Niyo: Selection committee gets it right for playoffs

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — Sometimes, style over substance really is the way to go.

So in this case, college football probably got it right, even if there’s a debate about just how the sport’s decision-makers went about doing it. Or that they dropped the ball long ago in deciding to play the national semifinals on New Year’s Eve.

Regardless, Sunday’s playoff announcement was met mostly with party horns and confetti.

It would’ve been hard to screw up this party planning, really, with the championship-weekend favorites winning out Saturday — including Michigan State, which outlasted fourth-ranked Iowa in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.

The 12-member selection committee didn’t have much to debate when it came time to deciding which four teams would get to fight over who’s the best a month from now. The only real discussion there was deciding the pecking order, and the matchups.

“We don’t look at seeding, really,” insisted Jeff Long, the selection committee chairman. “I know there are people out there (with) conspiracies, but there’s certainly none in that room. Our charge is rank that No. 1 team through four — best four teams. And that’s what we did.”

No. 3 MSU to face Alabama in Cotton Bowl in semifinal

Strength vs. strength

What they did, though, in vaulting Michigan State from No. 5 to No. 3 — ahead of an idle Big 12 champ in Oklahoma — was avoid a bit of controversy, while adding plenty of intrigue.

Clemson, the ACC champ and the nation’s lone undefeated team, certainly got its wish with a berth in the Orange Bowl in Miami. And with Oklahoma dropping to fourth in the rankings, No. 2 seed Alabama probably got what it wanted — as did the committee — by avoiding a potential home-field advantage for the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

The committee even got it right with the rest of the top-tier bowls — the “New Year’s Six” — when it rewarded Iowa its first Rose Bowl berth in 25 years while still giving Ohio State a suitable consolation prize: a Fiesta Bowl date with Notre Dame.

But here’s what the fans get: Strength vs. strength, and like-minded opponents — familiar ones at that — in two dramatically different matchups on Dec. 31. Compelling games with no clear-cut favorites.

In fact, Vegas oddsmakers actually installed top-seeded Clemson as a 21/2-point underdog to Oklahoma. And as Long said Sunday, “There were people in the room who felt Oklahoma could be the No. 1 team. All four of these teams are very close.”

But while the games are still more than three weeks away, the anticipation won’t wait.

A dream matchup

Michigan State gets a prime-time showdown with Nick Saban, its former coach, and an Alabama team led by a ferocious defense and Heisman Trophy front-runner Derrick Henry, whose individual rushing total (1,986 yards) was more than that of 53 FBS teams.

“But Michigan State prides itself on stopping the run,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “That’s their entire defensive package. It has been since (Dantonio) has been there. And Alabama has to run the ball. So it’s gonna be a lot like what Michigan State faced yesterday in Iowa.”

Throw in the irrepressible Big Ten vs. SEC debate — “Being in SEC country, this is hard to say, but the Big Ten has been the best conference in college football this year,” said ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, the so-called “Voice of the SEC” — and it’s a dream matchup, in many respects.

“Alabama lost to a Big Ten team last year,” Herbstreit added, referencing Ohio State’s semifinal surprise a year ago in New Orleans. “And Michigan State, all they hear about is the SEC. So there’s gonna be a lot of motivation for both those teams.”

Same goes for the other pairing, though, which is more than just a rematch of last year’s most-lopsided bowl result, which saw Clemson destroy Oklahoma, 40-6, in Orlando. It’s a matchup of two of the nation’s most potent offenses — each scored 500-plus points this season — with likely Heisman finalists at quarterback.

So the early semifinal figures to make everyone dizzy, and the late one will leave everyone dazed. That sounds about right on New Year’s Eve, come to think of it.