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Get Ready for a Season of Manufactured Drama

Week 10 reinforced college football’s true top four — but that may not be what the selection committee wants us to believe

Getty Images
Getty Images

What was your favorite moment from Texas A&M’s stint in the College Football Playoff top four? Oh my, there are so many to choose from.

For Aggies fans, it was probably Tuesday night. The euphoria and surprise of seeing A&M’s name pop up fourth in the first Playoff rankings of the year had to be incredible. The whole college football world had assumed that the four undefeated power conference teams — Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, and Washington — would take the four top slots; but there were the Aggies, pulling a huge upset on a day they weren’t even playing.

For me, it was speculating on Wednesday and Thursday. The Aggies’ only loss had come against no. 1 Alabama, and they’d already beaten fellow–Playoff hopeful Auburn and looked capable of registering wins against everybody else on their schedule. The committee was staking a claim that the second-best team in the nation’s toughest division might be better than the best team in a weaker league, a logical leap that could redefine the way we understand the committee’s decision-making for years.

But for A&M haters, it had to be Saturday, when the Aggies lost pretty thoroughly to Mississippi State. A second loss probably would have eliminated A&M from the Playoff picture regardless, but the additional defeat — coming to a five-loss Bulldogs team that opened the year with a loss to South Alabama — sealed the deal. The 35–28 score was close, but Mississippi State dominated, running for 365 yards and outgaining the Aggies by 192 yards overall. A&M had to contend with losing its starting quarterback, Trevor Knight, but to be honest, the Aggies were more successful after his shoulder injury forced him from the game in the second quarter.

Elsewhere, there was little suspense in Week 10 college football. Top-ranked Alabama bested no. 13 LSU in a 10–0 bludgeoning, the Tigers’ first home shutout since 2002. (Bama had the honors that time, too.) The teams behind Bama in the polls registered even more lopsided results — no. 2 Clemson crushed Syracuse 54–0, no. 3 Michigan maimed Maryland 59–3, no. 5 Washington beat Cal 66–27, no. 6 Ohio State manhandled no. 10 Nebraska 62–3, and no. 7 Louisville blasted Boston College 52–7.

Excluding A&M, the top seven teams in college football beat their opponents by a combined score of 303–40. They have good reason to humiliate their foes. With a short season and an inevitable clustering of squads with similar records, the Playoff committee can’t bank on wins and losses alone to determine the best teams in college football; the better a school is at blowing its opponents off the map, the higher the committee may rank it.

Really, there were only two causes of drama on Saturday. One was Marshawn Lynch nearly mowing over dozens of Cal band members while having the time of his life driving an injury cart.

The other was A&M’s upset loss — but that was only dramatic because the selection committee’s flawed decision-making said we should consider it dramatic. If Tuesday’s poll release hadn’t duped us into believing that the Aggies were slotted for a Playoff spot, their loss would have merely made them another also-ran also running. Instead, it was a hypothetical contender futzing up a dream season.

The reality is that the Playoff picture is satisfyingly simple to figure out. We have four undefeated power conference teams and four Playoff slots, which is the most clear-cut setup for the final field in the three-year history of the Playoff. Hypothetically, the Playoff committee could continue to hold Washington’s schedule against it and elevate Ohio State or Louisville into the fourth slot instead. But that would be foolish.

Of course, the four Power Five unbeatens still have work to do outside of convincing the committee. Alabama, Michigan, and Washington all have season-ending rivalry games against opponents that should be ranked at the time (Auburn, Ohio State, and Washington State, respectively), which should make for a spectacular final week to the regular season. (Clemson has a season-ending rivalry game against South Carolina, which should be slightly less spectacular.) If they win those contests, all four will have to play in conference championship games. Of course, to even get there, all four will have to avoid other pitfalls along the way.

If one of those teams loses, it will be a real upset, the sort of beautiful chaos that makes college football fascinating. If they don’t lose, we’ll get to admire them en route to what would be an incredible Playoff. Alabama is the Death Star. Clemson might actually have more weapons than Alabama. Michigan is Jim Harbaugh’s maniacal football thought experiment come to life. And Washington is what Chris Petersen had hoped to put together at Boise State, but with more resources and power.

So let’s actually focus on them. College football is pretty great already, even without the committee coming up with imaginary contenders.