Faced with a tricky choice, the College Football Playoff selection committee played it safe and fell back on some simple criteria: One loss is better than two. Winning a conference championship is better than not. Go with the team that avoided getting blown out.
Oklahoma is in the playoff over Georgia and Ohio State, moving into the fourth and final spot Sunday after the Sooners avenged their only loss by winning the Big 12 championship against Texas.
“I feel like we have a team worthy of it, a team that can go make a run,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said on ESPN.
The Sooners (12-1) will face No. 1 Alabama (13-0) in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 29 in a matchup of Heisman Trophy front-runner quarterbacks — Kyler Murray of Oklahoma and the Tide’s Tua Tagovailoa, who sprained his ankle in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday and is expected to be laid up for two weeks.
No. 2 Clemson (13-0) plays No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) in the Cotton Bowl on the same day. The winners meet in the championship game on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, California.
The rest of the New Year’s Six bowl matchups are UCF vs. LSU in the Fiesta Bowl; Florida vs. Michigan in the Peach Bowl; Ohio State vs. Washington in the Rose Bowl; and Texas vs. Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Georgia (11-2) dropped a spot to fifth and Ohio State (12-1) remained sixth in the selection committee’s final top 25. The Bulldogs lost to Alabama in the SEC championship game Saturday and the Buckeyes won the Big Ten against Northwestern. The Sooners paid back a three-point loss to Texas in a Red River Rivalry rematch.
The 13-member selection committee, given the intentionally vague task of picking the four best teams in college football, was watching games and deliberating at a hotel in Grapevine, Texas, until 1:30 a.m. CT Sunday, committee chairman Rob Mullens said. The committee finished its top four at 10:30 a.m. CT.
Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame separated from the pack by going undefeated.
The tough call was at No. 4. Mullens said the committee determined none of Oklahoma, Georgia and Ohio State was unequivocally best and that brought the selection protocol into play. The protocol says conference championships, head-to-head results, strength of schedule and comparative outcomes are used as virtual tiebreakers when teams are close. No factor is weighted more than another.
“This is an art, not a science,” said Mullens, who is the athletic director at Oregon.
Oklahoma’s conference championship gave it the edge over Georgia. The Bulldogs’ strength of schedule, with losses to ranked teams, gave Georgia the edge over Ohio State, Mullens said.
Oklahoma is making its third appearance in the five-year-old playoff. Defending national champion Alabama has played in them all. Clemson is making its fourth straight appearance. Notre Dame is in the playoff for the first time, making it 10 teams in five seasons to participate in the playoff. Unbeaten UCF finished eighth in the final rankings, nowhere to be found in the committee’s playoff discussion. The Knights will put their 25-game winning streak on the line against another SEC team after beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl last season.
The debate leading up to championship Saturday was whether Oklahoma or Ohio State would take the fourth spot if Alabama beat Georgia.
The wild card was Georgia beating the mighty Tide, which could have meant two SEC teams for the second straight season. Instead, the Bulldogs lost but played well enough to allow coach Kirby Smart to make that case that Georgia should remain in the top four. Smart told reporters after the SEC title game to ask Alabama coach Nick Saban which team he would like to avoid in the playoff? Saban, of course, endorsed his former defensive coordinator and conference-mate.
The committee didn’t buy it and stayed with the one consistent data point throughout the five years of playoff selections: No team with more than one loss has ever made the playoff.
Also, Mullens noted, only two of 20 playoff teams have not won a conference title.
For the second straight season, two Power Five conferences were left out of the playoff. Again it was the Big Ten and Pac-12.
“The CFP committee does its best and I appreciate their commitment to college football,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told the AP in a text message. “Not frustrated at all because I know we have three teams capable of winning it all, but only have four playoff slots.”
Ohio State was the first team out last season and again was squeezed because of a lopsided loss to an unranked team. The Buckeyes were blown out by Purdue in October, similar to the way they lost at Iowa in 2017.
“A three-point loss to a ranked team on a neutral field is different than the only loss amongst that peer group to an unranked team, and obviously we did take note that Georgia’s two losses were against the No. 1 team in our rankings and what ultimately ended up being the No. 11 team (LSU),” Mullens said. ” Sure, that was part of the discussion, but it was just one part of it.”
Georgia has been rolling since losing by 20 at LSU in October and had Alabama on the ropes before the Tide erased a 14-point deficit. The Bulldogs proved they could hang against the best, but it was not enough to sway the committee into making an unprecedented playoff pick.