Oh, there’s chaos all right in college football. Tennessee is conducting a clinic on how to properly butcher a coaching search. Big-time positions have popped open from Florida to UCLA to Texas A&M to Nebraska to Arkansas. And Urban Meyer is still hunting for the perpetrator who allegedly clobbered his quarterback on the Michigan Stadium sideline.
That’s all colorfully chaotic, but it’s kid’s chaos compared to what could be lurking this weekend. And there’s one team that can save us from it, one team that can deliver blissful playoff peace for another year.
Not to pile on the pressure, but it’s up to you, Wisconsin.
If the Badgers don’t beat the Buckeyes in the Big Ten championship game Saturday night – they’re a touchdown underdog – the reaction will be over-wrought and needlessly dramatic. That’s because the selection committee then might have to choose between 11-2 Ohio State and 11-1 Alabama for the fourth playoff spot, between Meyer and Nick Saban, between the Big Ten and the SEC, between obnoxious and obnoxiouser.
The Crimson Tide look like the clear choice to me, but a dominant performance by the Buckeyes against the Badgers could alter some fragile minds. And if that happens, the playoff expand-aholics will redouble their efforts for all the wrong reasons.
I tried to warn people the slope would get slippery once a playoff was launched, and sure enough, it’s never enough for some. Listen, if you simply think an eight-team field is the ideal number and ensures each Power Five conference champion gets in, OK, I get it. But basically, there’s already an eight-team field, with the conference title matchups serving as play-in playoff games.
There’s no inherent problem with the four-team format, now in its fourth season, and let me say for the 1,857th time, there’s no overwhelming reason to make it eight, or 16, or 32, or 128. Please don’t pretend expansion has to happen to prevent a team from getting shafted, because once again, no one is getting shafted.
Actually, it could work out perfectly cleanly. The Clemson-Miami winner in the ACC is in. The Auburn-Georgia winner in the SEC is in. Oklahoma is in if it beats TCU for the Big 12 championship. Wisconsin is in if it beats Ohio State. Good night everybody!
How could this get messy? Really, two ways: If only Wisconsin loses, or only Oklahoma loses. If both fall, no problem, Ohio State and Alabama take the slots.
Even if only the Sooners lose, there’s not much of an argument, with Alabama the obvious next-best team. The debate will roar if only Wisconsin loses, but really, is it that close between the No. 5 Crimson Tide and No. 8 Buckeyes?
Ohio State lost by 15 at home to Oklahoma and by 31 at Iowa. Alabama fell once, at Auburn 26-14, and didn’t look good doing so. The Crimson Tide’s schedule was murky – LSU and Mississippi State were the best victories – but I think Saban sometimes battles his own program’s legacy. It’s easy to say this isn’t a classically great Alabama team, as long as you don’t turn around and say it’s a classically great Ohio State team.
And how about this dilemma: If Oklahoma goes ahead and beats TCU early Saturday, Alabama must root for an Ohio State victory (to knock Wisconsin out) at night – but not too impressive of a victory. It can’t be like the thrashing the Buckeyes handed the Badgers in 2014, winning 59-0.
That produced the only significant controversy of the current system. Those one-loss Buckeyes leapt past TCU and Baylor into the fourth seed, which seemed unfair at the time. And then Ohio State beat Alabama and Oregon to win the championship, and the “controversy” was lost to the pages of reality.
One thing we’ve always known about college football is, you can bypass the TCUs and UCFs, the Baylors and Boises, but when you ruffle royalty, you face consequences. The playoff has been the Alabama Invitational, with the Crimson Tide appearing in all three, winning one. Ohio State has been nearly as good, but was pounded by Clemson 31-0 last year.
Recent outcomes aren’t necessarily factors in the slotting, but last I checked, members of the selection committee are actual humans, not computer algorithms. That’s partly why one-loss Ohio State got in last year over two-loss Big Ten champion Penn State.
Does it seem wrong a team can make the playoff without winning its conference? I suppose it does, in a vacuum. But the Power Five conferences are so unbalanced, champions aren’t created equally. Wisconsin gets to roll through the Big Ten’s West wasteland, while Ohio State had to beat Penn State and Michigan State. The Big 12 only has 10 teams, and just this season finally added a championship game.
So, sorry to do this, but it’s all on the Badgers, and if they fail, oh the horror. There could be two SEC teams in the field (Auburn-Georgia winner and Alabama) and zero Big Ten teams. All the ground the Big Ten has gained, perception-wise, and all the cheers the playoff has generated would be roiled by outrage.
The Badgers have a shot, although they’ve only played one ranked team (Northwestern). They’ve won 10 of 12 by double digits and have the nation’s top-ranked defense, although partly because of their tragically soft schedule.
Alas, if legally forced to pick, I have the Buckeyes beating the Badgers 27-23, producing this field: Clemson, Auburn, Oklahoma, Alabama. Champion: Oklahoma.
Generally speaking, I’m not anti-chaos. I am anti-whining (believe it or not), and the Saban-Meyer campaign would be entertaining for about 15 minutes, then overbearing. If Ohio State indeed wins the Big Ten title in modest fashion, I think the committee ultimately won’t ignore two losses by a combined 46 points, forcing Meyer to glumly chew on cold pizza and mutter about conspiracy theories.
The tide would rise for the Tide, which is still nothing to celebrate. So back to my original suggestion: Grab some Bucky Badger gear, raise a mug, and help protect the Big Ten’s dignity.