The best thing about college football is that we all feel like we own it. That’s occasionally the worst thing, too. But the passion that the sport engenders is what separates it from the NFL, thank goodness.
This has been an unusual year, from the uber-dominance of Alabama every single week to the uber-goofiness of the Big Ten Conference race, college football’s postseason inkblot test. If you have an opinion about the College Football Playoff, there’s a Big Ten team for you.
Believe in the sanctity of a conference champion? Believe in rewarding the best team? Believe that a good loss is better than a bad win? Yeah, the Big Ten’s got that.
I walked into Lucas Oil Stadium in high dudgeon that a victorious Penn State would be jobbed, that the Big Ten champion that beat Ohio State should be in line ahead of the Buckeyes. In theory, perhaps. In reality, the Nittany Lions neither looked nor played like one of the four best teams in the nation Saturday night. Their chemistry is undoubtable, their spirit unquenchable, and no team east of USC improved more over the course of the season.
But I would say the four teams in the playoff are better than Penn State, and No. 6 Michigan beat the Nittany Lions by 39 points. I don’t want to see Penn State playing Alabama.
The committee’s decision to reward Ohio State, and not the Big Ten champion, will be fodder for the eight-team playoff crowd. Maybe someone out there wants to decry the injustice of not seeing a rematch of No. 1 Alabama’s 52-6 defeat of No. 9 USC, or would love to see an Ohio State-Michigan quarterfinal rematch, or see Clemson play Oklahoma in the postseason for a third consecutive season. The charms of those three matchups escape me.
Let’s face it. We all see Alabama walking down the 18th fairway of the final round of The Open, and we expect the telecast director to cut to the shot of the engraver etching Nick Saban’s name onto the Claret Jug one more time. By this time, the guy ought to be able to do it in his sleep.
Alabama is courting history in the College Football Playoff. The semifinals will reprise one famous college football game, and one infamous.
Southern football announced itself on the national stage in the 1926 Rose Bowl when Alabama, invited only after Dartmouth, Yale and Colgate said no, beat a Washington team considered unbeatable. The Tide spotted the Huskies a 12-0 lead, but then came back in the second half to win 20-19.
We will spend the next four weeks debating Alabama’s place in history more than we will debate whether Washington, a team with the kind of speed at the skill positions that has challenged the Crimson Tide, not to mention a smart, athletic defense, will pull off the upset.
No team needs a respite more than the Crimson Tide, which lost another defensive starter to injury Saturday when linebacker Shaun Dion Hamiltonsuffered a right knee injury. Safety and kick returner Eddie Jackson already is out for the year, and cornerback Marlon Humphrey has a tender hamstring.
Ohio State and Clemson forever will be linked by the 1978 Gator Bowl, when elderly, infirm Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes punched Tigers linebacker Charlie Bauman after his late interception sealed Clemson’s 17-15 victory. Ohio State fired Hayes the next day, guaranteeing Bauman fame he never desired. More college football fans think of that game than of Clemson’s 40-35 victory over Ohio State three years ago.
The Buckeyes and the Tigers shared a propensity for winning close games, a muscle that Alabama barely even flexed. Ohio State won four games by one score, two of them in overtime over the Wolverines and No. 8 Wisconsin, and two of them over 6-6 Northwestern and 3-9 Michigan State. Perhaps the latter two are why the Buckeyes fell to No. 3.
Clemson won six games by seven points or fewer, which begs the question at what point a virtue becomes a liability. The selection committee evidently appreciated that four of Clemson’s close victories came against teams in the final 25.
But let’s not allow the X’s and O’s to overtake these games just yet. History is hovering close by no matter who wins. If Alabama extends its winning streak to 27 games, the comparisons to the sport’s greatest teams will begin in earnest. And if Washington, Clemson or Ohio State knocks off Alabama, there will be a page in college football’s family bible for that game, too.
Either way, the playoff will be making history.