Quick Reactions: Alabama still has a viable shot at College Football Playoff’s top seed
Here are five off-the-cuff reactions to Tuesday’s fifth (and penultimate) release of the College Football Playoff committee’s top 25:
1. It’s a little surprising Oklahoma didn’t (momentarily) leapfrog Alabama for the No. 2 slot
Boy, the Playoff committee must have been blown away by Alabama’s October/November victories over UGA, Texas A&M and LSU — all top-10 teams immediately before facing the Crimson Tide. It’s the only rationale to explain the substantial separation between the Crimson Tide and Oklahoma Sooners, the latter of which has already clinched an outright conference championship (Big 12).
Earlier Tuesday, I offered a pseudo Tale of the Tape pitting No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 2 Alabama; and citing 10 crucial factors involving both schools, it figured that Oklahoma would prevail over Alabama this week — based on the extra “bump” of an official conference title.
(Alabama, the SEC West champ, can capture its own conference crown versus Florida on Saturday.)
But that wasn’t the case; and if anything, it now appears that Alabama had a better chance of eclipsing No. 1 Clemson … than Oklahoma had of passing the Crimson Tide in the same rankings release.
Here’s a recap of the aforementioned Tale Of The Tape — Alabama vs. Oklahoma:
**Using ESPN’s current Football Power Index, Oklahoma and Alabama hold the No. 1 and No. 2 slots, respectively.
**Citing TeamRankings.com’s “Strength Of Schedule” analysis, Oklahoma and Alabama own the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, as well.
**Total offense: Oklahoma ranks seventh nationally; Alabama stands at 51st overall.
**Total defense: Alabama ranks second nationally; Oklahoma sits at 31st overall.
**Alabama (SEC West champion) needs to beat Florida to win the SEC title.
**The Sooners have posted more victories over top-10 FPI teams (two) than the Crimson Tide (zero).
**On the flip side, Alabama has more FPI wins over top top-40 schools (eight) than Oklahoma (six).
**Citing the vast majority of metrics, Alabama’s loss to No. 13 Ole Miss supersedes Oklahoma’s bad October loss to Texas (4-7 overall).
**Common opponents: Both Alabama and Oklahoma collected narrow victories over Tennessee.
**Finishing kick: For its title-clinching run, Oklahoma recently swept through Big 12 powers Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State over three consecutive Saturdays — with an average victory margin of 15.3 points.
IT’S ALL MOOT …
… If Clemson trumps North Carolina on Saturday (ACC title game), the battle for No. 2 between Oklahoma and Alabama won’t matter too much.
As the top seed, Clemson would most likely garner an invitation to the Orange Bowl (Miami) — a more ACC-friendly locale for the Tigers.
By extension, the Crimson Tide, as the Playoff’s 2- or 3-seed, would incur a de facto “road” game in the Cotton Bowl, inside mammoth AT&T Stadium (home of the Dallas Cowboys) — and deep in the heart of Big 12 country.
2. It’s ‘Roll Tide Or Bust’ for the SEC in the four-team Playoff chase
Let’s be honest: Short of a one-sided demolition of No. 2 Alabama in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game, No. 18 Florida (down six spots from last week) has no plausible chance of vaulting 14 slots and earning a berth in the national semifinals.
It’s too daunting of a leap for a Gators offense which has averaged just 10.3 points in its last three home outings (narrow victories over Vanderbilt, Florida Atlantic and a 25-point defeat to Florida State).
And by “demolition,” it would have to be something between Ohio State’s 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin last year (Big Ten title game) … and Georgia Tech’s famous 222-0 rout of Cumberland College, circa 1916.
As such, it’ll be interesting to see how Alabama plays early on against Florida (at the Georgia Dome). Tight? Aggressive? Indifferent? Nervous?
It’s one thing to feel the internalized pressure of representing your school, fans and rabid alumni, but it’s another to carry the conference’s burden of potential embarrassment — if the SEC gets excluded from the Playoff.
But then again, maybe Alabama head coach Nick Saban will use this unique occurrence as a motivational tool for his team, which currently stands as a two-touchdown-plus favorite over Florida. (For what it’s worth, the Crimson Tide have reeled off nine consecutive wins … with an average victory margin of 22.5 points.)
3. Top-ranked Clemson could be the ACC’s lone Playoff representative — win or lose come Saturday
North Carolina (11-1 overall, ACC Coastal champs) deserves props for its amazing rise over the last month. Just four weeks ago, when the inaugural rankings were released, the Tar Heels weren’t even part of the original top 25; and since then, they’ve steadily ascended from 23 to 17 to 14 to 10 (their current slot).
Now for the bad news: Even if UNC pulls off a sizable upset of No. 1 Clemson, it’s easier to envision No. 7 Stanford securing an invitation to the national semifinals — presuming the Cardinal take care of business against Southern California (Pac-12 title game).
Within that rationale, it all comes back to North Carolina’s tailor-made schedule (two FCS opponents, one bad loss to South Carolina, no regular-season clashes with Florida State, Clemson, Louisville or Notre Dame) … versus Stanford’s ambitious slate of Notre Dame, Oregon, Southern California, Arizona, Washington, UCLA and Northwestern.
For that head-to-head comparison, a two-loss Stanford club would presumably trump a one-loss North Carolina squad — despite the Heels’ potential for 12 straight victories.
Which brings us to Clemson: The Tigers currently own top-15 wins over Florida State and Notre Dame; and since the Oct. 3 triumph over the Fighting Irish, Clemson (12-0) has enjoyed double-digit point spreads for seven of its final eight victories — with the lone exception being South Carolina from last Saturday.
(The Gamecocks scored a touchdown with one second left in the fourth quarter, making the 37-32 final score more respectable.)
Bottom line: A decade ago, elite teams like Nebraska (2001) and Oklahoma (2003) could absorb the humiliation of a regular-season-capping loss and still reach the BCS title game. But in this modern age of experienced committee members — and not computers — making the final decisions, Clemson likely needs a Saturday victory to clinch an Orange Bowl berth.
There is one caveat, however: If a two-fer combination of Southern California, North Carolina and/or Florida should emerge victorious on Saturday, Clemson stands as the only Championship Weekend loser … with a chance of reaching the national semifinals.
But why put things to chance?
4. Don’t read too much into Stanford’s No. 7 ranking, nestled behind three Big Ten schools
I’ve had a number of colorful exchanges with Ohio State fans in the last few days, many of whom believe the 29-point rout of Michigan should be enough to move the Buckeyes into the four-team playoff — IF Alabama or Clemson should falter this weekend.
And why not? No. 6 Ohio State could easily rise two slots in the final countdown, without playing on the first Saturday of December. Either Iowa or Michigan State (Big Ten title game) will lose this weekend, and Clemson certainly has its hands full against North Carolina.
But over the last 14 months, we’ve repeatedly heard the Playoff committee’s mantra of how Conference Championships Matter; and if that’s the case, a two-loss Stanford team (as the presumptive Pac-12 champs) should leapfrog a one-loss Ohio State squad — even if the Buckeyes’ only setback occurred against a playoff team (Michigan State).
In earnest, Ohio State can only force the Playoff committee’s hand if Clemson and Stanford tumble this weekend. Otherwise, the Buckeyes will simply have to “settle” for playing in the Rose Bowl — you know, traditionally the highest-rated bowl game of ’em all.
5. Don’t count on the Playoff format expanding to six or eight teams anytime soon
In a perfect world, college football’s ultimate tournament would include eight clubs — every Power 5 champion, the best Group Of Five school and two other wild cards, regardless of conference affiliation. In that scenario, the national outcry would be significantly quieter than the current, inescapable conundrum of shoehorning five conference champions (plus Notre Dame, during elite-level seasons) into four semifinal slots.
But here’s the reality check: The NCAA already has enough trouble plugging the holes for its 40 bowls (excluding the national championship), so much that a number of 5-7 teams (Kentucky, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, East Carolina, Buffalo, etc.) might be asked to fill out the holiday dance card.
In other words, if two or even four more teams were added to the playoff mix in future years, that would require a higher number of 5-7 schools partaking in the bowl system. And frankly, that’s not good for the long-term health of the non-premium bowls.
As Exhibit A, check out Jerry Palm’s current bowl projections: With a four-team playoff, the sexiest, non-New Year’s Six matchups entail TCU versus Oregon (Alamo Bowl) and Michigan versus Florida (Citrus Bowl). Even with TCU and Florida garnering in-state bowl invites and facing prominent opponents … there’s still no guarantee of both stadiums selling every available ticket.
And that’s kind of sad. For many modern fans, particularly those living in a Larry Culpepper-dominated world, it’s Playoff Or Bust.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.