All of it will happen, in that order, on New Year’s Eve, 11 days before the winners meet for the national championship in Glendale, Ariz.
Yet as the selection committee wrapped up six weeks of weekly meetings and weekly rankings, it had all manner of other judgments and computations from three months of high-level college football. It had Clemson (13-0) as “a clear-cut number one” over Alabama (12-1), as committee chairman Jeff Long put it. It had Michigan State (12-1) nudging past Oklahoma (11-1) into No. 3 on the strength of two wins over fellow top-10 sorts who would have gone unbeaten otherwise.
It had Iowa (12-1) finishing No. 5 to nudge out No. 7 Ohio State (11-1) for a spot in the Rose Bowl opposite No. 6 Stanford (11-2), and it had Ohio State heading to the Fiesta Bowl for a high-decibel match opposite No. 8 Notre Dame (10-2). Further, it had continued regard for one of the second-tier conferences, the American Athletic, which scored three teams upon the final list: No. 24 Temple (10-3), No. 21 Navy (9-2) and No. 18 Houston (12-1).
That last team, Houston, grabbed the one berth in a New Year’s bowl allotted the Group of Five conferences when, at 12-1 under first-year coach Tom Herman, it accepted a bid to the Peach Bowl opposite No. 9 Florida State (10-2).
Then, as in both years of this two-season-old format, the 12-member committee had the question of whether the Big 12 Conference somehow should join its four Power Five brethren and stage a conference title game. One year after Ohio State leapfrogged both Baylor and TCU to grab No. 4 through a 59-0 win in the Big Ten championship game, Michigan State eked past Big 12 champion Oklahoma after “lengthy discussion,” Long said. On Saturday, Oklahoma rested with its Big 12 title while Michigan State upgraded its resume by muscling past previously unbeaten and No. 4 Iowa, 16-13, on an extraordinary, 22-play, 82-yard drive through nine minutes of the fourth quarter.
“That’s for the Big 12 to decide,” Long said. “Again, people have said different things this year. Last year it was a disadvantage [to lack a title game]; now, some might say it was an advantage. Oklahoma didn’t play, so it didn’t have that risk/reward.”
The committee thought so highly of both Michigan State and Iowa after their taut fracas in Indianapolis that it kept Iowa stationed at No. 5, which helped the Hawkeyes into the Rose Bowl. “We felt like Iowa had proved more, almost, in a loss than they had in their previous body of work,” Long said, adding, “They were inches away from a victory.”
With Stanford (11-2) at No. 6, the Pacific-12 became the second annual odd-conference-out of the four-team scheme, following upon the Big 12 in 2014, though the committee did place Stanford ahead of Ohio State’s better record largely because Stanford won a conference title. “We’re talking about very close teams here,” Long said.
While Clemson and Alabama caused hard work choosing between them the penultimate week, the committee widened them when Clemson tacked on a third win over a top-10 team, so that it has beaten the teams ranked No. 8 (Notre Dame), No. 9 (Florida State) and No. 10 (North Carolina). Alabama’s highest-ranked victims turned out to be No. 19 Florida, No. 20 Louisiana State and No. 23 Tennessee, even as usually looked downright pulverizing, with its overall schedule deemed strong and its wins emphatic on the road at Georgia, Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
Asked whether the committee considered that placing No. 2 Alabama and a potential No. 3 Oklahoma in the Dallas-Fort Worth area might have been a disadvantage to Alabama, Long said, “Absolutely not.” He said, “We’re to rank the top four teams, the best four teams. We do not have any discussion of pairings and where they would play.”
While Michigan State and Oklahoma both had losses to 5-7 teams, Michigan State boasts wins over the teams ranked No. 5 (Iowa), No. 7 (Ohio State), No. 14 (Michigan) and No. 15 (Oregon). Oklahoma beat teams ranked No. 11 (TCU), No. 16 (Oklahoma State), No. 17 (Baylor) and No. 23 (Tennessee).
That advantage elbowed Oklahoma from No. 3 last week to No. 4 at the end and sent them opposite Clemson, a curious turn because that pair’s bowl game last year seemed to deepen the woes with which Oklahoma closed last season at a somber 8-5, which in turn has made the Sooners’ rise vertiginous.
In the aftermath of a 40-6 annihilation by Clemson that night, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker said, “I don’t want to go out like this. I’ll be back at OU because I’m a winner.” In a telltale quote, Stoops said, “It’s fair to say quarterback position is open.” Come to find out, an excellent quarterback turned up strolling around campus in the winter, having transferred from Texas Tech.
This breakthrough season, Baker Mayfield has 35 touchdown passes to only five interceptions, has Heisman Trophy candidacy and has Oklahoma sparkling to such degree that quarterback connoisseurs will savor his match opposite Clemson star Deshaun Watson, whose injury kept him out of that bowl game. The game will match the total offenses ranked No. 7 (Oklahoma) and No. 12 (Clemson).
After those teams finish deciding just how far Oklahoma has come, not to mention how much Clemson can soar, Saban’s Alabama kingdom will get its second try at Michigan State, where from 1995 to 1999 he went 6-5-1, 6-6, 7-5, 6-6 and 9-2 before leaving for Louisiana State.
The first such try came also in Orlando, in the 2011 Capital One Bowl, when Alabama mauled Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins in a 49-7 win, which raised the then-defending champion Crimson Tide to an allegedly disappointing 10-3 record.
As the only program to reach the first two College Football Playoffs, Alabama lacks such disappointment nowadays.