the fourth spot if chalk, as defined by the folks in the Nevada desert, happens?

USC would be 11-2 with two decent road losses but only a single top-25 win. An undefeated Wisconsin would absolutely be in if the Badgers can beat Ohio State on Saturday but Urban Meyer’s team is nearly a touchdown favorite. Should the Buckeyes prevail, they’ll have the stain of that totally uncompetitive loss at Iowa and two top-25 wins — neither of which were on the road. The team has the talent to fill that final spot, but hasn’t played up to it at all in this maddeningly inconsistent year in Columbus.

Which all brings us to the Iron Bowl on Saturday, a triumphant victory for Gus Malzahn (above, right) and his crew as the Tigers dominated the second half against their in-state rivals and look well on their way to another SEC title as part of three top-10 wins in four weeks. But what happened on the Plains was far less about the Tigers and much more about the Crimson Tide. While there are now doomsday scenarios in place that has every fan from Mobile to Gadsden pulling their hair out, it’s also time to take a second and recount what happened.

Alabama, the unanimous best team coming in, lost a road game to a rival who is playing better than anybody in the country. The Tide lost it by two scores in what was otherwise their worst performance dating back to at least the Peach Bowl last season (and more likely well beyond that). While the stellar play of Auburn was the driving force in the outcome of the game, the mistakes and uncharacteristic plays by Nick Saban’s team played a huge role too.

It’s not the end of the world, and in fact it doesn’t keep the Crimson Tide out of the playoff chase at all. In fact, it could even land them right back in the Sugar Bowl where they would have been all along.

The committee isn’t going to like the optics of potentially putting two teams from a weakened SEC in, just like they aren’t going to like the optics of placing flawed Ohio State or USC teams in. They can hope that the Badgers keep doing their thing to make life easy on those in that conference room in Texas but history has proven that there’s always a dash of chaos sprinkled in on championship Saturday. Placing a non-division winner in two years in a row isn’t the best of worlds either.

Their mission statement however, is to place the four best teams. That very well could include an Alabama program that has been a part of every playoff ever, has the best coaching, best roster and best team of anybody they could be up against for a spot in the derby. This isn’t quite the same caliber of a team that we’ve seen in the past from Tuscaloosa but without many better options, perhaps we would be wise to extend the same courtesy we did to Oklahoma after Iowa State and Clemson after Syracuse or even Auburn after the LSU debacle.

Like all things with the 2017 season, it would be fitting. There are not a lot of great options in such a perplexing season of college football, but these are the ones the committee has and will have to make the best of next Sunday. Even if that somehow includes a team that just lost on the doorstep of December.

Other takeaways from the week that was:

2. Welcome back Chip

Before games even got started on Saturday, UCLA landed the biggest fish in the coaching search sea over the weekend, officially announcing the hire of Chip Kelly as the Bruins’ next head coach.

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To start with, it is a stunning coup in the first place for the school to bring Kelly on board. Many in the industry doubted UCLA would have the institutional fortitude to actually go through with firing Jim Mora and paying that $12 million buyout to embark on another coaching search. Yet they not only did just that — in a swift move that didn’t leak one bit —  they clearly announced their intentions to go right after the former Oregon coach in the press release by listing prominent booster Casey Wasserman as part of the limited search committee. It was a not so subtle hint for those equipped to read the tea leaves and one that actually met and exceeded expectations for the jaded Bruins faithful.

Make no mistake, this is a game-changer in Westwood. The hire of Kelly is not only about grabbing a guy who went 46-7 with the Ducks and was on the doorstep of a national title, but a bat signal that UCLA is no longer a basketball-first school anymore. Hiring Kelly and fending off programs like Florida mean there was a significant amount resources given to the new coach when it comes to staff salary pool, scheduling, recruiting budget, sports science, facilities and more.

The entire thing is a legacy cementer for AD Dan Guerrero, who has rightfully been criticized by the fan base for his football moves. With retirement not far away, he can now ride off into the sunset after finally putting the pieces in place for the most important element of any modern athletic department: football.

Whether Kelly will be successful over the long term is no sure thing but it feels pretty close to it. He instantly makes the Bruins relevant on the West Coast in a way they haven’t been in two decades and has a better track record than anybody in the relatively weak Pac-12 South. While he might not instantly pull the team even with their crosstown rivals, things are going to be very competitive in Los Angeles going forward and who wouldn’t bet on Kelly over the likes of recent division winners Clay Helton and Mike MacIntyre?

Given that this is UCLA, some bumps in the road are still on the horizon for the powder blues. Still, a new era has certainly begun for this program and it promises to bring one of the most exciting shows in college football back and to the home sideline of the Rose Bowl for a change.

3. Dominoes fall for Florida (and Nebraska?)

Kelly wasn’t the only name to get announced as head coach but he was the first big domino to fall. With his decision to head west, it became clear that the Florida search was eventually going to move on quickly and that they did, announcing that they hired Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen on Sunday after a fairly short negotiation period.

While it would have been fascinating to see what Kelly was going to do with the resources the school offered, Mullen remains the best fit for the Gators going forward. He’s familiar with Gainesville as a whole, understands how to do more with less and most importantly can solve the team’s biggest flaw in figuring out the quarterback position. Though Mullen’s personality and working style can turn some off, his relationship with Scott Stricklin is good enough that the two should be able to work through any institutional resistance to changing things up with the program going forward.

No this wasn’t a sexy hire like Kelly would have been (and his name leaking led many fans to get their hopes up too much) but this is a stabilizing hire that has the upside of winning conference titles and getting into the playoff mix. Staff hires, especially on defense, will be key to Mullen winning early and often but if you look out over the landscape of the division, Florida has every reason to believe things are going to be trending in the right direction.

That hire also leaves the other big name on the board with one very obvious destination. A day after Scott Frost’s team was fending off pesky USF in the game of the weekend, Nebraska AD Bill Moos gave a surprisingly frank assessment of the coaching landscape and what kind of homework he’s done so far for the search to replace Mike Riley. One name he confirmed was on the shortlist of six was not surprisingly the Knights’ head coach.

Make no mistake, it would be quite surprising if Frost does not get introduced in Lincoln sometime on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week with a massive deal in hand. It was telling that he declined to even hear out what Florida could offer as they progressed in their own search and it seems like the storybook ending for the former star quarterback and his alma mater is going to be in the cards after all — in what might be the most well received coaching search in recent memory.

One thing’s for certain, the schools above look positively golden compared to what has gone on at Tennessee in the past 24-48 hours.

4. Hottest team nobody is talking about is...?

Well, it just might be Northwestern. The Wildcats throttled their in-state rival Illinois on Saturday and have now run off seven straight wins, including the last two by a 74-7 margin. It’s the first time the school has notched that many wins in a row since Pat Fitzgerald was making tackles instead of coaching them.

Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald

I know it’s trendy to downplay the Big Ten West but this is a very solid football team that is deserving of that top 25 ranking. That blowout loss to Duke early in the season remains confounding when looking back but there’s been a lot to like in this second half turnaround, especially in vastly underrated tailback Justin Jackson.

5. Disappointment returns to Austin

A weekend of news and games probably allowed it to fly a bit more under the radar than it should but Texas Tech’s upset of rival Texas in Austin really drove home what a disappointing season this has been for Tom Herman in his debut with the Longhorns. The Red Raiders completed only nine passes over the final three quarters to pull off the win and stayed in the game despite the backup quarterback taking most of the snaps.

Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman

To further underscore the lackluster season and which side of the ball has been an issue, Texas became first Big 12 team in over a decade (2006) to hold all conference opponents under 30 points in regulation, yet only went 5-4 in league play. Todd Orlando’s defense has been terrific for the most part all year but the offense — Herman’s area of specialty — is painful to watch for what seems like the 10th straight year.

Talent-wise this is not a .500 type of team or anywhere close to it. Given the way the Big 12 played out, you could argue they undershot expectations by a good three games if not more. While this was not going to be a side to challenge Oklahoma or TCU, being eliminated from the championship game race shouldn’t have been ruled out by late October.

Considering the Horns are likely bound for a bowl game where they could face a 10-win Washington team, yet another season underwater on the 40 Acres could still be in store. That’s not a reason to evaluate what Herman can do with the program just yet, but you’d be right to be somewhat concerned if he keeps OC Tim Beck around to call plays again.

Either way, things have played out much like they have been at Texas and that’s not reassuring after the fan base has been through the desert and back the past few seasons after lording over the Big 12 for so long.

6. Coach of the year race

We’re approaching the awards season in earnest but there’s one trophy that might have more competition for it than any of them: coach of the year.

Leading the pack might be UAB’s Bill Clark, who managed a heroic effort — and a heck of multi-year plan — to bring the Blazers back from what amounted to a self-imposed death penalty. After beating winless UTEP at home on Saturday, the team surprised everybody by reaching eight wins and probably should have had more given the way some of those close losses went.

His biggest competition for the job might be a coach who pulled a similar feat, as Jeff Tedford has guided his alma mater from a 1-11 campaign to a 9-3 debut in 2017 and a shot at the Mountain West title. The program had 10 wins total over the past three years prior to him taking the gig and it’s truly remarkable how much better the Bulldogs are on both sides of the ball. Likewise, as much as he riles up social media, Lane Kiffin has FAU on the verge of the Conference USA championship and it’s not unthinkable that he winds up with 11 wins and a top 25 ranking to end the year.

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UCF’s Scott Frost, Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn also are strong contenders.

With the Heisman all but wrapped up and few competitive races elsewhere, whoever gets crowned with one of the coach of the year awards truly can claim the most outstanding season in college football.

7. New Year’s Six watch

With Notre Dame’s surprising (in terms of how it played out) loss on the Farm to Stanford, the postseason picture also has been shaken up well beyond the top four. While the Irish would have been a lock to go to a New Year’s Six bowl had they finished the season at 10-2, things are little more up in the air now — and that will rumble down to impact many, many teams.

At this point, Penn State, the AAC title game winner, the SEC title loser, the ACC title game loser and the Pac-12 championship winner seem like the only sure bets to lock up bids. The latter two are contractually locked up and the American winner is pretty close to the same after Boise State’s loss in Fresno. How many other teams can snag a bid will in part be determined on whether Notre Dame gets a spot or not.

The case against Brian Kelly’s team is the eye test, as they’ve looked meddling in road tests at Miami and Stanford since a big win at home over USC. However, the committee will consider the overall resume of the team and that stacks up favorably at 9-3 on the year, including six wins over teams with a winning record, a strong strength of schedule and a potential convincing victory over a Power 5 conference champion. Given the team’s play earlier in the year and the fact that, as mentioned above, there aren’t a lot of great options, it seems like Notre Dame can sneak into some place like the Cotton Bowl.

Would a three-loss Ohio State receive the same kind of reception if the Buckeyes lose to Wisconsin? The Badgers, should they take a loss in Indianapolis, figure to be ticketed to the Peach Bowl and are probably guaranteed a spot in the major bowl no matter the outcome. How about a 10-3 TCU, if the Horned Frogs were to fall to Oklahoma in a close Big 12 title game?

So yes, the regular season might be over but there’s still a lot in the air still to be decided. 

Stat of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

Pat Narduzzi College Football

Best player:A.J. Brown, Ole Miss

Heisman five: 1. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 2. Bryce Love (Stanford), 3. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 4. Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin), 5. Kerryon Johnson (Auburn)

Projected final four: 1. Clemson, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Auburn, 4. Alabama

Team of the week: Pitt

Honorary Les Miles goat of the week: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

Quote of the week: “It happened at West Virginia, when we knocked off No. 2. It happened in South Carolina and it’s happening here today in Pittsburgh.” — Pat Narduzzi calling his shot against then-No. 2 Miami at halftime.

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 my ballot heading into championship week.

1. Clemson

2. Oklahoma

3. Auburn

4. Georgia

5. Alabama

6. Wisconsin

7. TCU

8. Miami

9. Ohio State

10. USC

11. UCF

12. Penn State

13. Stanford

14. Washington

15. LSU

16. Memphis

Best of the rest: Oklahoma State, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Washington State, Northwestern, Virginia Tech, NC State, Louisville, San Diego State

Pre-snap Reads

Auburn vs. Georgia

This was a blowout on the Plains but one look at the line set in this one tells you that the rematch in Atlanta will be a lot closer. The Bulldogs are out for revenge which could mean they come out a little emotional and overeager to hit the big play. This seems like the type of SEC title game where Georgia jumps out to an early lead before Auburn makes a few plays down the stretch to re-take the lead and hold on for a fourth quarter win by a field goal.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Georgia
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Auburn

TCU vs. Oklahoma

Do not sleep on the Horned Frogs getting a little revenge, though the loss of safety Nick Orr for the first half doesn’t help matters. TCU is one of the few teams built to slow down Baker Mayfield and figure to play much better in cavernous Jerryworld than they did in Norman earlier this year. Question is if Kenny Hill and the offense can come to play and put up enough points of their own? They looked a little rusty last week but might make this interesting for three quarters before the Sooners pull away in the final frame.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oklahoma
College Football Top 25 Rankings: TCU

Ohio State vs. Wisconsin

The key to this game will be Troy Fumagalli, the Badgers’ terrific tight end. He’s not only the biggest part of their passing game but one of the best at the tight end position — one of the Buckeyes’ Achilles heels the past few months. Should he go off, Wisconsin has a great chance of winning this one because their defense is legit and has a real shot at slowing down the OSU run game. J.K. Dobbins busts off a big run late and winds up getting Ohio State in field goal position for the win however. 

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: Ohio State

— 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 courtesy of Getty Images)