INDIANAPOLIS — In the closest and surely the most controversial decision in the four seasons of the College Football Playoff, the selection committee gave the final spot in this year’s four-team bracket to Alabama over Ohio State on Sunday.
The first three spots went to Clemson (12-1), Oklahoma (12-1) and Georgia (12-1), all of which were virtually assured berths on Saturday after they won their respective conference championship games.
In the national semifinals, No. 1 Clemson will play No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans and No. 2 Oklahoma will play No. 3 Georgia in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Both games will be held on New Year’s Day. The winners will play a week later in Atlanta for the fourth championship of the playoff era, and the 20th since college football’s postseason was unified under the Bowl Championship Series.
Choosing the Crimson Tide (11-1) was an undeniable win for the Southeastern Conference, which became the first league to put two teams in the playoff and the first to have two teams play for the national title since the 2011 season, when Alabama faced Louisiana State in the national championship game.
On paper, Ohio State (11-2) had more accomplishments than Alabama, with three highly regarded wins and a conference championship, and one early-season loss to Oklahoma. Rather, it was Ohio State’s loss at Iowa (7-5) last month and Alabama’s statistical dominance over an admittedly weaker schedule that persuaded the committee to slot the Crimson Tide over the Buckeyes.
In a sense, this is what the committee — which includes five former head coaches — suited up for. The playoff was an explicit reaction to what was seen as an impersonal algorithm that determined the national title contenders under the BCS in favor of the more holistic assessments that experts can ostensibly offer.
“The selection committee looked at a one-loss Alabama team — the one loss coming at the final seven-ranked Auburn team,” said the selection committee’s chairman, Kirby Hocutt, who is Texas Tech’s athletic director, in an appearance on ESPN Sunday afternoon.
For Ohio State, he added, “More damaging was the 31-point loss to unranked Iowa.”
Hocutt may as well have been echoing Alabama coach Nick Saban, who politicked for his team on ESPN early Sunday shortly after the Big Ten championship game here, in which Ohio State defeated No. 6 Wisconsin (12-1).
“I would say that if we lost to a team in our conference that was not ranked, by 30 points,” Saban said, “that we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
The Sugar Bowl will be a rubber match between Clemson and Alabama, which have played each other in the past two national title games, with each winning one. If defense wins championships, then whichever team emerges from this game should be the favorite: Alabama and Clemson have the best and second-best scoring defenses in college football, giving up just 11.5 and 12.8 points per game, respectively.
The Rose Bowl, by contrast, promises the unstoppable force of Oklahoma’s fourth-ranked scoring offense, which averaged nearly 45 points per game behind likely Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, against the immovable object of Georgia’s fourth-ranked defense, which gave up just 13.2 points per game.
For the second time in four years, the Pacific-12 did not have a member in the playoff. Its conference champion, Southern California (11-2), is likely bound for the Fiesta Bowl.
Alabama has made the playoff all four years of its existence, while it is defending champion Clemson’s third straight year making the playoff. It is Oklahoma’s second overall; the Sooners also played in four title games during the BCS era, winning at the end of the 2000 season. By contrast, Georgia, an equally proud program, has not been a true national title contender since the early 1980s.
Indeed, the playoff’s composition confirmed the top-heavy nature of the sport. The 16 total playoff slots so far have been filled by just nine programs. In contrast, the past four men’s basketball Final Fours have featured 13 programs.
The selection committee was scheduled later Sunday afternoon to release the rest of its final Top 25 along with the matchups in the rest of the so-called New Year’s Six bowls — the games that every three years host the playoff semifinals, and in off-years pit some of the best remaining teams against each other. This season, they will take place on Dec. 29, Dec. 30 and Jan. 1.
The highest ranked champion of the so-called Group of Five conferences is guaranteed a berth in one of these bowls, and this season that will surely be Central Florida, which — despite being winless just two seasons ago — entered the weekend 11-0 and No. 14, and then on Saturday defeated No. 20 Memphis (10-2), 62-55 in double overtime, in the American Athletic Conference title game. While Central Florida’s coach, Scott Frost, announced Saturday that he would return to his alma mater as Nebraska’s next head coach, he also said he and his staff would coach the Knights in the upcoming bowl.