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Seven-Step Drop: Imperfect Season Creates an Appropriately Imperfect College Football Playoff

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It wasn’t even close.

That was the message the College Football Playoff Selection Committee sent out Sunday afternoon in announcing the final four. Three tickets were punched quite easily and that fourth spot, well, it was a lengthy debate that wound up not turning into much of one at all.

No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 Georgia and... drum roll... No. 4 Alabama

“Our protocol states that our job is to, and I quote, 'select the four best teams from among several with legitimate claims to participate.' The Committee viewed Alabama and Ohio State as teams with legitimate claims to participate,” chairman Kirby Hocutt told the media. “Alabama has one loss, and it was on the road to now No. 7 Auburn. Ohio State has two losses, one by 15 points at home to Oklahoma, and the other more damaging by 31 points at unranked Iowa. Alabama is superior in just about every statistical category that we think is important.

“The Committee's conclusion that Alabama is the fourth-best team in the nation was widespread and strong. It was unequivocal. It was informative, for instance, to hear the coaches' point of view about how and why they believed Alabama is a better team than Ohio State.”

Every college football season is unique and every year the title contenders will differ in ways big and small. That has been true whether you’re determining the national champion via a poll, using computers or cobbling together a committee to pick four. The imperfections, much more so than the perfect performances, are part of the reason the sport is so compelling and great. A full season sees teams evolve (and devolve) and only at the end can you see the trends that emerged — and who truly can hold that trophy up high in the end.

For the past month in particular, the debate harped on by most has centered on good wins. Who have you beat and how good were they? Fans far and wide made sure to note, especially in that dreadful performance in Kinnick by the Buckeyes, that losses are a pretty big red flag and a good indicator of a team too.

All that talk though, was all moot. OSU’s great defensive line didn’t make up for coverage busts. The downfield passing game that was supposed to come through never did with J.T. Barrett at quarterback and the vaunted one-two punch in the running game Ubran Meyer had assembled seemed to wax and wane in terms of how it was used. The wins over Penn State, Michigan State and others were nice but made the performances against Indiana, Michigan, and of course Iowa, all the more frustrating.

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Alabama, for all the concern over finding a consistent offense or stopping the run, simply had fewer issues as a talented team that imposed its will more often against opponents. One flawed team simply got in ahead of another, more flawed team in the end. It was in many ways a perfect summation of the imperfect 2017 season as a whole.

“We had said that Alabama was the better football team than Ohio State each and every week (this year),” Hocutt added. “We watched and we saw Ohio State strengthen their résumé this week with a win over Wisconsin, with a Big Ten championship, but it wasn't enough in the eyes of the Selection Committee to overtake Alabama for that fourth and final spot.”

The Crimson Tide have been a staple of the playoff era but it’s universally agreed that this is Nick Saban’s worst team he’s taken to the derby. That says far more about others this season than it does about the No. 4 seed. This wasn’t a precedent-setting move by the committee to include two teams from a single conference or deny the first two-loss team in the dance, it was simply acknowledging the fact that there was a carrot out there for the taking and Alabama was the only one standing around who wasn’t distracted enough to reach out for it.

There will be plenty of people who will now say that there’s no incentive to schedule non-conference matchups with big-time opponents, citing Ohio State’s Oklahoma loss and Alabama playing Mercer late in the year. This is not only short-sighted but plain wrong. Just last year, that big win over the Sooners significantly helped the Buckeyes’ playoff case and was a deciding factor in them being in the final four, forcing the debate to be between Washington and Penn State instead of all three teams.

This season, Baker Mayfield’s heroics (and flag-planting) were a huge reason why his team was the No. 2 seed.

The biggest takeaway instead? Don’t lose to a mediocre team by five scores. Somewhat ironically, Alabama’s lone blemish — that Iron Bowl loss — simultaneously opened the door for the Buckeyes... and closed it at the same time as we came to find out.

“Wins matter, losses matter. How you play in the wins matter, how you play in the losses matter,” said Hocutt. “When you're doing a detailed discussion, taking a deeper dive on what separates teams, I would tell you all of it matters.”

Indeed it does, from start to finish and everything in between. It’s a grueling year-long test for the best teams in the country and four emerged for the right to play for the national title.

No playoff will be perfect and that seems just about right for a sport that chases excellence but deals in avoiding failure.

2. Clemson cements status as the favorite

Two of the hardest things to do in college football might be going undefeated for an entire season and winning back-to-back national titles. The margin for error in the sport is so razor thin, especially nowadays, that it’s so tough to be able to get the players, avoid key injuries and nail down the right game plan every week to make it all possible.

Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney

Yet here Dabo Swinney is, capturing the No. 1 overall seed again and looking very much like the team to beat in the final four given how well the Tigers have been playing. That includes a masterful outing in the ACC title game against a banged-up Miami squad, in which Clemson never lost control of the flow and did just about anything it wanted in the first and third quarters. When you start playing backup quarterbacks at the start of the fourth quarter in a championship contest, chances are you have it figured out.

Though it is not the best of luck to draw Alabama for a rubber match in Sugar Bowl and allow Nick Saban to game plan over a full month for you, the top seed should rightfully be favored to hold up the gold trophy for the second straight year. Unlike that Deshaun Watson-powered group of 2015-16 however, this Kelly Bryant-led team is leaning even more on their dominant defensive line and the ability to get speedy skill position guys into space. Having multiple options at running back has really allowed for some added creativity on offense as well.

It’s been a remarkable rise for Swinney and Clemson the past few years from good to great and the program really shows no signs of stopping now, as another unexpected title in the trophy case would really cement a South Carolina-based dynasty in college football. The games in New Orleans and potentially Atlanta probably won’t be as easy as they were up in Charlotte but the high-level confidence and execution coming from the Tigers makes them just as tough an out in the postseason as before.

3. Georgia’s rebound caps stellar start for Kirby Smart

Last month on the Plains, Auburn didn’t just beat their Deep South rivals — they beat Georgia down in every phase of the game. Simple runs that had come so easily to Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and the Bulldogs’ offense were painful to watch develop and poor freshman quarterback Jake Fromm seemed like he had a guy in his face on each drop back.

Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart

After the first series on Saturday in Atlanta though, the script was flipped. Thanks to a monster performance by Roquan Smith and his compatriots, that UGA front seven seemed to get unleashed. The Tigers’ offensive line, which had developed since that loss to LSU into one of the better units in the country, was suddenly overwhelmed on each snap and a banged-up Kerryon Johnson never got going with few clear running lanes.

While Georgia had a great game plan and executed, you wonder if there was also a bit of a fatigue factor going on for Gus Malzahn’s group. After all, they got amped up twice in three weeks for the No. 1 team in the country and had some really physical battles in the trenches of both. Often times there’s only so much left in the tank after a long campaign and it seemed like there was a wall they hit starting in that second quarter — something even Saban later referenced on TV.

Either way, what a terrific season this has been for Smart in only his second as a head coach. Some wondered if the old alum was just going to be another poor man’s Saban or if he really was going to be the guy to get the team over the hill and into the national and SEC title picture. He still needs to keep this going for the next few years to really cement his status but the early returns thus far are excellent and there’s enough talent on this roster to definitely win it all in January. We’ve seen plenty of young coaches find success early on and win rings and Smart might just be next in line.

4. Big 12 title game costs the league... only not as expected

From the moment it was (re)instituted, just about everybody could predict the Big 12 conference title game would be coming back to bite the league in the rear end at some point. That ended up happening right away in 2017... at least in the wallet.

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Had the round-robin league simply stayed idle on title game weekend, Oklahoma would still be ticketed for the Rose Bowl and a 10-2 TCU would be able to either stay home for the Cotton Bowl or take a trip to play in the Fiesta Bowl. Instead the Big 12 will take a roughly $4 million hit in the coffers thanks to the Horned Frogs having that extra loss in Arlington, which was such a convincing beatdown that it caused them to drop from the New Year’s Six to the Alamo Bowl.

One understands the theory behind a Big 12 title game (an opportunity to add a top 25 win) but it sure seems like it’s going to hurt the conference’s already slim chances for a second (or third) New Year’s Six bid more often than not, even if the committee doesn’t like to move teams down much after championship game losses. It’s especially painful, however, in years where the Sugar Bowl serves as a semifinal to box out the league even further. Yes there’s added revenue from that big event in JerryWorld but it all seems like rolling the dice on an uneven table.

At least in terms of silver linings for TCU fans, the Frogs’ tumble also pushed their in-state rival Texas Tech to Birmingham instead of having an easy bowl trip down the road to Dallas.

5. USC’s title run

Credit where credit is due: Clay Helton has once again done an impressive job rallying the Trojans to finish the year on a high note.

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Twelve straight games without a bye, injuries galore and the difficulty of playing 12 Power 5 opponents… that’s a lot for any team to handle and yet they’re ticketed for another top-six finish if they win their bowl game against No. 5 Ohio State. It probably wasn’t the season as a whole that you would have expected in August from QB Sam Darnold but he still made some jaw-dropping plays when he needed to on Friday night in order to keep USC out front of a pesky Stanford team in the Pac-12 title game.

That said, while the Trojans have been better as of late, this still isn’t a team that showed any indication it was among the sport’s elite and belonged in the playoff discussion. They played only two complete games (against the Cardinal the first time in the Coliseum and at Arizona State) but were otherwise plagued by penalties, lack of focus or some questionable play calling. It didn’t help that the lone top-notch team on the schedule — Notre Dame — resulted in a blowout that wasn’t even close up in South Bend.

This was still a very good year in Los Angeles… even if it wasn’t a great one. It ended with the first Pac-12 title since the league expanded and was the first conference championship for the school since 2008. USC fans expect to be among the elite of the elite in the sport given their history but they’re not quite there yet if 2017 was any indication. Still, hoisting the trophy up in Santa Clara was a great accomplishment and a testament to how hard the players and staff fought to make it happen with the deck stacked somewhat against them.

Now it’s time to really see how much progress is being made in cardinal and gold in the Cotton Bowl.

6. Best bowl matchups

The flip side of so many teams being bunched together in terms of competitiveness is that the postseason is filled with some stellar matchups. My early top 10 non-semifinal games of the bunch to watch (for many different reasons):

Cotton Bowl: Ohio State vs. USC

Camping World Bowl: Virginia Tech-Oklahoma State

Dollar General: Toledo-Appalachian State

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Fiesta Bowl: Penn State-Washington

Armed Forces Bowl: San Diego State-Army

Foster Farms Bowl: Arizona-Purdue

Citrus Bowl: Notre Dame-LSU

Peach Bowl: Auburn-UCF

Arizona Bowl: Utah State-New Mexico State

Sun Bowl: NC State-Arizona State

Related: Ranking All 39 College Football Bowls for 2017

7. Group of 5 fun

While most of the attention was on the playoff the past 48 hours, the conference title games in the Group of 5 on Saturday proved to be as much — if not more — fun than their big brother counterparts.

You can start in Orlando. The defensive purists may not have been thrilled at the sight of the UCF-Memphis back-and-forth but that is not the case for just about everybody else watching as the two traded blows like middleweight fighters over four quarters. Though it was in a losing effort, I’m not sure how anybody could walk away from the game and not think Tigers wideout Anthony Miller was the best player on the field and it only further underscored how ridiculous it was that he wasn’t a Biletnikoff Award finalist.

Still, hats off to the Knights for pulling out two incredible wins late the past two weeks to secure an undefeated regular season and a conference title. Given all the distractions going on with their head coach (a transition that happened seamlessly and impressively) and the fact that they hadn’t really played any close games in the second half, you can tell why this was a special team that earned that sterling record in 2017.

Speaking of reaching down deep and finding a little extra to grab the win, Boise State did that as well on the blue turf to pull out a hard-fought victory over Fresno State — who had just beaten them the week prior. The Broncos’ defense only allowed two touchdowns in the second quarter and otherwise shut the Bulldogs out, paving the way for Brett Rypien to engineer an impressive 90-yard, game-winning drive late in the fourth. This column has been hard on Bryan Harsin’s team but this has been a terrific second half surge since looking out of sorts in September in order to capture the Mountain West title for the first time since 2014.

"It's 1,991 days since our last championship game, nobody's counting, though," Harsin said.

It’s too bad that Boise win was overshadowed by the drama in the Big Ten title game, as well as the thrilling finish in Jonesboro as Troy came back — twice — to beat Arkansas State and share the Sun Belt title (first since 2010) with Appalachian State. QB Brandon Silvers ended up scoring the winner with just 17 seconds left on the clock and that completed a wild fourth quarter that featured four touchdowns in the final eight minutes and included a 100-yard, pick-six by the Trojans that should have sealed it.

Elsewhere, Lane Kiffin’s Owls continued their domination of North Texas this season in the Conference USA championship and Toledo predictably trounced Akron for the Rockets’ first MAC title since 2004.

It’s been a really fun campaign beyond the big boys and that continued through the final week of the regular season too.

Stat of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

Best player:Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

Oklahoma Sooners QB Baker Mayfield

Projected College Football Semifinals: Clemson over Alabama, Oklahoma over Georgia

Team of the week: New Mexico State

Honorary Les Miles goat of the week: Urban Meyer, Ohio State

Quote of the week: "It was a little white-knuckle time for all of us.” — Nick Saban

Play of the Week

The real MVP of the weekend was this guy.

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 the postseason:

1. Clemson

2. Oklahoma

3. Georgia

4. Alabama

5. Ohio State

6. Auburn

7. USC

8. Wisconsin 

9. UCF

10. Penn State

11. Miami

12. Notre Dame

13. TCU

14. Stanford

15. Washington

16. Oklahoma State

Best of the rest: LSU, Michigan State, Washington State, Northwestern, Virginia Tech, NC State, Louisville, Toledo, San Diego State

Pre-snap Reads

Georgia vs. Oklahoma (Rose Bowl – CFP Semifinal)

Can the Sooners stop the run? Can the Bulldogs’ secondary hold up against the likely Heisman Trophy winner? Those are two of the biggest questions for the Granddaddy of them all. Oklahoma’s offensive line might be one of the few groups who can help neutralize that speedy front seven UGA has and it doesn’t take much for Baker Mayfield to create an opening down the field or have Rodney Anderson burst through for a big game. Expect Lincoln Riley to push the pace early to put extra pressure on Jake Fromm to keep up with his opposite number in what feels like a game where the first to 31 wins.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oklahoma
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Georgia

Alabama vs. Clemson (Sugar Bowl – CFP Semifinal)

I’ve been higher on the Crimson Tide than most this season but they’ll need to spend the rest of the month coming up with some wrinkles on offense because it figures to be tough for either side to move the ball given the defenses in this one. Considering the vast amount of talent on hand, it wouldn’t be shocking to see a lot of one-on-one matchups down at the dome and hitting those big plays when the opportunity presents itself will be key for both Jalen Hurts and Kelly Bryant. This seems like a game where it’s close at halftime before the Tigers make some plays in the third quarter for some breathing room and then hold on to win by a score or so in a game that should not be a repeat of their past shootouts.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Clemson
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Alabama

— 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.