Did the College Football Playoff Selection Committee Get It Right?December 20, 2020
The College Football Playoff selection committee has declared that Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame were the four best teams in the 2020 season. On Jan. 1 (COVID-19 permitting), it will be the Crimson Tide vs. the Fighting Irish in the Name TBD Bowl in Arlington, Texas, and the Tigers battling the Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans to determine who gets to play for the national championship on Jan. 11.
As always, the big debate in the aftermath of the selection show is: Did the committee get it right?
The problem is there was no right answer this year, as the question and the circumstances are more convoluted than ever.
First, could you imagine the mounting tension if they waited until the usual in-season spot of Tuesday night to reveal these final rankings? Just in the roughly 16 hours since the Big Ten championship, ACC championship and Texas A&M-Tennessee games all ended, there was a palpable degree of social media rage over who should be ranked where. Allowed to fester for another 55 hours without input from the selection committee, things could have gotten ugly.
And with the way the games played out, things were always going to get at least a little heated.
It's not quite as fervent as it would have been if Florida had knocked off Alabama in the SEC title game, but no matter what the committee decided, many fans were bound to be upset. That's because we ended up with five teams having a legitimate argument for the final two spots.
Just the "two spots" portion of that sentence is uncharted territory for this annual discussion.
In each of the past six seasons, there were at least three teams (sometimes four) that entered the selection show all but guaranteed a spot in the playoff. Each year, the gap between Nos. 3 and 5 in the final pre-bowl-season AP Top 25 was more than 100 votes; five out of six times, it was at least 144 votes. Last year, AP No. 3 Clemson held a 200-vote edge over No. 5 Georgia.
Granted, the AP poll isn't always a perfect measuring stick for what the selection committee will decide. In 2014, the final AP poll had Baylor at No. 4 and Ohio State at No. 5. The selection committee went the opposite direction, and the Buckeyes went on to win the national championship. But the gap between Baylor (1,265 votes) and Ohio State (1,262) in that AP poll was only three votes. Three votes is a coin-toss. More than 100 votes is a colossal divide. And that inaugural year of the playoff was the only time the AP poll previously got the CFP semifinal pairings wrong.
Bringing that back to this year, the gap between No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 5 Texas A&M was merely 41 votes, and even No. 6 Cincinnati landed just 162 votes behind No. 3 Ohio State.
And why not?
AP No. 3 Ohio State went undefeated but only played six games. While two of those wins did come against ranked Indiana and Northwestern, neither was a convincing victory, and the Buckeyes got to avoid a bunch of potential landmines (Illinois, Maryland and Michigan) by playing fewer games.
Also, with the way the cancellations landed, Ohio State got the week off both before and after its two toughest opponents. Remember that Texas A&M had to play Alabama and Florida in back-to-back weeks in the first month of the season.
No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 5 Texas A&M finished with nearly identical resumes—one blowout loss away from home against a juggernaut, one last-second victory at home over a title contender, one quality road win late in the season, no other games played against ranked opponents.
Cincinnati went undefeated, but playing in the AAC didn't do the Bearcats any favors.
AP No. 8 Oklahoma might actually be the best team of the bunch now that it's at full strength, but fourth-quarter meltdowns in losses to Kansas State and Iowa State doomed the Sooners by the first Saturday in October. At least they won a conference championship, which neither Notre Dame nor Texas A&M can boast.
While all of the focus will be on the hard cutoff between Nos. 4 and 5, there's no correct, anything-close-to-unanimous agreement on how those five teams should have been ranked.
And that segues nicely into our main point: This would have been the perfect year for an expanded playoff.
There would still be arguing over the order of the teams, but an eight-team playoff featuring the five Power Five champions (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Oregon), the highest-ranked Group of Five champion (Cincinnati) and the two highest-ranked "wild card" teams (Notre Dame and Texas A&M) would have been met with almost* no resistance.
*Georgia fans would be mad about 4-2 Oregon getting in ahead of the Bulldogs, but Georgia fans fussing about the final rankings is practically an annual rite of passage, after back-to-back years of slipping to No. 5 following a loss in the SEC championship.
It didn't even need to be a permanent change. It would have been so simple to put out a press release two months ago that boiled down to: "Listen, it's challenging enough to select a Top Four when everyone is playing 12 or 13 games. For this year only—with resumes of six, nine and 11 games on the table—we're going to have an eight-team playoff." And there would have been much rejoicing.
Most of the resistance to playoff expansion stems from the fact that we're only approaching the seventh installment of a 12-year, multibillion-dollar TV deal in which the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Peach, Rose and Sugar Bowls are each promised four CFP semifinals. And the sad thing is, had we known before Saturday night that the Rose Bowl would need to be moved (and possibly renamed?) from Pasadena to Arlington because of COVID-19 restrictions in California, there might have been a legitimate discussion about a one-year expansion.
Instead, the committee was left with the impossible task of picking four teams from a group of seven in which Alabama and Clemson were the only obvious choices.
So did the committee get it right?
We all know Cincinnati never had a real shot, but only because the game was rigged against the Bearcats years ago. It's hard to believe, but even if the Big Ten and Pac-12 had stuck with their plan to sit out this fall, Cincinnati still almost certainly would not have finished in the Top Four. In that scenario, you're talking about an undefeated team from the fourth-best conference in the country still not getting a seat at the table. That's not right.
With two losses, Oklahoma probably never had a real shot, either. The Sooners had to play their first five games without two key players (running back Rhamondre Stevenson and defensive end Ronnie Perkins) because of suspensions. Oklahoma very well may have gone undefeated if not for those.
Those are both great teams, though, and then the debate between Notre Dame and Texas A&M all boils down to the proverbial eye test.
The Aggies have been the better team since their understandable slow start (two key players opted out in September), and the SEC is the better conference from top to bottom. But it really is six of one, half-dozen of the other when comparing Notre Dame to Texas A&M.
There was no right answer.
The only wrong answer would have been leaving out Alabama or Clemson.
Everything beyond that is shades of gray and degrees of anger, depending upon whom you ask.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.