College football is a sport based on debate and obfuscation. Everything is nebulous, which includes even that typically black-and-white distinction of the win-loss column.
Where else does a win not really count if you barely accomplished it or you can simply explain away losses based on limited information and an incomplete picture?
This is the world the College Football Playoff Selection Committee deals in five weeks a year. There are endless debates about this team and that, with one poor sap being thrown to the wolves on national TV (and to the larger national media) to explain away minutia and split hairs between one obviously flawed squad and another.
But for one week — the final one — clarity arrives. The cloudiness surrounding the margins dissipates and we’re largely left making the quick turn of attention from the immediate past to the shiny new object of a national championship chase that feels just and right.
It has become a defining characteristic of the CFP era for the most part, much as it did again in 2021.
Selection Committee chair Gary Barta was previously the same "sap" who had to have the life drained out of him explaining how one conference rival was ranked above another despite losing head-to-head. Yet on Sunday he looked like he had recently emerged from a spa treatment and far removed from any kind of late-night sessions tinkering with the final top 25.
That Barta took four questions, which took some prodding to eventually balloon to six, during his final College Football Playoff media availability said plenty.
This year there was no major controversy. There really hasn’t been with regards to the final four save the first time around, when the new system invited plenty of confusion and the lone decision to nitpick with the committee was ultimately proven right in retrospect.
Like the painted lines and every perfect blade of grass that will dot the fields for the two semifinal games, this was as clean-cut as it could be in landing upon Alabama, Michigan, Georgia and Cincinnati.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a close call. One would be forgiven if one of the committee members flew home and watched "Any Given Sunday" given how important one inch became. Heck, Barta would do well to send a nice gift basket to Baylor safety Jarion McVea for his diving tackle that prevented Oklahoma State’s Dezmon Jackson from scoring a literal inch away from the pylon.
Had that play not happened in the Big 12 title game, then perhaps we would have had some real heated talking points and a true bout of chaos in the sport. Could you imagine the animosity between the Big 12 and the AAC then? Especially in light of the fact that the two league offices sit half a mile from each other and each was involved quite heavily in a protracted realignment dance this past summer.
Alas, toss that scenario into the "what if" pile. The CFP was saved from such chaos by a play made on the field just a few minutes away from where the committee itself was watching on in cramped chairs and re-heated hotel lunch.
Instead we get a pair of games that feature four good but obviously flawed teams that make this a tournament worth watching for the potential surprises at the end. And storylines? Well, it has those in spades.
There’s a true, glass-shattering Cinderella story. There’s a blue blood that’s been through the ringer to realize a promise seven years in the making. The one-time favorite suddenly getting questioned amid the weight of crushing expectations four decades removed from their last title.
And then a plucky little underdog-turned-one-seed trying to win back-to-back national titles while their historic head coach plays with so much house money that he’s smiled more in a month than he has in full years previously.
There is not an ounce of controversy among these selections, nor should there be.
Credit Mr. McVea with an assist at the goal line in Arlington and let’s move right on to the games because this year’s College Football Playoff worked itself out nicely. Now it’s time to enjoy the main event.
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Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Bryce Young, Alabama
Team of the week: Utah State
Goat of the week: Kirby Smart, Georgia
Here's my latest ballot in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:
5. Notre Dame
6. Ole Miss
7. Ohio State
10. Michigan State
11. Oklahoma State
Cotton Bowl (College Football Playoff Semifinal) — Cincinnati vs. Alabama
Strange to think that both head coaches are meeting with teams that are far from the best they’ve ever had. The Bearcats were better a year ago when they pushed Georgia to the brink in the Peach Bowl and the Crimson Tide were certainly better in their all-time run to the title in 2020. Possessions could be limited as each team commits to running the ball and slowing the tempo but this has all the makings of a repeat from last year’s semifinal Bama was involved in at AT&T Stadium. The Pick: Alabama -13.5
Orange Bowl (College Football Playoff Semifinal) — Michigan vs. Georgia
It feels like this will harken back to a time where grainy images came through one of just three channels on your oversized TV. Feel free to take note how many times adjectives like "smash mouth" are used to describe one or two of these teams or how many references are made to the extended Harbaugh family in either Athens or Ann Arbor. Something says Aidan Hutchinson will have a monster day as each defense looks stellar before the Bulldogs’ talent advantage eventually takes hold. The Pick: Michigan +7.5
Rose Bowl — Utah vs. Ohio State
What a sea of red Pasadena will be to ring in the New Year. This represents the pinnacle and everything Kyle Whittingham has been striving for in getting his program to this stage and the Utes are playing about as well as anybody not in the final four right now. Draft-related opt-outs could be something to watch with the Buckeyes but their run defense being suspect could be even more of a determining factor for the Granddaddy of them all. The Pick: Utah +6.5
Sugar Bowl — Baylor vs. Ole Miss
Dare we say this just might be one of the more entertaining New Year's Six bowls around given the two fairly evenly matched programs meeting in New Orleans? The chess match alone between Dave Aranda and Lane Kiffin will be worth the price of admission and it wouldn’t be shocking to see a ton of big plays down the field on either side. The Pick: Ole Miss -1.5
Peach Bowl — Pittsburgh vs. Michigan State
Think Pat Narduzzi will be front and center in this one given his connection to both schools? This is a really tough matchup for the Spartans given that they have some issues on the back end and the Panthers throw it around the yard with ease on pretty much every down. Kenny Pickett is down for one last rodeo and it sure seems like this is a great stage for one last huge game with his good buddy Jordan Addison. The Pick: Pittsburgh -3.5
Fiesta Bowl — Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma State
Marcus Freeman’s first game as a head coach of the Irish will be quite the tone-setter to his tenure by facing off against the Cowboys and an equally tough defense. Mistakes by either quarterback figure to determine the tale of the tape in the desert and Notre Dame has gotten the edge in that department the past month of the season. OSU gets on the board early but the new-look outfit from South Bend notch the win. The Pick: Notre Dame -2
Podcast: Instant Reaction to the Top Four and Early CFB Playoff Predictions
— 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.