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LSU, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma top final college football rankings as playoff is set

Oh, but wait, it pitted opponents with defenses that rank, in total defense, check it, No. 1 (Clemson) and No. 2 (Ohio State). In yards-per-play defense, it managed to mingle the defenses ranked first (Ohio State) and second (Clemson).

Then, this whole funky, freaky system did something else: It set it up so that whichever ironclad-great 13-0 team comes out of that scrap might oppose — if No. 1 LSU (13-0) can beat No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1) — LSU, on Jan. 13, in New Orleans, maybe even two days after the Saints play a home playoff game.

All that might actually break New Orleans.

So many others have tried.

Sure, you might sound like a kook to anybody from afar when you start talking about a 13-member committee meeting weekly for six weeks in a gussied-up hotel near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, churning out playoff contestants at noon on a closing Sunday and then, by 3, declaring how the other most treasured and treasure-filled bowls would go. The Rose Bowl will pit No. 6 Oregon (11-2) against No. 8 Wisconsin (10-3); the Sugar Bowl will have No. 5 Georgia (11-2) against No. 7 Baylor (11-2); the Orange Bowl will match No. 9 Florida (10-2) and No. 24 Virginia (9-4); and the Cotton Bowl will welcome No. 10 Penn State (10-2) and No. 17 Memphis (12-1), which snared the annual Group of Five spot — the Group of Five being the tier below the Power Five in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

I mean, who in the world talks like that, let alone talks like that as an entire culture, as if it’s normal?

Of course, the College Football Playoff selection committee is among the nuttiest anthropological developments in human history, and it’s just a notch too opaque, and its spokesman could do better describing the tenor of the talks and the wee margins between teams. And it faced such a maze while disentangling No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Ohio State on Sunday that it never could have achieved a steep fairness.

And, of course, it’s also the least lazy and best damned solution we’ve had in this 150-year national habit of having students (and those occasional alleged students) playing football in front of giant, desperate audiences. If we still had the Bowl Championship Series, either LSU, Ohio State or Clemson would have been omitted, much as was, say, No. 3 Auburn (13-0), achingly, in 2004. If we still had what we had before that, somebody might play a bowl on one coast and somebody else might play a bowl on the other, and then they would quibble for the rest of their lives without either having much clue about the other.

There might be outrages such as 1978-79, when Alabama (11-1) got the Associated Press national title, with Southern California (12-1) at No. 2, despite the curious fact that Southern California had gone to Birmingham and manhandled Alabama on an actual, legendary field.

For an illustration of the better era we occupy, observe Utah. Utah became a scourge Friday night when it went into the Pac-12 championship game with Oregon at No. 5 on the cusp of the playoff and then, as can happen with the young, got out there in the lights and lost its sense of itself. It lost, 37-15, and quarterback Tyler Huntley said: “The stage was set. We didn’t show up.”

Yet Utah’s very opportunity underscored something Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott told reporters in Santa Clara during pregame, about how Utah had a chance because the committee “actually watches the games” and “looks beyond brands.”

Had Baylor, another non-brand, squeezed out of overtime with Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, with overtime always at least part lottery, the Bears might have gone from 1-11 to the playoff within two seasons. Instead, they have gone from 1-11 to 11-2 and their first Sugar Bowl in 62 years.

Everybody’s effort and prowess get considered and weighed more than ever before. Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney continued his path of desperate motivational oratory toward a team with 28 straight wins Sunday during Clemson’s annual selection-day pizza party, the occasion that makes Clemson even more impressive, the way it can master the playoffs after gorging on carbs and gluten. “The first time since 1966,” Swinney told his players, “that a team started the season No. 1, went undefeated through the regular season and finished third. So that’s history. First time that’s happened. So congratulations on that.”

Left unstated beneath that caper is that there should have been many more cases through the years in which that very thing happened, if our forbears had not been so careless and lethargic about rankings from week to week. Clemson will win this national title — yes, it will — but the committee easily could analyze its one win over a ranked team (No. 24 Virginia) set against the five for Ohio State (No. 8 twice, No. 10, No. 14, No. 21, with one on the road) and the mighty four for LSU (Nos. 5, 9, 12, 13, with pretty much two on the road). Gone are the days of being No. 1 in August because certain people thought so, then remaining No. 1 whatever happens through the fall because certain people thought so in August.

So, yes, with that LSU-Ohio State brainteaser, where neither call would have been right or wrong, the committee had to make a choice sure to stir wails because we wouldn’t want to live without the wails. LSU had to overcome having played a team from the Football Championship Subdivision — the second or third tier, depending upon your conversation — in Northwestern State, which went 3-9. Ohio State’s three, routed nonconference opponents appeared in conference championship games this past weekend, going 2-1. LSU won not only at Alabama but at Alabama when it was Tago-bama. LSU demolished Georgia in Atlanta, and committee chairman Rob Mullens cited an “LSU defense that’s healthy and playing solidly, and add to that an impressive win against a Georgia team that was our No. 4 team.”

Across six weeks, the committee had Ohio State at No. 1, then LSU for two weeks, then Ohio State for two weeks, then LSU at last. That kind of flimflam is precisely how things ought to operate. And then to boot, while 13 members might have had REM dreams in which avalanches of statistics chase them across fields, here comes Ohio State vs. Clemson, and that’s just dreamy.


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