You can make the case that Alabama was better prepared and better coached than Clemson was on New Years’ Day. You can make the case that this was the team Alabama would have been in November if they had not been decimated by injuries. You can make the case that Dabo Swinney should have stopped talking sooner.
But please don’t say that this validates the decision of the committee.
The College Football Playoff Committee could have selected any four teams for the two semifinals on January 1, and two of those teams would have won, and we could have said after the game that the committee was justified in their selection. That is more a testament to the fact that every game has a winner and a loser than to the theory that Alabama winning proves that they knew what they were doing. Couldn’t we just as easily say that the outcome proves that Clemson didn’t belong? What we do know, as the results of several stunning upsets this season prove, is that once you put two teams on a football field anything can happen, which makes it incumbent that the four semifinalists be chosen based on something other than twelve subjective opinions, because the least worthy of those four teams has a 25 per cent chance of being national champions.
We could have invited Auburn, Syracuse, and Iowa State and used the same rationale. After all, those teams beat the four teams that made the playoff (Auburn beat both Georgia and Alabama), so by winning those games they proved their superiority. The only team that argument can’t be used against is Central Florida, who went undefeated and won their bowl against the team that beat Alabama and Georgia, and the committee rewarded that achievement by ranking the Knights 12th. Maybe if they changed their name to something that didn’t sound so mid-major, like the University of Orlando, they would have gotten more respect.
We know that Alabama has a great team. We also know that the SEC played an entire conference schedule, and that Alabama didn’t win. We also know that Alabama avoided playing the top five teams in the SEC East and still didn’t win their division. We know that their non-conference schedule consisted of Mercer, Colorado State, Fresno State, and underachieving Florida State. None of that is their fault; you play who the schedule tells you to play, the same as Central Florida. But it is disingenuous to say that Alabama belongs in the playoff because of their resume; in the only game on the schedule against a team that ended the season ranked in the top 15, the Tide was thumped by Auburn.
We can dance around this all night and still not find an answer we agree on. The Big Ten went 7-1 in bowls and its champion (which beat two teams ranked in the top fifteen and won its bowl as convincingly as Alabama) missed the playoff. The bowl results don’t invalidate the committee’s decision any more than Alabama winning its semifinal validates it, but it points to the fact that you make a decision based on a fugazi you can interpret the results of that decision any way you like and make it seem reasonable.
Which is what the committee did. Which is how you get vague terminology like “body of work” and “eye test” that has nothing to do with wins and losses and championships to justify who gets into the playoff. It’s completely understandable why it works out this way, especially since the first goal of every committee ever formed is to perpetuate its own relevance. If the committee establishes a precedent that only conference champions get into the playoff, or some other objective standard, we would not need to spend the entire month of November obsessing over their innermost thoughts. Maybe after a few years we would decide that the committee only needs five people, or that they could do their meetings by Skype instead of renting out the top floor of a plush hotel. Eventually we would realize that the playoff participants are decided on Saturday, not Tuesday, and ESPN would stop drooling every time CFP director Bill Hancock opens his mouth. Like you and me, Hancock has an ego, and he has undoubtedly grown to enjoy the attention he gets when the committee makes a controversial decision. That’s an incentive to keep making controversial decisions.
My guess is that the committee looked at the last two close calls it made, realized that it chose Ohio State both of those times, and decided to give someone else the last seat this time. The Buckeyes made themselves vulnerable with their turd sandwich against Iowa in November, so they really can’t complain. This isn’t about who got screwed, though. It’s not even about choosing the four best teams. Nobody would say that the 12 best teams made the NFL playoffs, but the teams were chosen based on a standard that everyone understood before the season, and the teams that failed to meet that standard have only themselves to blame.
College football should follow the same principle.