Ever since there were whispers of college football instituting a playoff system, expansion has been a hotly debated topic from the commissioner level to the average Joe fan. Everybody has an opinion, everybody has a take.
Yet as fun as discussing a possible six- or eight-team tournament is, the simple fact remains that in this sport, there are really only two or three teams that truly rise to the occasion and have what it takes to win the national title. It's been very apparent the last few years as Clemson and Alabama have traded blows back-and-forth and it was on full display again in 2019 as three undefeated teams separated themselves from the pack.
We spent weeks upon weeks debating who was in and who was out. There was a constant with regards to Ohio State, LSU, and Clemson but beyond that, a revolving door. The field narrowed, then grew, then shrunk again. Every word out of Selection Committee chairman Rob Mullens' mouth was parsed for potential clues about critical future decisions. Sports talk radio the final two weeks of the season was a near-constant refrain of doomsday scenarios.
And yet... just like that, college football worked itself out like it always does.
Going into the weekend, the committee faced three looming questions:
— Utah or the Big 12 champ?
— What if one of the top three loses?
— Who takes the Group of 5 bid?
All three were rendered moot basically by the time the sun set. The Utes lost. The Sooners won. There was no upset in Atlanta and the early drama in the Big Ten turned out to be just for show. Even Memphis managed to lock up a victory to make things easy on that end. Just like that, complicated decisions for the No. 4 spot and Group of 5 bid were taken care of on the field.
Add in Auburn eliminating Alabama in the Iron Bowl and Arizona State upsetting Oregon in the desert last month and this was as easy and painless as the decisions come in the playoff era.
The only splitting of hairs that required any debate at all? A coin flip for the top seed. The stakes: who gets to avoid reigning national champion Clemson in the semifinals.
"The committee holds LSU and Ohio State in the highest regard," Mullens said Sunday. "We flipped them between 1 and 2 three times this season. That's what happens when you work off of a clean sheet of paper with two teams that are so closely matched.
"LSU's dominating performance against an excellent Georgia team was a final piece of information that influenced the committee's vote."
Mullens, who is done with his CFP term and will retreat to Eugene as part of his Oregon athletic director duties, seemed relieved to not receive the normal grilling he's used to hearing when discussing how the committee judges that nexus between eye test and resume for the usual half-dozen teams that are the source for much debate each Tuesday down the stretch run of the season.
Who can blame either? By the time the real standings were announced, there was little to quibble with.
It won't always be this easy for the committee — heck, it might never be — but even the most fervent of supporters for teams left on the outside looking in can admire and agree with the decisions made. Those in charge of the playoff system constantly reinforce a desire to have it all settled between the lines and things certainly were in 2019.
Six other thoughts from Championship Weekend:
2. Where does the Pac-12 go from here?
Last year in this space, this was written following the conference's championship game:
"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... 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.
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."
Well, put that on repeat after the Ducks thumped Utah to knock the South champs out of the playoff race and New Year's Six altogether.
Sadly for commissioner Larry Scott, his conference and the fans who so desperately want to be taken seriously out West, the league will be largely overlooked this postseason once again. Most of the country will tune in to see Justin Herbert and company one final time as Oregon takes on Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 but for many, that will be the extent of national conversation about the Pac-12 on the positive end of the spectrum.
Far more attention will be paid on missing the playoff yet again — going a little over four years (and counting) without an appearance in the only two games that really matter. Next season will mark a full 15 years since USC won the conference's last national title and there have been only a handful of close calls to ending that streak in the meantime. Who knows what perception had been had Michael Dyer's knee been down or Cardale Jones reverted into a backup quarterback but this is just where the league is at the moment.
Maybe more concerning than that though? This cycle shows no signs of letting up. South champion Utah graduates the bulk of their starters, Oregon says farewell to Herbert, linebacker Troy Dye and others. The Trojans remain incapable of taking their place atop the pecking order with Clay Helton in charge and Washington's Jimmy Lake is an unknown as a first-time head coach following the shocking resignation of Chris Petersen. Oregon State and Colorado do look like they're rebuilding but those two are not going to change anybody's perception anytime soon (just as Arizona State, Cal and others won't either).
It's not a great time for the Pac-12 on the gridiron and until there's real, meaningful wins on the national stage, that's not changing. We'll see where the league goes from here but as we've seen recently, the answer is typically nowhere.
3. Mike Norvell rides off into the sunset
Florida State targeting Norvell had swirled pretty much from the moment the job opened as the name to keep in mind if the big fish like the Bob Stoops of the world showed no interest (which, well, they didn't). While that was not made official until later, the prospect of the Memphis head coach moving on was definitely in the background in the time leading up to the AAC title game and during the contest itself.
Luckily for Norvell, he managed to finally get over the hump and hoist the league trophy while riding off into the sunset having capped off the program's remarkable turnaround this decade from one of the worst programs anywhere to the best the Group of 5 has to offer.
The Tigers' win was a fitting tribute to the season overall in the conference, with big plays sprinkled throughout a close and hard-fought effort that had much more defense involved than outsiders tuning in would have expected. Antonio Gibson was all over the field rushing and receiving and was matched by opposite number Michael Warren nearly pound-for-pound. There were tons of swings of momentum and while fans were right to complain about a few blown calls, it was one of the most entertaining (and close) games of championship weekend.
Now Norvell can rest easy with his job done, elevating what Justin Fuente had helped turnaround. He is responsible for half of the entire program's four double-digit win seasons and set the school record for wins no matter what happens in the Cotton Bowl. This column noted how tough it is to move from being very good to great but Memphis found a way to cross that gap in 2019 as a magical season concluded against the Bearcats.
4. Clemson is a favorite to repeat but this final four might be the best ever
This is the second year in a row where the playoff has featured a trio of undefeated teams and, when you add Oklahoma's improved defense to go with their historically efficient offense, it's not hyperbole to think that this could be the greatest quartet of the playoff era. Last season it was pretty clear that Notre Dame wasn't on the same level as the two title game participants and the Sooners' offense was nowhere near worthy of their final ranking. While the 14-0 vs. 14-0 title game between behemoths will be hard to ever top, what we're about to see on Dec. 28 could be just about as good as it gets in the sport.
Top to bottom, the first edition of Alabama/Oregon/Florida State/Ohio State was probably best in terms of depth prior to 2019. But even that Crimson Tide team wasn't the offensive juggernaut like it has been recently and both the Ducks and Seminoles had plenty of flaws. Heck, the program that won it all had to sneak into the field thanks largely to a small sample size with a backup QB.
All of which brings us to the top three seeds this year in what might be the greatest collection of talent since 2004, when USC, Oklahoma, and Auburn all finished undefeated and produced a litany of college football and NFL greats. History has told us they were stacked and, even being caught up in the moment, we might be approaching them with LSU, Ohio State, and Clemson.
You want elite pass rushers or top offensive linemen? Rosters where five-stars not only dot the depth chart but have lived up to the billing? High-end signal-callers and incredible tailbacks? All that and, by the way, a quarterback who has been a part of four of these tournaments and is 37-3 as a starter on team No. 4.
The semifinal matchups will be dissected a dozen different times in the coming three weeks but it's the reigning champs who might be the most feared of the bunch — for good reason. They've been here before, on this stage, and delivered in the clutch. The numbers suggest that their dominance is even greater than it was a year ago — when they bludgeoned Notre Dame and Alabama to the point where the long offseason was filled with those think-pieces asking questions about where each went from here.
Dabo Swinney is never one to shy away from promoting his own team but you can see a bit of fiery anger anytime there's that No. 3 next to his program's name. It was no mistake, when he addressed his team upon learning they were going to the Fiesta Bowl Sunday afternoon, that he mentioned they're the only undefeated to drop from No. 1 to their current seed line over the course of the season despite laying waste to their competition. The fact is, the entire narrative around this group is based almost entirely on their lone close win against UNC and the general state of things in the ACC.
While their conference was unquestionably mediocre and the worst of the Power 5, this is college football we're talking about and going out week in and week out and holding opponents under 17 points while scoring 40-plus with regularity is damn impressive no matter what field it's happening on or what logo is on the jersey.
Hell, Clemson's backups outscored the ACC Coastal champ 21-17 in Charlotte on Saturday and that's much more about the depth of the team than it is about the state of the league they play in.
"I've seen Ohio State a few times, and they're unbelievable," Swinney said on ESPN. "We've played them a couple times (the 2013 Orange Bowl and 2016 Fiesta Bowl, also a semifinal), and this is easily the most talented and complete Ohio State team we've played."
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day can say the exact same thing too. That is perhaps the scariest part if you're on any of the four coaching staffs involved and why the final four this time around is an absolute delight for those watching at home.
5. Smurf Turfers flew under the radar too
By virtue of their BCS buster status, nicknames like "Murder Smurfs," some indelible trick plays and their famous blue turf, Boise State has been one of the most visible programs in the country for much of the past decade. It seemed like they were on the national radar in a big way when they knocked off Florida State to start this year and were pretty widely considered as the favorite, as they often are, as the best of the Group of 5.
Then injuries hit at the most important position on the field and they fell flat on the road at BYU by the all too deceptive score of 28-25 for their lone blemish of the year.
For those that didn't follow along closely — or just wrote them off after falling in Provo — however, overlooked one of the better coaching jobs in the country this year by Bryan Harsin and his staff.
Start with losing defensive coordinator Andy Avalos over the offseason, who has proven to be a real difference-maker in helping Oregon win the Pac-12 after moving to Eugene. The Broncos merely improved by nearly a half yard per play on that side of the ball without him and were even more stout against both the run and the pass in general. Offensively, replacing a ton of production and senior leadership was always going to have been a challenge and yet, despite a few growing pains, there was still plenty in the tank to roll through the Mountain West undefeated with only two close calls.
Oh, and they did so while rotating in three different quarterbacks over the course of the year — going from a true freshman to somebody a year removed from an ACL tear to a little-used backup from the junior college ranks.
Just Boise State being Boise State in rolling right along to another impressive year even though they had to be a tad disappointed at missing out on the Cotton Bowl. That may not have been in the cards but it doesn't take away from the job the staff (and players) did on the turf with this go around.
6. Heisman finalists only intrigue heading to New York
It's been an anticlimactic Heisman Trophy race in 2019 after it had initially looked like it was going to be a thrilling one. A crowded field included historic numbers from transfers like Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields, plus all-around great seasons from others like Jonathan Taylor, Chubba Hubbard, and Chase Young.
All of which has been pretty much rendered moot by Joe Burrow's incredible Cinderella story culminating in an SEC title on Saturday in Atlanta. The senior is still on pace to set the FBS record for completion percentage and not only has led an LSU renaissance this year but has been utterly superb on the biggest stages the sport has to offer.
The trophy is his to lose and it would be beyond shocking if he doesn't win by close to a record margin.
Now all that's left is to sort out who might join him in feigning surprise at the Heisman ceremony. The Ohio State trio of Fields/Young/J.K. Dobbins might take away votes from each other but they all have a good shot at making it to the Big Apple. Perhaps Jalen Hurts garners enough support in the South to make the cut as well but the trust in charge has been selective on the dividing line before.
Either way, just like the College Football Playoff, the Heisman race lacked much drama in the end.
7. Most anticipated bowl games
Outside of the big New Year's Six games, my favorite matchups of the postseason are...
Citrus Bowl (Michigan vs. Alabama): Harbaugh vs. Saban, the headlines are already writing themselves. Fascinating to see what players on both sides might skip out with an eye on the NFL draft and how that's managed but this one is going to be huge shaping the perception of both programs heading into 2020.
Las Vegas Bowl (Washington vs. Boise State): Talk about a poetic ending to Chris Petersen's coaching career (for the moment) as his soon to be ex-team faces off against his actual former program. While it's been long enough since he's been in blue that most of the players won't care, there's a ton of familiar faces on both sides for this one in what is sure to be one of the more emotional moments in Vegas not in a late-night wedding chapel. One thing is for sure: there will be trick plays aplenty.
Liberty Bowl (Navy vs. Kansas State): Fans of neither program may not find this to be all that "sexy" but the Wildcats' coaching staff mostly taking part in their first major bowl and doing so against the option offense is pretty cool. Plus the game should be over in about two hours with a combined 10 pass attempts.
Camping World Bowl (Iowa State vs. Notre Dame): File this away as a Matt Campbell job interview game?
Cheez-It Bowl (Washington State vs. Air Force): This bowl has a special place in every CFB fan's heart after last year's contest. This time around we get Mike Leach's Air Raid facing off against the Falcons' option. The contrast in styles is as fun as the press conferences should be.
Hawaii Bowl (Hawaii vs. BYU): Both of these teams have had somewhat bizarre seasons and are plenty capable of breaking out a half-dozen trick plays for some Christmas Eve fun.
LendingTree Bowl [Miami (Ohio) vs. Louisiana]: The MAC champs vs. the runners up in the Sun Belt has all the makings of a fun one and the fact that it's on a night all to itself in the time between the semifinals and title game makes it even better. The RedHawks' defense should keep them in this one but they'll have a hard time containing all the speedy skill position guys for the Ragin' Cajuns.
Tweet of the Week
Play of the Week
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Joe Burrow, LSU
Team of the week: Oregon
Goat of the week: Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Here's my latest ballot in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:
1. Ohio State
9. Penn State
15. Notre Dame
Best of the rest: Michigan, Iowa, Boise State, Appalachian State, Virginia, USC, Navy, Cincinnati, SMU
Cotton Bowl — Memphis vs. Penn State
We'll see if new FSU head coach Mike Norvell winds up coaching in this one but this feels like a game that is closer than it should be for about a quarter or quarter and a half before the Nittany Lions' talent allows them to pull away. The Tigers break off some big plays here and there but turnovers from Brady White help PSU net a convincing win.
Orange Bowl — Florida vs. Virginia
Not sure if either of these two programs will come in fully motivated to play in this one and the Gators are probably going to deal with a few NFL deflections as well. Still, talent and coaching sides with Dan Mullen's team, who probably can't fully contain Bryce Perkins but still manage a double-digit win in the end.
Rose Bowl — Oregon vs. Wisconsin
The Granddaddy of them all has a high bar to clear if it wants to be as good as the last time these two teams met in Pasadena. The battle in the trenches should be super fun to watch in particular as each offensive line has a claim on being the best unit in the country. At first glance, you would think that this is destined to be a game that hits the under and wraps up in two and a half hours but some people will be surprised by the skill position players not named Jonathan Taylor too. The Ducks wind up winning by a field goal in a close one.
Sugar Bowl — Baylor vs. Georgia
The Bears figure to be super excited to play in a major bowl game after what they've gone through the last few years but will the Bulldogs? They're going to have some staff and player turnover between now and New Orleans and they can't just expect to show up and roll given the names on the front of the jerseys. That said, they narrowly sneak out a win in what turns out to be a back-and-forth one between two normally stout defenses.
Peach Bowl — LSU vs. Oklahoma
Everybody expects the Tigers to just show up and roll but in the words of Lee Corso, not so fast my friends. The Sooners' defense is better than they get credit for and you know that Lincoln Riley has some stuff saved up to finally get over the semifinal hump. Stops will be few and far between so if Jalen Hurts doesn't turn the ball over as he has been lately, OU makes things interesting well into the fourth quarter. Joe Burrow and LSU have the ball last however and get the victory.
Fiesta Bowl — Ohio State vs. Clemson
The last time these two played, the Buckeyes were the big favorite and yet didn't score a point. They'll get on the board this time around but there's a reason that nobody wants to play Clemson right now. As impressive as Ryan Day has been in taking over for Urban Meyer, this might be a spot where Dabo Swinney's experience — to say nothing of his team's — plays a factor. Tigers by two field goals in a hard-fought affair in the desert.
— 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 @LSUfootball)