Alabama became the answer to the grand riddle of the 2017 College Football Playoff season Sunday, snaring the coveted No. 4 spot for the four-team bracket, narrowly ahead of No. 5 Ohio State and behind No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Georgia. It happened after “a deep dive into the number four spot” that included “great depth and detail” late Saturday night and again Sunday morning, selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said. It sustained Alabama as the only program to have reached the playoff in every season of the four-year-old concept.
“I really hate to admit,” dynastic Alabama Coach Nick Saban said on ESPN after the midday verdict, but he had missed the announcement while driving a recruit to the Alabama football complex. He still pronounced himself “pleased and proud and happy.”
He smiled, repeatedly.
In what has become an American habit, teams from Alabama (11-1) and Clemson (12-1) will oppose each other for the third straight year in the playoff, this time in a semifinal after having split the past two national championship games. They will add New Orleans to Phoenix and Tampa on their list of meeting places when they tangle in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, the same day on which, conversely, the long-ambitious programs of Oklahoma (12-1) and Georgia (12-1) will see each other for the first time, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
“Excited about it,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said on ESPN, calling a Clemson-Alabama match “only fitting,” and “a heavyweight matchup.” The fresh Oklahoma-Georgia match, meanwhile, sets an offense of a level Georgia has not seen against a defense of a level Oklahoma has not seen.
Of Alabama’s four qualifications since 2014, this one proved the most cluttered for the 13-member selection committee, which walked into the meeting room in Texas late Saturday night for a complicated call with the sense of “a big task,” Hocutt said. “It was so important to get this right,” he said. He called the committee’s opinion “widespread and strong,” that Alabama (11-1) should finish ahead of Big Ten champion Ohio State (11-2). He said Ohio State’s 27-21 conference-title win over Wisconsin (12-1), which finished at No. 6, had brought the Buckeyes “close, but not close enough.”
The committee’s decision was sound enough, he said, that it did not have to resort to four protocols given to it by conference commissioners in the event of a virtual tie.
It marked the second time in two years that a team that did not win its division or its conference, and thus rested through the final Saturday, finished just ahead of a conference champion. In that sense, Alabama followed upon Ohio State in 2016, when No. 3 Ohio State (11-1) finished ahead of No. 5 Penn State (11-2) largely because of those Buckeyes’ three wins against top 10 teams, even though the Nittany Lions had won the Big Ten plus a head-to-head game against Ohio State.
In his introduction on the teleconference, Hocutt went right into the loud matter between the gigantic programs, Alabama and Ohio State, listing the assets the committee had gabbed about for each. He mentioned Ohio State’s conference championship, its 2-1 record against the top 10 and its 3-1 record against the top 25, set against Alabama’s superior record and the location of its lone loss: on the road, at No. 7 Auburn, on Nov. 25. He also lauded Alabama as having been consistent and statistically consistent, and mentioned that the committee had considered Alabama better than Ohio State all along, including ranking it No. 5 to the Buckeyes’ No. 8 last week. Alabama had the burden of its 0-1 record against the top 10 and wins only over No. 17 LSU and at No. 23 Mississippi State among the ranked, but it had seven wins against bowl-qualifying teams (to five for Ohio State), and, more crucially, it had spent the season decidedly avoiding any obliteration.
Hocutt cited Ohio State’s 15-point shredding at home by Oklahoma and its “more damaging” 55-24 collapse at unranked Iowa. Earlier in the day, on ESPN, he had said of Ohio State, “Most damaging was the 31-point loss to unranked Iowa.”
As to whether the committee, which always has valued quality wins, now viewed poor-quality losses as equally important, Hocutt said, “Wins matter. Losses matter. How you play in the wins matters. How you play in the losses matters.”
He also said the committee had strained to decipher Alabama’s season-opening win against Florida State, which lost quarterback Deondre Francois in the fourth quarter of that game and could not recover much on its glum path to 6-6. “We talked a lot about that,” Hocutt said. “We talked about that as recently as this morning. I would say it was very subjective around our table. Some” — including one coach, he said — “looked at it as a quality win against a very athletic team when they were at full strength.”
For those seeking hints or trends, he concluded, “I would say there’s no college football seasons that are ever identical.”
The presence of Alabama and Georgia among the four meant that for the first time, a single conference, in this case the Southeastern, has placed two entries in the top four, even though the committee never discusses that quirk, Hocutt said. Three members of the committee — former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith and Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich — recused themselves from voting on the top teams because of ties to those teams, with Beamer’s son coaching special teams and tight ends at Georgia. While the SEC’s two-team parlay represented a first, it also prevented another would-be first: No team with two losses has reached the College Football Playoff to date, with 13 one-loss teams and three unbeaten teams among the 16 qualifiers since 2014.
From 2014 to 2016, no playoff-qualifying team had suffered any obliteration during the season, and given what happened at Iowa, an Ohio State presence in the top four also would have made that true of half the 2017 quartet. Yet while No. 3 Georgia lost, 40-17, at Auburn on Nov. 11, getting a window-dressing touchdown with 2:19 remaining to keep that from looking even more severe, the Bulldogs avenged that very destruction with gusto on Saturday, by 28-7 over Auburn in the SEC championship game in Atlanta.
With that, Georgia also became the only playoff debutant in the bunch, as the selections deepened the early-years trend of repeat qualifiers amid limited parity. Only nine programs have made the playoff thus far. Clemson, the defending national champion, will appear for the third time, even after it saw its defining star, quarterback Deshaun Watson, go off to the NFL while it trained a rookie starting quarterback, South Carolinian junior Kelly Bryant. Oklahoma appears for a second time and Alabama, as ever, for a fourth.
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