Alabama is in. The Crimson Tide got the nod over Ohio State and will play Clemson in the College Football Playoff on Jan. 1 in the Sugar Bowl. Oklahoma and Georgia will meet in the Rose Bowl semifinal a few hours earlier.
Tide or Buckeyes was the question facing the selection committee, the toughest call in the four-year history of the playoff.
The Tide had been more consistent and lost just once. The Buckeyes lost twice, including an embarrassing 31-point beating at unranked Iowa, but have the more impressive set of victories. Ohio State won the Big Ten while Alabama did not even win its Southeastern Conference division.
The committee rolled with the Tide, and for the first time the playoff will include two teams from the same conference. Alabama joins SEC champion Georgia and an all-SEC title game is possible.
Committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said the Iowa loss weighed Ohio State down and the Buckeyes were not close enough to the Tide for the Big Ten championship result — a 27-21 win over previously unbeaten Wisconsin — to matter.
“As we saw Alabama play week in and week in out, the selection committee believed Alabama was the better football team,” Hocutt told ESPN. “When we looked at Ohio State, when you looked at their resume it was impressive but it wasn’t enough for the selection committee to place them in above Alabama.”
Alabama (11-1) made it 4-for-4 in the playoff, the only team that has made them all. And for the third straight season, college football gets an Alabama-Clemson matchup in the playoff, though this time in the semifinals.
The Tide beat the Tigers in a classic national championship game in Glendale, Arizona, two seasons ago. The teams played another thriller last season and Clemson took the title in Tampa, Florida.
Clemson (12-1) is making its third straight playoff appearance, but first without star quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Tigers won another Atlantic Coast Conference championship with Kelly Bryant as the quarterback.
Georgia (12-1) and Oklahoma (12-1) have never played. The Bulldogs have surged in their second season under coach Kirby Smart. After winning eight games last season, Georgia won the SEC for the first time since 2005.
Oklahoma is in the playoff for the second time and will likely bring the Heisman Trophy winner. Quartreback Baker Mayfield is the favorite to win the award next weekend. If so, Mayfield will be the third player to go from winning the Heisman on to the playoff, joining Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in 2014 and Alabama’s Derrick Henry in 2015.
The Alabama-or-Ohio State debate was the trickiest of the playoff era. Most talented or most accomplished? Neither team neatly matched precedent. Ohio State made it to the playoff without even playing in its conference title game last season, but those Buckeyes had a more convincing resume, with three victories against top-10 teams. Alabama could not match that.
Not only had no team ever made the playoff with two losses, but none had as ugly a stain on its resume as Ohio State’s 31-point loss at Iowa. Tide coach Nick Saban mentioned it Saturday night on ESPN as the selection committee went to work for the last time this season.
That the most controversial playoff pick yet came down to these two teams made it an even juicer plotline. Alabama has dominated college football for a decade since Saban took over. Ohio State is one of the few teams to interrupt the Tide’s championship machine during the Saban era, beating the Tide in the semifinals in 2014 on the way to a national title.
They are two of college football’s flagship programs, rich in both tradition. Also, they are the teams the rest of college football loves to hate, the teams that always seem to get the benefit of the doubt in the rankings.
Neither had a slam dunk case. In the Top 25 released earlier Sunday, Alabama was fourth by a mere seven points over No. 5 Ohio State. Not that that matters. The committee’s process is not the same of the traditional polls.
The panel of 13 includes former and current athletic administrators, including the athletic director from Ohio State, and former coaches. They break teams into tiers, rank them, debate them and often rank them again and again until a consensus is formed.
In 2014, fans of TCU and Baylor were upset when Ohio State jumped the Texas schools on championship weekend. Last year, Ohio State was involved in a bit of a controversy again when it didn’t win its conference but got in. The final spot came down to Penn State and Washington and the Huskies won out.