By RALPH D. RUSSO
Championship Saturday produced edge-of-the-seat drama and something for the College Football Playoff selection committee to think about.
Not whether Oklahoma or Ohio State should take the fourth and final spot, as was debated most of the week, but Oklahoma or Georgia.
The fourth-ranked Bulldogs (11-2) weren’t good enough to beat No. 1 Alabama in a classic Southeastern Conference title game. But were they good enough to remain No. 4 in the committee’s rankings come Sunday when the four-team field is set? The Bulldogs would be the first team with two losses to make the playoff.
“I don’t know about you but I think we just saw two of the best four teams in college football play a game this evening,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey told the Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd in Atlanta on Saturday night after the Tide beat Georgia 35-28.
Oklahoma fans don’t want to hear it, not after the Sooners (12-1) made their case with a Big 12 championship victory against No. 9 Texas , avenging their only loss of the season — by 3 point in October.
“There’s no doubt we have a playoff-worthy team, but I understand that there’s other factors there too that we can’t control,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “We’ve done all we can.”
Just 11 months ago, it was Georgia beating Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma in overtime in the Rose Bowl to advance to the national title game against Alabama. Now the Bulldogs and Sooners’ resumes will go head-to-head in a conference room at a luxury hotel in Grapevine, Texas.
No. 6 Ohio State’s last chance to sway the committee came Saturday night in the Big Ten championship game against No. 21 Northwestern. The Buckeyes (12-1) likely needed an overwhelming performance to pass the Sooners and Bulldogs. Dwayne Haskins and company were awfully good, put probably not enough to erase the memory of a 29-point loss to Purdue.
“I think we deserve a shot,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
No. 2 Clemson (13-0) toyed with Pitt to win its fourth straight Atlantic Coast Conference championship and seal its spot. No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) was in the enviable spot of watching on Saturday, secure with their spot somewhere in the top four.
The wild card on Saturday was supposed to be Alabama losing to Georgia, and for a while it looked like the Bulldogs not only might beat the Tide, but do it decisively enough to at least make the committee consider leaving out the defending national champions.
Georgia was on its way to a three-touchdown lead in the third quarter, but had to settle for a 30-yard field-goal attempt that went wide left. Alabama rattled off three straight touchdowns — two from backup quarterback Jalen Hurts — to leave no doubt about its playoff spot. The Tide will be No. 1 when the committee’s final work is revealed.
It was hard not to come away from the SEC championship game agreeing with Sankey. The Bulldogs went toe-to-toe with Alabama, a team that hasn’t been challenged all year, but they also lost by 20 at No. 12 LSU in October. Does the committee really want to reward Georgia for its fourth-quarter meltdown? Congratulations, you tried hard.
The Sooners’ lousy defense played its best game in more than a month against Texas, and, yes, it’s hard to think it will have any success stopping Alabama in a 1 vs. 4 playoff matchup.
But the CFP protocol says if two teams are deemed essentially equal the conference title should basically be used as a tiebreaker. The guess here is the committee will go with the loss column and the conference championship and put Oklahoma at 4, citing the Sooners’ historic offense, as it did last week.
Georgia had its chance and blew it.
The SEC championship game might have cost Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa the Heisman Trophy to Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray.
Both players have been brilliant. The best argument for Murray over Tagovailoa was that Oklahoma’s porous defense meant Murray had to deliver in the clutch.
A good game from Tagovailoa against Georgia likely would have sent him to New York City next weekend as the clear Heisman favorite. But Tagovailoa was bad and banged up. He threw two interceptions, was 10 for 25 for 164 yards and couldn’t finish the game because of a leg injury. Murray was great again, passing for 379 yards and three touchdowns against the Longhorns.
Haskins should also be given serious consideration after finishing the season with three straight 400-yard games.
Heisman votes are due Monday. For some reason, some ballots have already been cast, which probably helps Tagovailoa. But on the biggest day of the season, Murray was at his best and Tagovailoa was at his worst.
Without injured star quarterback McKenzie Milton, No. 7 UCF rallied from 17 down at halftime to beat Memphis in the American Athletic Conference championship game, extended its winning streak to 25 games and locked up a second straight trip to a major bowl game.
It was a familiar story for the Tigers, who have lost three straight wild and painful games to UCF by a combined 149-126.
One spot in the New Year’s Six bowls is guaranteed to the highest-ranked champion from outside the Power Five. UCF was that team last season, and won the Peach Bowl against Auburn. This season the likely destination is the Fiesta Bowl, maybe to face another SEC team.
UCF fans won’t get the playoff spot they crave, but the New Year’s Six bid comes with a $4 million payoff for the conference to share.
NEW YEAR’S SIX PROJECTION
Orange Bowl (semifinal) — No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma.
Cotton Bowl (semifinal) — No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Notre Dame.
Rose Bowl — Ohio State vs. Washington.
Sugar Bowl — Georgia vs. Texas.
Fiesta Bowl — UCF vs. LSU.
Peach Bowl — Michigan vs. Florida.