The College Football Playoff selection committee had almost gotten away free and clear, without having to make any truly tough decisions this season. Although USC won Friday night (preserving its sneaky playoff campaign), Saturday began playing out exactly how the committee needed in order to avoid controversy: Oklahoma manhandled TCU in the Big 12 title game, eliminating one of the biggest sources of chaos left on the schedule; then, Georgia and Clemson rolled to their respective conference championships, punching certain tickets to the playoff as well. Three teams were in, and the fourth would have been obvious if then undefeated Wisconsin could just take the Big Ten title over Ohio State.
But, in college football, the powers that be rarely get so lucky. When turf permitted, the Buckeyes handled the Badgers Saturday night, setting up a nightmare decision for the committee that was always going to leave somebody angry: Two-loss Big Ten champ Ohio State? Or one-loss Alabama, who spent Saturday watching the SEC championship from Tuscaloosa? (Or the Trojans, to whom our model perhaps surprisingly gave a 20 percent playoff probability on Sunday morning?) In the end, the committee picked Alabama — but the debate will rage on over the month to come.
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On Alabama’s side were most of the major statistical yardsticks experts use to evaluate teams. That was true both in terms of backward-looking accomplishments — the Tide rank fourth in Strength Of Record, a measure of how impressive a team’s record was given its schedule (OSU ranks seventh) — and forward-looking talent — ’Bama is the nation’s top team according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, which is designed to predict future outcomes (OSU isn’t an especially close second). The Crimson Tide also dominated their games more thoroughly than the Buckeyes, and came out slightly ahead in FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, a rolling assessment of each team’s performance over time. The overall, season-long résumé metrics clearly favored Alabama.
However, Ohio State could claim something Alabama couldn’t: A conference championship. (Specifically, in a conference various power ratings consider either the toughest or second-toughest in the country.) That is supposed to matter a lot: According to the selection committee’s guidelines, they “will be instructed to place emphasis on winning conference championships, strength of schedule, and head-to-head competition when comparing teams with similar record and pedigree.” Only once in playoff history — ironically, when OSU made the playoff under similar circumstances last season — had the committee ever slotted in a team that didn’t win its conference (or even play for its conference crown). Such titles are perceived to be so crucial that conferences have specifically added championship games in an attempt to boost their teams’ playoff chances.
But the selection committee proved Sunday that conference titles aren’t everything. Defying efforts to reduce playoff qualification to a series of boxes that teams can check off, they appear to have taken a more holistic view of the season in total. Although there were cases to be made for both the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide, Alabama is generally considered the best team in the country by oddsmakers, and it would probably have been wrong to exclude them from the playoff. It’s unfortunate that they had to get in at the expense of a worthy Buckeyes squad, but until the College Football Playoff field is expanded to eight teams, two-loss major-conference teams are usually at risk of being left out of the proceedings.
And now that the playoff is set, we should be in for a highly entertaining college football final four. We’ll get to see the nation’s best offense (Oklahoma) face a Georgia team that excels at everything, and a clash of two top defenses in a rematch of last year’s Clemson-Alabama championship game. Of course, we’ll have to slog through the annual Army-Navy matchup, the formality of Baker Mayfield’s Heisman victory and a bunch of lesser bowls to get there — but it should all be worth the nearly month-long wait.