The most inherent and glaring conflict in the college football playoff committee’s decision is this — the conflict between the concept of the “best” and “most deserving” team.
Sometimes this is easy — Alabama and Clemson are both the two best and the two most deserving teams in the country, the only teams to finish 13-0 as major conference champions. Hence it makes perfect sense they would be seeded first and second in the playoff.
But from there this year’s playoff selection turns into a battle for supremacy, which is more important being “the best” or being “the most deserving.”
Personally, I try to think of this as a balancing test, you can’t go entirely with the best teams because following that line of thinking to its logical extension, what if Alabama or Clemson had lost two or three games this season and not even won their divisions or their conferences? Just because the team was the best on paper, doesn’t mean that you should just take the most talented teams.
Otherwise, what’s the purpose of the season?
But, similarly, you can’t simply take the team with the best record because if you do, you’d have to take UCF, a team without a challenging schedule the equal of a power five conference team.
So we end up with a balancing test between best and most deserving.
We shake it all up and then do our best to decide who should advance to the playoff.
And that balancing test, at least so far, isn’t willing to overlook an undefeated major FBS team. Essentially if you go undefeated you get in the playoff.
That’s the precedent established by 12-0 Notre Dame.
I think, honestly, we all should have debated Notre Dame more than we did.
Because while Notre Dame is seeded number three, they achieved that mark almost entirely because they are the most deserving of the playoff spot. Notre Dame would be an underdog on a neutral field to Georgia, Oklahoma, and Ohio State, the other three major playoff contenders.
The 12-0 Fighting Irish are not one of the best four teams in the country if you consider the opinion of oddsmakers to be of any value at all. (Personally, I consider oddsmakers to be vitally important because they are the ones who have to put money behind their analysis. And, yes, I know, sometimes there are upsets, but please stop with Tweets and emails asserting this as proof the line was wrong. Oddsmaking is about probability. Sometimes the inferior team wins. College football fans are very uneducated, as a group, when it comes to probability. I suspect it’s because rematches are relatively rare in college football. Whereas fans have grown accustomed to seeing a seven game playoff series in Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL has conditioned fans of those sports to understand how different the results can be for individual games. So have frequent rematches in the NFL — two teams can play as many as three times, which leads us to the cliche of “It’s hard to beat a team three times,” in the NFL. Yet college football fans, uniquely in all of sports, believe that whatever happens one time would continue to happen forever and ever on in to infinity. An underdog winning doesn’t mean that the line was wrong, it means that for that particular sixty minute segment of time an unexpected result happened.)
So while much of the focus came down to a debate surrounding Georgia, Oklahoma, and Ohio State for the fourth playoff spot, really Notre Dame should have been a part of the discussion as well.
But they weren’t because in college football we are blinded by perfection.
When a major conference team finishes without a loss we look over all the close games against mediocre to inferior teams and instead focus on the gaudy record, the perfection blinds us to the imperfections built inside the record.
You’d think we’d have learned our lesson from this back in 2012 when an undefeated Notre Dame team rolled into the title game against Alabama and it was like watching the Crimson Tide play a junior varsity squad. The Tide rolled with embarrassing ease and we saw that being undefeated didn’t matter for very much when you played a vastly superior team.
Notre Dame paid a penalty for several years after this game, but evidently that penalty is gone now and we’re right back to believing that because the Fighting Irish went undefeated they are one of the four best teams.
This is antiquated poll driven thinking, but it’s the very embrace of the “most deserving” mindset.
And, you know what, even with all of this criticism I don’t believe the playoff committee could have left Notre Dame out of the playoff.
Which left us with Oklahoma vs. Georgia vs. Ohio State.
The Buckeyes, in being crushed by 6-6 Purdue, effectively gave up the playoff ghost. There was nothing they could do to vanquish that performance, especially in a year with three undefeated teams.
So that left the playoff committee to decide between Oklahoma and Georgia.
Ultimately the committee decided Oklahoma, which was 12-1 with only one three point loss, later erased in the Big 12 title game, was more deserving than Georgia even though the Bulldogs were the better team according to oddsmakers.
And you know what?
I think the committee got it right.
Because ultimately even if you’re a Bulldog fan, as much fun as it is to rail against the system, doesn’t this kind of, sort of, feel right too?
Go ahead, you can admit it.
Georgia didn’t deserve to make the playoff.
Georgia didn’t just lose to LSU, they got trampled. This wasn’t a last second or overtime defeat, the Bulldogs lost 36-16 while giving up 475 total yards to LSU. Hell, LSU ran the ball 51 times for 275 yards, an average of 5.1 yards a carry and Jake Fromm, who looked so good against Alabama on Saturday, was only 16-34 with two interceptions.
If Georgia had lost a close game at LSU, I’d have argued they might deserve to be in the playoff over Oklahoma, but a twenty point loss?
That’s a steep mountain to climb.
While it’s commonplace to compare Kirby Smart and Nick Saban, this is the difference between the two men thus far — Saban’s Tide team never shows up flat like Smart’s team did last year at Auburn — a 40-17 beatdown coupled with a twenty point loss this year and a 31 point loss at Ole Miss in year one gives Smart three SEC defeats by 20 or more points — something a Nick Saban coached Alabama football team has never done.
The most Alabama has ever lost an SEC game by is 14 points, which happened way back in 2010 when Stephen Garcia had the game of his life and Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks walloped Saban’s Tide team by 14 points.
Since that time Saban has only lost one SEC game by double digits, last year at Auburn.
So while Smart has been close to beating Alabama twice — the Georgia Bulldogs either led or were tied for a remarkable 119 of 120 regulation minutes, plus every play in overtime but one last year — ultimately Smart ends up blinking in the end.
At least so far.
That’s what, to me, the fake field goal was all about. Facing a 4th and 11 with three minutes to play in a tie ball game, Smart sent out highly touted back up quarterback Justin Fields with the punt team. As fake punt signals go this was the equivalent of screaming, “HEY Y’ALL WE’RE ABOUT TO FAKE IT!”
Alabama’s special teams, not surprisingly, adjusted to a punt safe defense and then Georgia, for reasons that remain unclear, decided to run the play anyway resulting in a two yard gain — nine yards short of what they needed to gain — and handing Alabama the ball at midfield.
The play, which led one of Georgia’s student managers to scream, “What the fuck are we doing?!” while standing alongside me on the field, effectively gave Alabama control of the game.
Instead of requiring back up quarterback Jalen Hurts to drive the field and, potentially, forcing the star-crossed Alabama field goal kicking team to win the game, Kirby Smart panicked.
The fake punt was a sign of desperation, a clear indication that, yet again, Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs had come close to vanquishing Nick Saban’s Tide, but had now realized they couldn’t do it without artifice. There’s certainly a time and place for trickeration, but it requires a more artful deception than what Georgia trotted out onto the field on 4th and 11.
Honestly, the play itself seemed to be a desperate ploy to keep Justin Fields from transferring. “See,” it said, “we NEED you, don’t leave us!”
Only, once more, Nick Saban had outschemed Kirby Smart when it came to back up quarterbacks too. It turns out Saban did need more than his Heisman Trophy caliber quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, he needed Hurts too. Only he didn’t have to design wildcat plays all season long, he just had to rely on Hurts’s maturity.
Somehow, someway Saban kept Hurts in Tuscaloosa and the result was a remarkable and improbable turnabout, eleven months after Tua had replaced Hurts to rescue the Tide against Georgia, now Hurts replaced Tua to rescue the Tide against Georgia.
Only the Bulldogs could beat Nick Saban’s starting quarterbacks twice and only Nick Saban could beat Georgia twice with his back-up quarterbacks.
Which is why in the end the college football playoff committee got it exactly right.
Georgia may be better, but they weren’t the most deserving.
Not with the way they played against LSU and not with their inability to finish the job against Alabama.
It’s easy to cast blame and foment outrage, but in the end the college football playoff committee made the right decision, they didn’t pick the four best teams, but they picked the four best and most deserving teams.