INDIANAPOLIS – After his press conference and a pair of television interviews late Saturday night, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer walked off the field at Lucas Oil Stadium. His daughter Nicki, son Nate and son-in-law Corey Dennis flanked him as he departed into the College Football Playoff unknown. As they walked to the locker room, Meyer’s family was engaged in the same résumé comparison conversations that ricocheted around living rooms and bar rooms across America late Saturday. They were comparing the résumés of No. 5 Alabama and No. 8 Ohio State for the final College Football Playoff spot.
When they dug into one of the more peculiar nuances of the CFP debate – LSU’s home loss to Troy – the Meyer family found a good-luck omen. “Troy,” Meyer said, a huge smile creasing his face. “Hey Nicki, it all comes back to Troy.”
That’s the name of Meyer’s grandson, the son of Nicki and Corey. (Meyer the grandpa is known as “Buddy,” a nickname derived from his late father, Bud.) Nicki immediately mentioned another cosmic twist, that this was a big weekend for Troy. He turns 1 on Monday.
The football tie to Troy University, a small school in Southeast Alabama of all places, traces back to the Trojans’ stunning 24-21 upset of LSU on Sept. 30. In the playoff argument paradigm, LSU represents Alabama’s best win. So that means that the best team Alabama beat lost to the third-best team in the Sun Belt.
Meyer said he hadn’t made plans where he’d watch the selection show, but it would likely be at home. He watched the 2014 show from his living room, dropping to his knees when the Buckeyes slipped past Baylor and TCU for the No. 4 spot. He’d noted earlier: “It’s amazing how important this playoff is and how the whole world revolves around it.”
There’s nothing more that Meyer and his family could do but wait and hope. Long after midnight, he departed the field with a comforting karmic twist: “It always comes back to Troy,” he said.
In its brief history, the College Football Playoff committee has largely avoided abject controversy. An existence of relative serenity is about to drastically change.
At noon on Sunday, the CFP committee will be forced to make the most compelling decision in its four-year history. After No. 8 Ohio State’s 27-21 victory over No. 4 Wisconsin on Saturday night in the Big Ten championship, the best matchup in the college football season will be played out in a board room.
The first three teams in the College Football Playoff are clear – Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma. You can argue the order, but they’re in. But the debate for No. 4 marks the first-ever decision with the potential for couch burning, rooftop screaming and timeless YouTube ranting.
The No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff will come down to either No. 8 Ohio State or No. 5 Alabama, and it cuts to the core of college football and the cultures that obsess over it. On paper – and that’s the only place this will be played – it’s riveting: Urban vs. Saban, Big Ten vs. SEC and, really, North vs. South. There will be calls about this debate on the Paul Finebaum show for years, as it cuts to the very identity of the fans and leagues directly involved.
It’s hard to overstate the stakes. But who will get in? Well, that’s easy.
Ohio State should end up as the No. 4 team in the College Football Playoff. Ohio State sputtered around on Saturday, as key turnovers, missed receivers and dropped passes injected more drama in this talent mismatch than should have existed. But the argument that should get Ohio State in the playoff goes much deeper than the tenor and final score of their final game.
Anyone that doesn’t understand why the committee would pick the Buckeyes doesn’t understand how the playoff was born. In June of 2012, college athletics officials announced the creation of the College Football Playoff. They’d only admit it in a deposition or after a seventh drink at the Fiesta Frolic, but there’s an obvious reason why, after decades of resistance and wrangling, the playoff came about. Under oath or under the influence, they’d tell you that the tipping point for creating the College Football Playoff came when Alabama played LSU in January of 2012 in the BCS Championship Game. The chants of “S-E-C, S-E-C” echoing through the sport became too much. Six months later, everything changed in order to assure greater access to the title game.
Five years later, the college football landscape looks drastically different than it did in the first half of 2012. The SEC has dipped from its lofty perch, with victories in three of the past four title games – Florida State, Ohio State and Clemson – all coming from outside the SEC.
This isn’t a column hinting at a conspiracy or collusion, just at common sense and human nature. There will be endless résumé comparisons until the announcement is made. But this decision comes down to common-sense precedent – when comparing teams of similar résumés, college sports officials are going to spread the love as opposed to give the SEC a reason to pound its chest. They’re going to pick the champion of a strong conference over a solid but unspectacular team that didn’t win a strong conference.
Why would athletic directors from the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 vote in a solid SEC team that’s considered great more by reputation than result? Ohio State reaching the playoff will come down to avoiding an SEC monopoly when it’s not patently obvious. And with the SEC the most pedestrian it’s been in well over a decade, it’s difficult to imagine a diverse collection of athletic leaders and coaches on the CFP Committee favoring the SEC. “If they let in one-loss Alabama, it would certainly raise some eyebrows,” said a prominent college athletics official with stake in the decision.
I’m not going to overcomplicate the intricacies of the resume argument.
PROS BUCKS: Ohio State (11-2) won a conference title and has two better wins – Penn State and Wisconsin – than Alabama’s best (LSU).
PROS BAMA: Alabama went 11-1 and has a better loss (Auburn) than one of Ohio State’s losses (Iowa).
CONS BUCKS: Ohio State got boat-raced by both Oklahoma (31-16) and the Hawkeyes (55-24), the latter of which is inexplicable and, in some circles, unforgivable.
CONS BAMA: They didn’t win the conference title and don’t have a hallmark victory. (We can thank Troy for devaluing the LSU win. Who’d have thought Neal Brown would be muddling the playoff argument?)
If you think this is going to create a cluster of rhetoric, you are right. And “cluster” is the key word here, not just to describe part of the inevitable reaction for the team that gets left out. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott pointed out in his public comments on Friday that committee chair Kirby Hocutt has used that word to describe how closely grouped together the teams outside the Top 4 were ranked. And Scott made a point that seemingly will become a determining one. Ohio State was deemed an unequivocal pick as a top-four team as a non-conference champion last year when it edged out Big Ten champion Penn State. This year, things appear to be too muddled, which favors Ohio State.
“If there are a bunch of teams that might look similar, that’s when the conference champion issue, amongst others, kicks in as a determinative factor,” Scott said on Friday evening. “That’s my understanding of the way it’s supposed to work.”
Scott said this when subtly lobbying for USC (11-2), another two-loss conference champion. Delany trotted out some rhetoric that will surely be spoken of with disdain in church pews and brunch spots on Sunday morning. He told Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune: “I feel we can make an argument that we’re the strongest conference.” He also chided the SEC crutch of playing FCS opponents and only eight league games: “When you substitute an FCS opponent and only play eight [conference games], it’s really a different universe of competitive challenges.”
In this universe, Ohio State should make the title game because of common sense. The College Football Playoff was created for better access, and Ohio State’s inclusion would reflect that. But if you want college sports executives to explain it that way, it will take a hand on a bible or a handle of bourbon.
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