Monday, December 5, 2016

Is the Playoff a Forgone Conclusion?

By Ross Lancaster

On Sunday's College Football Playoff Selection Show, just about all of the time on the ESPN broadcast before the playoff teams were officially announced centered on the one playoff spot most observers viewed as "open" going into the final week of games.

Some thought that perhaps the number could be two open spots if the committee decided to make a statement about head-to-head results and conference championships after Penn State won the Big Ten, having beaten previous CFP No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 22. However, that was always unlikely after committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said that there was a substantial gap from Ohio State at two to Washington and Michigan at four and five, respectively, last Tuesday night.

In the end, I believe the committee got it right and took the four strongest teams in the country.

For the first time since its inception, the playoff will have a team that didn't win it's conference in Ohio State. However, despite the head-to-head loss to Penn State, Ohio State undoubtedly had the more substantial body of work from September to December, winning against three top 10 teams (and one major conference champion on the road).

And while it doesn't make the Nittany Lions' win against the Buckeyes any less significant, it did come by virtue of a blocked field goal return in a game where Ohio State out-gained and largely out-played Penn State.

That one open spot in the playoff did go to the Washington Huskies, who won the Pac-12 on Friday night with a dominating performance against Colorado. In October, I wrote that the Pac-12 probably wouldn't get a team in the playoff if Washington lost a game. Honestly, I was very wrong and am happy to be wrong.

At that time, I didn't think the Pac-12 was that good. This was before USC and Colorado hit their stride to become New Year's Six-quality teams and before Stanford took advantage of a soft November to finish the regular season ranked and with a very respectable 9 wins.

As an entire conference, the Pac-12 wasn't as good as the Pac-12, but it was just as good as the SEC. Washington, with the exception of a November loss against on-fire USC, blitzed through that league, winning 6 of 9 conference games by three or more touchdowns.

But as I watched Alabama toss Florida around on Saturday afternoon, I had to ask myself: does all of this talk about the third and fourth best teams really even matter that much?

I've loved watching Washington all season, and they're a rare great Pac-12 team that likes to play defense just as much as they like scoring points. If I had a Heisman vote, I'd probably give the top spot to Jake Browning after Louisville and Lamar Jackson have faltered in November.

Yet, Washington's offensive line has shown some shakiness at times, and I think Alabama definitely handles them at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. If Alabama gets past Washington in the Peach Bowl as it will be prohibitively favored to do, a Clemson team that turns the ball over too much or an Ohio State team that's had issues with very talented defenses will await in the title game.

If anything, and it seems impossible to say for a team that's been wire-to-wire No. 1 since mid-August, Alabama seems underrated.

In 13 games, the Crimson Tide has been seriously tested all of twice. Against Ole Miss, Alabama played about as bad as it possibly could have for a half, and still overcame a three-touchdown deficit on the road at a then-ranked team. Against LSU, the Tide still won by double-digits and pitched a shutout after a scoreless game at the half.

This past week, I saw that ESPN playoff expert/analyst Heather Dinich questioned Alabama's wins/schedule. Her point that 'Bama's best win is USC is technically true on it's face, but it's an absurd argument to carry to a "who have they beaten?" conclusion.

Yes, the SEC is not as good as years' past. I would argue that it's probably at its weakest point in 15 or more years. But to go undefeated, Alabama still had to beat eight teams in the top 40 or so in the country. That doesn't sound nearly as cool as beating three top 10 or 15 teams, but it's perhaps even more impressive cumulatively to not have one slip-up against a talented team.

I haven't heard it mentioned too much to this point, but Nick Saban's 'Bama teams have only had one undefeated national title team to this point, in 2009. Even within the undisputed top program in the nation, it's incredibly tough to go without losing all year.

We're at the point with Alabama where, if they decisively or even just handily win two playoff games and the national title, they could be considered one of the greatest single-year teams in college football history, and right up there with 2001 Miami and 2004 USC as the best of this century so far. A down SEC can't diminish that.

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