Georgia, Michigan, TCU and Ohio State are playoff semifinalists
By Billy Witz
Conference championship weekend was an opportunity for the College Football Playoff selection committee, sequestered in front of a bank of televisions in a hotel in Grapevine, Texas, to size up national championship contenders.
Georgia looked the part of a favorite, mostly. Michigan looked the part of challenger, mainly. Texas Christian looked flawed but game. USC looked saddled with a Utah problem (and another Lincoln Riley defense).
But Alabama, a fixture on this weekend, was nowhere to be found. (Neither for that matter was Ohio State or Tennessee or any mea culpas from Clemson’s Dabo Swinney about his quarterback choice this season.) Bryce Young was not flinging passes all over the field, Will Anderson Jr. was not terrorizing an opposing quarterback and Kool-Aid McKinstry was not zigzagging his way upfield on punt returns.
That does not mean the Crimson Tide were not heard from.
In fact, Alabama coach Nick Saban was everywhere Saturday. There he was on ESPN, then on Fox at halftime of the Big Ten championship game. CBS seemed to have been handed his talking points — all making the case that Alabama, with two losses and no quality wins, should be included in this season’s playoff because:
— Alabama won its final three games. (So did Washington and Tulane.)
— Alabama didn’t get blown out late in the season. (Neither did Utah or Kansas State, which each won its conference, to boot.)
— Alabama played five games on the road. (And lost two of them.)
— Alabama’s losses came with Young, its quarterback, playing hurt. (Ohio State’s loss came without its best receiver and running back.)
— Alabama would be the oddsmakers’ pick. (And also the choice of television executives, the SEC commissioner, Alabama elected officials and 9 out of every 10 callers into the Paul Finebaum radio show.)
Ultimately, though, the committee looked at Alabama and saw a team that was as flawed as Saban’s arguments, leaving the two-loss Crimson Tide on the sideline for only the second time in the nine seasons under the four-team playoff format.
As expected, Georgia retained the top spot Sunday after dispatching Louisiana State on Saturday. Georgia will play Ohio State in the Peach Bowl. Michigan, which remained unbeaten with a win over Purdue on Saturday night, will play TCU, which suffered its only loss Saturday in overtime against Kansas State, in the Fiesta Bowl. Both semifinal games are scheduled for Dec. 31.
The winners will play for the championship Jan. 9 in Inglewood, California.
TCU, where slights are not forgotten, did little to hide its anxiety after Saturday’s loss. Coach Sonny Dykes feared getting into a beauty pageant with the blue bloods, like Ohio State and Alabama. The Horned Frogs were leapfrogged by Ohio State in 2014 for the final spot when the Buckeyes demolished Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and the Big 12 did not have a championship game.
“My hope is we’re going to get into the tournament and get a chance to compete for a national championship,” Dykes said late Saturday afternoon. “We wanted to do it ourselves today. We didn’t want to have anybody make that decision.”
Ultimately, the way TCU fought back in the fourth quarter, and came within inches of taking the lead in overtime, meant the Horned Frogs’ place in the field was never in doubt, according to the playoff committee’s chair, Boo Corrigan.
As for the final spot, Corrigan said it largely came down to Ohio State having one fewer loss and bigger wins — its wins over Penn State and Notre Dame were perceived as better than Alabama’s victories over Texas and Mississippi State.
Saban, though he would not name a team that he thought his team should leap, seemed to point less at the Horned Frogs than at Ohio State.
It’s hard to know if Saban was really speaking to the committee — or just trying to mollify his fan base, which might be justifiably grumpy that a team that nearly won a second consecutive championship last season in a rebuilding year could not even get out of the SEC West with a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and a star-studded defense.
One point that Saban made does carry some historical weight: A blowout loss late in the season often is a harbinger of what lies ahead. An exception may have come last year when No. 1 Georgia was beaten handily by Alabama in the SEC championship game, 41-24, but got into the playoff as the No. 3 team, bulldozed Michigan in a semifinal and avenged the defeat to Alabama in the title game.
But in the 2020 pandemic season, Notre Dame was blown out by Clemson in the ACC championship game and was no match for Alabama in a semifinal.
In 2003, Oklahoma was throttled by Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game, 35-7, and was given a berth in the Bowl Championship Series title game, which it lost to LSU in a defensive struggle. That season, USC, whose only defeat was in overtime at Cal and its then-unheralded quarterback Aaron Rodgers, was left out. When the Trojans convincingly beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl, they were awarded the writers’ vote by finishing atop The Associated Press poll.
And in 2001, Nebraska was clobbered by Colorado, 62-36, in its regular-season finale but was given a berth in the title game, where it was no match for Miami. Even though one-loss Oregon was second in all three polls, it was left out because it suffered in the computer rankings that were a component of the BCS.
This does not augur well for Ohio State, which was routed at home against its rival Michigan two weeks ago, surrendering 252 yards rushing in a 45-23 loss.
But somebody has to play the defending champion, Georgia, in what is close to a home game in Atlanta, and so the committee decided the Buckeyes would.