Did the College Football Playoff committee get it right?
Like a piece of modern art, perhaps, it depends on your point of reference.
Throughout the LSU fan base — still giddy over the double-barreled delight of Saturday’s rout of Georgia and Joe Burrow’s impending Heisman Trophy coronation — two weeks of anxiety gave way to euphoria Sunday as the Tigers earned the No. 1 seed and a date with No. 4 Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 28.
Just a reward, LSU fans will say, for their team’s 13-0 record.
Undefeated LSU booted Ohio State to secure the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoffs on Sunday.
In Ohio, except for that pocket of purple-and-gold-clad Burrow rooters in his hometown of Athens, they’re feeling shafted after also going 13-0 and being labeled the nation’s most complete team.
And at Clemson, well, respect for those 13-0 Tigers has been overshadowed by a lot of whining on the part of coach Dabo Swinney. That, though, looks an awful lot like a motivational ploy for a dangerous team that needs new challenges to extend what may be a burdensome 28-game winning streak.
Ultimately, in the race for that No. 1 seed and the added bonus of avoiding Clemson in a semifinal, résumé won out over the eye test. LSU’s perfect record against a tougher schedule allowed the Tigers to out lean the Buckeyes at the finishing line.
But, as CFP selection committee chairman Rob Mullens said Sunday, in his most candid comments yet about the process, it was very close.
“You’ve got two complete teams, obviously,” Mullens said on ESPN. “Both added a conference championship. LSU was 4-0 against teams in the top 13 and Ohio State was 5-0 against the top 21. It was really close.”
Ultimately there were two factors that tipped the balance to LSU. One was beating No. 4 Georgia 37-10 in the SEC championship game before what was about a 70-30 pro-Bulldogs crowd in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That gave the Tigers two wins over teams that were in the top four at the time — the victory at then CFP No. 3 Alabama was the other — away from home. Those were wins that trumped the best wins Ohio State had, a pair of victories over Wisconsin (No. 13 when it lost at Ohio State and No. 8 when it lost to the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game).
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The other factor was an LSU defense that has rebounded smartly from being turned into grated cheese by Ole Miss back on Nov. 16. The Tigers held Texas A&M and Georgia to a combined 17 points the past two weeks, forcing turnovers, sending quarterbacks like Kellen Mond and Jake Fromm running for cover. Along with an LSU offense that pounded a Georgia defense that came in ranked No. 2 in the country helped the Tigers pass the eye test as well. Like it or not, the CFP rankings are determined not by formula but purely by the opinions of a 13-person committee.
In the end, after waves of criticism, they liked the Tigers more.
“The last couple of weeks we’ve seen an LSU defense that’s healthy and playing better and continuing to get quality play out of Joe Burrow,” Mullens said.
“It was a similar debate we had every week. These two teams were extremely close. One does something, improves in an element to move just above the other. LSU is healthy, playing solid and beat a Georgia team that was our No. 4 last week. That moved LSU that one last time over Ohio State.”
Lincoln Riley made Ed Orgeron laugh.
Before we go, it’s worth mentioning how different this CFP final four could have turned out. What if North Carolina had made that two-point conversion back in September and held on to beat Clemson? What if Cincinnati hadn’t suffered season-ending back-to-back losses to lose the AAC title and Cotton Bowl trip to Memphis, diluting Ohio State’s strength of schedule?
Closer to home, what if SEC refs had put one more second back on the clock in the Iron Bowl and Alabama had found a way to beat Auburn instead of being shut out of the CFP for the first time? The CFP got what it really wants, which is four different conference champions (or three and Notre Dame). It has never taken a one-loss team that didn’t make its conference championship game over a one-loss Power Five conference champion. But considering all of Oklahoma’s close losses this year, could an 11-1 Alabama team been the one to break the mold and be staring across the sideline from LSU in the postseason once again?
LSU is officially the team to beat in the 2019 College Football Playoff.
As it is, the Tigers will be getting that Alabama factor from former Crimson Tide turned Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts, who has a great chance to be a Heisman finalist along with Burrow when that elite group is announced Monday. Hurts has been turnover prone in 2019, but his 50 touchdowns (32 passing, 18 rushing) along with his 1,255 yards rushing is a frightening prospect for an LSU team still smarting from being John Rhys Plumlee-d against Ole Miss.
Worries of Oklahoma’s prolific offense putting the Hurts on LSU in the Peach Bowl are for another day. For now, in this frenzied December of huge postseason games and major awards, there is justly earned satisfaction for LSU on being judged the best team going.
Now, after two weeks of trying to prove the CFP committee wrong, they have the task of proving it right.