We can learn a lot about the future of college football from Alabama’s inclusion over Ohio State as the fourth team in the four-team College Football Playoff. It tells us the selection committee still considers conference championships a tertiary factor in deciding its field. It tells us the committee still heavily values the sheer number of losses a team suffers, regardless of strength of schedule. But most importantly, Alabama’s inclusion tells us this: Don’t lose by 31 to Iowa.
It’s safe to say the playoff selection process is overly complicated. It says a lot that after four years, we find ourselves debating not just which teams will be picked, but what criteria we think the committee might be using as it comes to its decision. No real selection trends have emerged across the past few years. The committee seems to choose which things matter to it season by season. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the members just use the eye test to decide which four teams are best, then reverse-engineer more acceptable justifications for their picks. Let’s not even get into the fact the 13-person committee explicitly put together for the purpose of deciding the College Football Playoff somehow had three members who had to recuse themselves for the entirety of the College Football Playoff discussion.
But the decision to exclude Ohio State is not complicated. Ohio State, one of the two teams in consideration for the final playoff spot, lost by 31 to Iowa. They got walloped to hell by Kirk “The Walking Buyout” Ferentz and allowed 55 points to the 68th-best offense in the country. Watch the tape: As it turned out, this ended up being the most important game of the year:
Committee chairman Kirby Hocutt specified that this was the primary reason Ohio State did not make the playoff.
Hocutt on Alabama/Ohio State: “More damaging was the 31 point loss to unranked Iowa.”— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) December 3, 2017
This year’s Buckeyes would have been the worst team ever included in the field. They would have been the first team in playoff history with two losses. The worst loss by any team to qualify for the playoff in its first three years was a 14-point loss—incidentally, by Ohio State, against Virginia Tech in 2014. This year’s Buckeyes lost games by 15 and 31, and the loss by 31, in case I didn’t mention this earlier, was against Iowa. The Buckeyes also would have been the first team in playoff history that had already lost a game against another playoff participant—they lost 31-16 at home against Oklahoma.
Alabama’s résumé isn’t great. The Crimson Tide had just one victory against a team in the committee’s top 20, while Ohio State had three. The Tide didn’t win a conference championship; in fact, Bama didn’t even qualify for the SEC title game after losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl last week.
And so, there will backlash. Last week, Hocutt claimed that there was “very little separation” between the teams ranked nos. 5-8 in the poll, a group that included both Ohio State and Alabama. In between then and now, Alabama played zero times, and Ohio State won against a top-5 team. And yet Saturday, Hocutt claimed the committee considered Alabama “unequivocally better” than Ohio State. Therefore, the committee didn’t need to reference the selection criteria that orders them to use conference championships as a tiebreaker between teams that are roughly equal. Hocutt’s statements from the past few days don’t add up.
Ohio State’s exclusion should upset the conferences who organize the playoff. They invest a lot in conference championship games, and it seems that the games provide huge risk and little reward: In the Big Ten’s case, Wisconsin played its way out of the playoff while, for the second consecutive year, the league’s champion wasn’t considered good enough to get in.
The selection also raises questions about nonconference scheduling. Ohio State’s wins and strength of schedule are objectively better than Alabama’s, but its simple number of losses helped keep the Buckeyes out of the playoff. Bama didn’t exactly duck strong opponents with its noncon—the Crimson Tide scheduled Florida State, who ended the season in irrelevance largely because its starting quarterback suffered a season-ending injury against Alabama. Last year, Ohio State’s decision to schedule Oklahoma and get a win seemed to be a pivotal factor in its inclusion. This year, it seems it would have been better off setting its sights lower instead of risking a loss.
This decision should raise concerns for non–power conference teams as well. Alabama’s “Hey, we didn’t have any great wins, but didn’t have any bad losses” résumé got them into the playoff, but the committee didn’t even consider UCF’s “Hey, we didn’t have any great wins, but we had no losses” argument. Bama’s average opponent was much better than UCF’s, but I’d argue the main difference in consideration was Alabama’s conference affiliation.
I feel dumb for saying this, but despite Ohio State’s résumé, I just feel like Alabama is significantly better. Vegas agrees, as Alabama is actually favored in its playoff game against Clemson, the top seed. I’m probably biased by recent playoff results—Alabama’s two recent championship games against Clemson were spectacular thrillers, and I’m excited for the rubber match; meanwhile, Ohio State’s playoff game against Clemson last year was a 31-0 shutout.
But part of the reason I was leaning toward Alabama is because I saw Ohio State get whooped to hell by Iowa. You can lose and still win the national championship. In fact, all four teams in the field lost this year. You can lose to a tough opponent, or even a close, flukey game to a rando. But you can’t get burnt alive by the scorching mediocrity of a team that finished 7-5 in the Big Ten West. Hawkeyes fans will never forget that day, and the committee thankfully didn’t either.