By RALPH D. RUSSO
What is better (or worse, depending on perspective): Losing to Alabama by 28 on the road in early October or losing to Clemson by 24 in the Atlantic Coast Championship game Saturday?
For Notre Dame and Texas A&M, the answer to that question could determine a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The selection committee will ponder which teams should play in the final four after Alabama and Clemson convincingly locked up their spots, and Ohio State likely did the same, though not without difficulties beating Northwestern in the Big Ten championship.
The field is scheduled to be revealed Sunday at about 12:15 p.m. EST.
The Aggies (8-1), lurking at fifth in the CFP rankings, finished their regular season with a 34-13 win at Tennessee and quickly began lobbying for inclusion.
“Seven straight SEC wins. Some schools ain’t even playing seven games,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I don’t care what league you’re in. If you’re going to pick the best four teams, we’re one of them.”
Maybe the most important piece of Texas A&M’s resume is its lone loss. The Aggies fell 52-24 at No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 3. They haven’t lost since, including a comeback against SEC East champion Florida the week after losing to the Crimson Tide.
Alabama beat the Gators in the Southeastern Conference title game Saturday night behind its trio of Heisman Trophy contenders, quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and receiver DeVonta Smith.
The Tide (11-0) looked like a lock to make the playoff no matter what happened in Atlanta, but Nick Saban’s crew left no doubt it would be the top-seed.
The Fighting Irish probably thought they were safely in, too. They entered the ACC title game undefeated, with a victory over Clemson already in the bank.
The rematch could not have gone much worse for the Irish.
Notre Dame played one solid quarter before Clemson ran out to a 34-3 lead. A fourth-quarter touchdown made it look a little more respectable.
Trevor Lawrence was back in the lineup for Clemson after missing the regular-season matchup as he recovered from COVID-19. He was spectacular, making a late push for the Heisman with 412 yards of offense.
As well as Clemson freshman quarterback DJ Uiagalelei played in the overtime loss at Notre Dame, Lawrence makes a world of difference. As did having linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones and defensive tackle Tyler Davis back for the Tigers. Those three also missed the the regular-season meeting.
Clemson as No. 3 and will likely move up.
Notre Dame, sitting at No. 2 in the CFP rankings for a month, now will get thrown into a beauty contest with Texas A&M, neither conference winners.
“We’ve got two top-15 wins (including North Carolina). We’ve got a win over this Clemson team that was No. 1 in the country,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know that anybody has a resume that has those two wins. And we’ve played 11 games. … I think that in my mind puts us without question as one of the top-four teams in the country”
It doesn’t take a detective to decipher that both Fisher and Kelly were trying to drag Ohio State and its six-game season into this debate.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney did the same earlier in the week. Kelly has been beating this drum even longer. Last month, Kelly noted after beating Boston College to improve to 8-0 that the Irish had already played a full Big Ten schedule.
The Buckeyes, who have been holding steady at four, didn’t even get that many games in because of COVID-19 cancellations. They slogged through three quarters of the Big Ten title game against a game Northwestern team before pulling away late.
Ohio State’s best victories? The committee had Indiana 11th and Northwestern 14th. That’s two top-15 teams, too. At least for now.
An unbeaten Power Five champion has never been left out of the CFP. Of course, an unbeaten Power Five championship has never played only six games after its conference started late because a pandemic.
“If we had to play one game against anybody in the country, I’ll take the Ohio State Buckeyes,” coach Ryan Day said.
Anybody else want to make a case?
Oklahoma after winning the Big 12 has two losses. No two-loss team has ever made the playoff.
Cincinnati stayed unbeaten with a walk-off field goal to beat Tulsa in the American Athletic Conference championship game. The Bearcats were ninth in the last playoff rankings, a spot ahead of Oklahoma, but no team outside the Power Five conferences has ever made the playoff.
Everything about this season in a pandemic has been difficult. So it is only fitting the playoff selections will be, too.
NEW YEAR’S SIX PROJECTION
News came down Saturday night that the semifinal scheduled to be played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on Jan. 1 would be relocated to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the home of the Dallas Cowboys.
With that settled all that’s left to figure out is who is playing where.
Sugar Bowl semifinal — No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Notre Dame.
Dallas semifinal — No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State.
Fiesta Bowl — Oregon (Pac-12 champion) vs. Indiana (at-large).
Cotton Bowl — Oklahoma (Big 12 champion) vs. Florida (at-large).
Peach Bowl — Cincinnati (Group of Five champion) vs. Georgia (at-large).
Orange Bowl — North Carolina (ACC guaranteed) vs. Texas A&M.
Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/