College football faces pivotal playoff weekend

John Gilbert

With the University of Minnesota shocking heavily favored Wisconsin 37-15 in their Big Ten finale, there are those who might be tempted to say that last weekend was the biggest in the whole college football season.

But, to borrow a phrase from the great comedian John Pinette, we must say: “Nay, nay!”

Because the upcoming weekend is the biggest of the season, if the NCAA selection committee adhered to something approaching fair play in deciding on the top four teams in the nation for the four-team national championship playoff.

If fair play mattered, there would be no reason to suspect prejudice in favor of the Southeast Conference, and against the Big Ten, the Pac 12 and even the Big 12.

There are five major college conferences, and a couple of other very good and competitive ones, and a few impressive independent teams, such as Notre Dame, which has undefeated credentials as it awaits assignment for the semifinals. It appears, to suspicious minds like mine (for sure) and yours (probably), that the final foursome will be Alabama (12-0), Clemson (12-0), certainly Notre Dame (12-0). and possibly Georgia (11-1).

But here’s the deal. With five major conferences, the NCAA committee continues to select two SEC teams, one ACC team (Clemson), and one other, possibly from the Big Ten or the Big 12. That preposterous favoritism to the Southeast Conference means that if they pick two SEC teams, then Clemson from the ACC, that leaves one slot for three of the five major conferences.

All season we keep hearing about the superiority of the Southeast Conference, and we will acknowledge that Alabama is indeed a great team, year after year. But the Crimson Tide benefits greatly from a very weak West Division, where the teams all have impressive and historic names — LSU, Auburn, maybe Texas A&M and from years gone by, Mississippi and Mississippi State. Trouble with college football, teams graduate players and teams that are powerhouses one year are depleted the next, and it may take four or five years to rebuild. Except for Alabama.

But the newest wrinkle that should make the selections easy is that most conferences now have playoffs, having expanded to two divisions and having the division winners play off. That’s why we get Alabama winning the West and Georgia (11-1) winning the East in the SEC. Those two will play, and a clear-thinking committee would appreciate the benefit of having so many contenders but having some of them play off.

In the SEC, LSU is second to Alabama in the West, but at only 5-3, and 9-3 overall. Texas A&M is third, also 5-3 with an 8-4 overall ledger. In the East,  Georgia is 7-1 in league play and 11-1 overall. Florida is second, tied with Kentucky at 5-3 with matching 9-3 overall records. So the only top-caliber teams out of all 14 teams in the SEC are Alabama and Georgia. A lot was made of the annual rivalry game between Alabama and Auburn last weekend, but Alabama won 52-21, and Auburn finishes 3-5 in SEC play. A lack of competitive teams doesn’t make those two title teams better, except in the minds of the selection committee.

In the ACC, Clemson is 8-0 and 12-0 overall, and no other team has fewer than two losses, including Pittsburgh, which won the Coastal Division and will face Clemson in the ACC playoff despite Pittsburgh’s mediocre 7-5 overall record. So the SEC has two worthy teams, which will play off on Saturday, while the ACC has one, and merely has to sidestep an upset to gain certain selection.

The Big 12 has Oklahoma 8-1 and 11-1 overall, facing Texas (7-1 and 9-3 overall), meaning only Oklahoma should be considered.

In the Big Ten, I’ve been pulling for Northwestern all season, and the Wildcats with their lofty academic requirements won the West Division at 8-1, even though their overall mark is a mere 8-4. That means they’ll be enormous underdogs against Ohio State, which broke Michigan’s hearts with a 62-39 blowout last weekend, and cruises into the playoffs at 8-1 and 11-1 overall. Michigan is also worthy of consideration, but got knocked out of that playoff game by the Buckeyes, so at 8-1 and 10-2, they will get a good bowl game, but no playoff chance.

That brings us to my favorite conference, the Pac 12, which constantly gets overlooked for the strangest of reasons — its too competitive. Washington beat Washington State in a snowy Apple Cup game last weekend to tie the Cougars for the North title at 7-2; Washington is 9-3 and Washington State 10-2, but the head-to-head verdict sends Washington to the Pac 12 playoff against Utah — a very strong and exciting team that won the South at 6-3 and is 9-3 overall. The winner will go to the Rose Bowl, in all likelihood, with no chance for any Pac 12 team to get a shot at the national playoff.

In the Pac 12 North, Washington and Washington State were chased to the finish by Stanford (5-3, 7-4 overall), Oregon (5-4, 8-4), and California (4-4 but 7-4 overall). Oregon State was last. In the South, Utah had to hold off Arizona State (5-4, 7-5), and some competitive teams with poor records in Arizona (4-5, 5-7), Southern Cal (4-5, 5-7), and UCLA and Colorado, which had their big days but couldn’t compete every week.

Consider that at the start of the season, Colorado was ranked in the top 10 before losing a batch of close games in conference play to finish 2-7 with their 5-0 nonconference record. And Southern Cal gets ridiculed for having an awful season, yet Notre Dame boosters rave about the strength of the Irish and use as evidence the season finale when they beat Southern Cal 24-17. So how bad was USC? My theory is that Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame, or Central Florida would not go through either division of the Pac 12 unbeaten but would lose a game or two against the wild and wide-open attacks.

The simplest part of selecting the playoff foursome would be simpler still if the committee decided that no conference can get more than one team in. Last year, for exmple, Alabama lost its big playoff game but got voted into the semifinals despite winning neither their division title or a chance to be in that divisional playoff. The fact they won the national title is only evidence of prejudice by the committee.

Here’s this weekend’s conference playoff schedule: On Friday at 7 p.m., Washington plays Utah, with the winner heading for the Rose Bowl. On Saturday, at 11 a.m. Oklahoma plays Texas; at 2:30 p.m. Central Florida —  an 11-0 powerhouse without the power conference — faces Memphis for the American Conference title; at 4 p.m., Alabama faces Georgia; and at 7 p.m., two conflicting games find Clemson facing Pittsburgh in the ACC, and Ohio State meeting Northwestern for Big Ten honors.

All the bowl assignments and the final committee rankings will be issued Sunday.

If all of the valid top teams get a shot at the national title, only one can win, so the sooner those decisions are made for the commitee — by conference playoffs — the easier the decision. Alabama plays Georgia, and the winner gets selected, while the loser, even if it is mighty Alabama, does not get invited, although the Tide would get a lucrative bowl invitation. But if they’re the best team in the country, then don’t lose that playoff game.

My picks would be Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Central Florida — barring a loss this weekend. If Georgia beats Alabama, then Georgia goes in.

In a perfect world, we would have a six-team playoff, but still the rule would say no more than one team from any conference. That would mean the five power conferences would each be represented, for example placing the five conference playoff winners, plus the sixth team, which would be either an independent, like Notre Dame, or a team from a minor conference, such as Central Florida. In that scenario, the committee would rank the final six, with 1 and 2 getting byes. Then 3 plays 6 and 4 plays 5, to determine the last two semifinalists.

They have time to do that, and if the SEC indeed is the best, then its representative would win most of the time. Maybe.