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The Playoff Debate Is Officially Ohio State Versus Alabama

Which historically proud fanbase will be unhappy on Sunday? Plus, more takeaways from Championship Saturday.

2017 Getty Images

Championship Saturday is in the books. Here are five takeaways from a full slate of action leading up to the announcement of this season’s College Football Playoff field.

1. Ohio State Made the Selection Committee’s Task as Difficult as It Could Have

Ohio State’s 27-21 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game was neither convincing enough nor underwhelming enough to clarify the program’s ultimate College Football Playoff fate. The selection committee’s forthcoming choice between the 11-2 Buckeyes and 11-1 Alabama for the fourth and final spot has become the debate of the sports world, pitting two of the nation’s proudest programs directly against each other. The field will be revealed on Sunday, and while three of the teams in the mix are locks after winning on Championship Saturday (Clemson, Oklahoma, and Georgia), the committee’s push to put the field together should be frantic. So here, fresh from the Metaphor Factory, is a scene from the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game in Indianapolis where groundskeepers scrambled to literally put a field together after a Badgers’ score ripped the turf apart.

With Ohio State active this week and Bama idling, Saturday provided a chance for the committee to get an answer regarding which of the two should be higher in its final rankings. If the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin running away, they probably would have secured a spot in the playoff field, much like they did by demolishing Wisconsin 59-0 in the 2014 Big Ten title game. And if they lost, they would have been out of the hunt, and unbeaten Wisconsin would have been a shoo-in for college football’s championship bracket. Instead, the Big Ten title game told us what we already knew. Ohio State was favored by 6.5 points and won by six. J.T. Barrett, J.K. Dobbins, and the Buckeyes are who we thought they were.

Now the committee will have to make a decision that shapes the future of the sport. It’ll have to make clear exactly how much it values conference titles. Ohio State has two losses on its résumé, while Alabama only has one. Ohio State boasts a handful of good wins (Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin), while Alabama has no bad losses. (The Buckeyes, meanwhile, lost by 31 points at generally milquetoast Iowa). Ohio State won its league championship game. Alabama did not.

The committee’s publicly listed selection criteria notes that conference championships should be used as a tiebreaker when evaluating teams that are considered comparable. But we still don’t really know if the committee thinks that the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide are comparable, or whether it’ll apply that criterion to vault Ohio State into the field. The only thing we know is that one fanbase is going to be inconsolably angry in the span of a few hours.

When it comes to reading the committee, we are as clueless about the process as we were watching a dude rake plastic grass.

2. It’s Important Not to Overestimate the Significance of One Head-to-Head Result

Auburn obliterated then-top-ranked Georgia 40-17 in November in a game in which it outgained the Bulldogs 488 yards to 230. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm completed less than half of his pass attempts in that contest, and the Dawgs’ brilliant backfield duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel was limited to a combined 48 rushing yards on 20 carries. It was a whooping.

Georgia returned the favor on Saturday, obliterating Auburn 28-7 in the SEC championship game. The Tigers drove 75 yards for a touchdown on their opening possession, and then were outgained 421 to 184 the rest of the way. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham completed exactly half of his pass attempts, and brilliant Tigers back Kerryon Johnson was held to just 44 yards on 13 carries.

This is why I don’t like rematches in college football. I love the idea that a team gets only one crack at an opponent, and that success or failure against a rival can produce joy or sadness that lasts somewhere between 364 days and a lifetime. When two programs play against each other twice in the same season, either the same team wins both times or the most imperfect series imaginable is created—a best-of-two in which one game is deemed significantly more meaningful than the other.

Two teams can play twice and have completely contrasting results. So when we debate which teams are most worthy of making the playoff, we shouldn’t rank one team above another simply based on one head-to-head win. It’s a key factor that should be considered, but it’s not the only factor. The fact that single games can have ridiculous results is one of the best things about football—we shouldn’t forget that when yelling about which team is best.

3. Don’t Shame the Dr Pepper Tuition Toss Chest-Passers

At each of the Power 5 conference title games, there is a halftime contest sponsored by Dr Pepper in which two college students throw footballs into comically oversized soda cans. The student who throws the most footballs into his or her can in a 30-second window is awarded with $100,000 worth of tuition money, and the loser is given $25,000. Forcing kids to take part in a frivolous competition to afford schooling is a farcical statement on a broken education system that saddles America’s brightest youth with mountainous debt, but hey: At least the Dr Pepper Tuition Toss means that some college football players are getting paid.

Anyway, this annual rite of passage has led to the dumbest tradition in college football: dudebros criticizing the throwing form of the participants. Most students in the contest choose to use chest passes, since this is the quickest method of shoveling footballs into giant soda cans. In response, some viewers complain that’s not how you’re supposed to throw a football!

Shut the absolute hell up. Sawyer tossed 15 footballs into his can in 30 seconds by going with an efficient two-handed chest pass.

Jose tried to throw the football overhanded. Let’s see how that worked:

Sure, you can tell everybody how you’d uncork perfect spirals in this contest because you wouldn’t deign to throw the ball unconventionally. But kids can receive life-changing sums of money in this weird Hunger Games precursor that Dr Pepper has created. Four winners this year used the chest-pass approach to get $100,000; the fifth winner shot-putted the ball into the cans. Anyone who says he’d throw overhand—wasting precious seconds simply to preserve pride—is a fool.

4. We Can All Learn a Lesson From UCF

The Knights’ 62-55 double-overtime win against Memphis sealed a 12-0 season, clinched the American Athletic Conference championship, and was the game of the year. It takes the mantle from the program’s 49-42 victory over South Florida last week. If UCF’s football team is on TV, I’d highly recommend that you watch it.

The biggest headline coming out of this game wasn’t the Knights’ triumph, though; it was the news that UCF head coach Scott Frost is leaving to take the job at Nebraska. For the past few weeks, it’s seemed evident that Frost was going to return to his alma mater, where he won a national title as a player. Somehow, the report that Frost had agreed to terms of a contract with Nebraska broke during the game. Frost had to answer a question about the news immediately after the final whistle:

This could have been framed as everything wrong with college football: a coach ditching his team for a bigger-name, better-paying gig on the day of its greatest accomplishment. UCF’s players could have expressed feelings of betrayal, as several players at a nearby school did when their head coach bolted just a day earlier.

But everything went cordially. The Knights seemed to understand what Frost was going through. Clearly, he loves his players and his players love him. There’s even talk that Frost might hang around to coach the Knights in their bowl game. I have never seen a school tweet something like this about an outgoing coach:

Turn on Dolly Parton singing “I Will Always Love You” and appreciate this beautiful breakup. Frost and UCF both knew how magical their time was together, and both grasped why it was time for their relationship to end. In college football and in life, joy can be fleeting, so try to cherish the great times when you have them. Oh, and put UCF in the damn playoff.

5. Clemson Looks Like the Clear No. 1 Playoff Seed

Congrats to Miami on scoring in an ACC championship game! Trailing 38-0 with 3:29 left in Saturday’s fourth quarter, the Hurricanes decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the 6-yard line. This was one of the wimpiest decisions I’ve ever seen, but that’s not the important thing here: 13 years after the ACC title game’s inception, the Hurricanes finally scored.

More notable than that field goal, of course, was the Tigers’ total dominance against the ’Canes. Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant completed his first 15 pass attempts; the Tigers outgained Miami 331 to 214; and their swarming defense held quarterback Malik Rosier to 3.8 yards per attempt. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team has now won 10 of 13 games by multiple scores.

With Wisconsin’s defeat to Ohio State, every power-conference team in college football has at least one loss. Of the one-loss teams, I’d say that Clemson’s defeat was the flukiest: It came on a Friday night, on the road, and Bryant missed the entire second half with an injury. And their wins have been perhaps the most convincing of any of those one-loss teams’ victories as well. I had my doubts about the Tigers’ potential to repeat as national champs without college legend/NFL superhero Deshaun Watson. But now I’m not sure that any other team can make the case that it’s top in the country heading into the playoff.

The Tigers will likely play Alabama or Ohio State in a semifinal matchup. That sentence would scare the hell out of 99 percent of programs across the nation, but it should put a broad smile on Clemson fans’ faces.