The life of a College Football Playoff selection committee member seems like a blessed existence. Every week for the last two months of the college football season, committee members are flown to Dallas, where they are put up in a nice hotel. In the final week of the season, they sit in nice leather seats and eat wings in front of a football fan’s dream television setup before deciding which teams will play in college football’s most important games. (They also have an annual offseason meeting at a beachfront Ritz-Carlton in California. There’s generally a former media member on the committee, so I’m really hoping they pick me someday, although I’m starting to think I’m not on their short list.) The downside, of course, is that at some point, the committee members have to make a difficult and potentially controversial decision that could make them infamous, at least among college football fans.
However, year after year, the committee simply hasn’t had to make a tough decision. The field has cleanly sorted itself out to make things easy for the committee in almost every year the playoff has existed. That trend continued in 2019, as the committee’s decision was practically made for them—the playoff will feature college football’s three undefeated teams, LSU, Ohio State, and Clemson, and its only one-loss major conference champion, Oklahoma.
Entering the final weekend of the season, it seemed like the committee would have to answer two questions. The first was what it would do if an undefeated team lost in a conference championship game. Would they leave that team in to acknowledge their season of excellence, or keep them out to preserve the importance of conference title games? In the end, they didn’t have to answer that question—LSU, OSU, and Clemson all won on Saturday, and they all won by at least 13 points. (Ohio State was really the only team to struggle, and trailed 21-7 at halftime against Wisconsin before scoring 27 unanswered second-half points to win 34-21.) The second question was whether or not the committee would include the 12-1 winner of the Big 12 championship game or 12-1 Pac-12 champion Utah. But that was also sorted out before the committee had to choose—Utah lost the Pac-12 title game, 37-15.
The committee hasn’t had to make a truly difficult decision since 2014, when it jumped Ohio State over TCU and Baylor after championship weekend. Since then, things have generally sorted themselves out—the hardest decision they’ve made since was probably the 2016 choice to include 11-1 Ohio State instead of 11-2 Penn State, which won the Big Ten and beat OSU in a head-to-head matchup. But that choice probably wasn’t too hard, because the committee simply picked the team that lost fewer games, no context required.
However, there are a handful of other decisions the committee has to make—which Big Ten team should rank highest and get a spot in the Rose Bowl? (Should 12-1 Boise State or 12-1 Memphis get the lone spot for a non-power conference team in a big-name bowl game?) And this year, one decision is more crucial than ever—the decision on which team to give the no. 1 seed in the four-team playoff. There hasn’t always been a clear-cut no. 1, but most of the time, it hasn’t mattered, because there wasn’t a clear-cut advantage to playing the 4-seed. (In fact, in 2014 and 2017, playing the 4-seed was a disadvantage—in those years, Ohio State and Alabama, respectively, were seeded fourth and won the whole damn thing.) This year though, there is no question that the fourth team in the field, Oklahoma, is on a lower tier than the three other playoff teams. LSU, Ohio State, and Clemson went undefeated this season and barely struggled.
Oklahoma, on the other hand, lost to Kansas State, and almost lost to Iowa State (the Cyclones missed a late two-point conversion to win), TCU (the Horned Frogs had two possessions in the last five minutes to take a lead, but botched both) and twice to Baylor (the Bears squandered a 28-3 lead in their first matchup, and pushed Oklahoma to overtime in Saturday’s Big 12 title game.) Oklahoma is clearly the fourth-best team in the country, which is both a compliment—that makes them a playoff participant and title contender!—and a put-down. They can still win a playoff game, of course, but they’re the easiest draw. Clemson, the third seed, is 13-0, and had just one close call (a 21-20 win against North Carolina, also featuring a failed game-winning two-point conversion) and ten 30-point wins. On the one hand, you can mock Clemson’s weak ACC competition. On the other hand, they, uh, beat Alabama in the national championship game by four touchdowns last year and still have most of the same players. Yeah, I’ll take Oklahoma.
So which team deserves that no. 1 spot? My heart said LSU. The Tigers played an impeccable season, and emerged spotless from the toughest division in football by completely obliterating an 11-1 Georgia team with a 37-10 SEC championship victory that made a heartbroken UGA strip naked. (Well, his handlers probably stripped him naked, and he seemed happy, but still.) Joe Burrow played what might be the most consistently excellent season of all time, setting the all-time single-season completion percentage record while throwing a lot of extremely difficult passes. His worst game was a 32-for-42, 321-yard, one-touchdown, one-interception performance against a top-10 Auburn team. Yup—that was his worst game. (He also scored a rushing touchdown that day.)
However, the analytics resoundingly favored Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the top team in SP+ by a relatively large margin, as they have been for most of the season. Same in the Sagarin ratings, the Massey ratings, the Colley matrix, and every other well-known computer ranking you can find. In the BCS era, we would have had a national championship matchup between no. 1 Ohio State and no. 2 LSU, and it wouldn’t matter who was ranked higher at all. (And we’d have an undefeated Clemson sitting at home.) But this year, that decision matters for the first time. The committee ended up giving the top spot to LSU—why else would they fly everybody down to Dallas for a weekend-long football watch party if not to give the top seed to the team that looked the most impressive on Saturday?
This sets up two thrilling matchups. LSU-Oklahoma could feature 80 total points—the Tigers and Sooners have the top two offenses in college football. (Either that, or LSU’s incredible defense will stonewall Oklahoma’s offense, but they did look susceptible to allowing points against incredible offenses in their 46-41 win against Alabama.) And Ohio State–Clemson is a battle between two of college football’s preeminent machines. Imagine the potential top pick in the 2020 draft (Ohio State DE Chase Young) trying to chase down the potential top pick in the 2021 draft (Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence). (I doubt the score is going to be 31-0 this time.) The two matchups are stylistically awesome, but there’s no question LSU is getting the easier end of things—sportsbooks have LSU as a 10-point favorite over Oklahoma.
For now, though, the committee can sit back in their comfy leather chairs and congratulate themselves on a job well done. They picked the right four teams—really, the right four teams were chosen for them. We can debate whether they made the right choice in picking LSU over Ohio State, but in about a month, college football will have sorted itself out and settled the debate for us. The games should be incredible, and I look forward to getting kicked out of the committee watch party by security.