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It’s all about the Irish.
The other three spots in Sunday’s College Football Playoff announcements should be locks. But the fourth selection could bring drama.
Undefeated Alabama will be No. 1 after getting by Florida, 52-46, in the SEC championship game. Clemson, without a loss when Trevor Lawrence is under center, is No. 2 following its 34-10 dismantling of Notre Dame in the ACC final. Ohio State, despite playing just six games, has the inside track on the third seed thanks to its shorthanded, grind-it-out, 22-10 victory over Northwestern in the Big Ten title game.
Then, it comes down to Notre Dame, and how much its no-show performance on Saturday impacts coach Brian Kelly’s team. There is now at least a discussion, questions if a poor final impression could sway the 13-member committee into passing on the Irish, who were ranked second in the latest College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday. There hasn’t been this much uncertainty since the first year of the playoff, when Ohio State leapfrogged TCU in 2014.
The leading contender to replace the Irish on Sunday would be one-loss Texas A&M, which closed the season with seven straight wins and was ranked fifth on Tuesday. It sets up an intriguing decision, pitting the powerhouse SEC against one of the most popular and iconic programs in the country. As always, ratings will be considered, and few teams draw more eyeballs than Notre Dame.
Like Notre Dame, the Aggies’ one loss was an ugly one, a 52-24 setback to Alabama on Oct. 3.
The two teams have similar résumés, though Notre Dame’s is better. The Irish have four wins over teams above .500 and Texas A&M has just two. It has two top-25 wins, compared to one for its SEC counterpart, and has played two more games, and as a result owns two more wins. It’s best win, over Clemson, is more impressive than the Aggies’ best victory, a three-point home win over three-loss Florida on Oct. 10, even if the Gators became the first team on Saturday night to push Alabama this year.
The caveat is the state of Clemson in the double-overtime loss to Notre Dame. It was without Lawrence, the presumed No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft, and three key defensive starters, James Skalski, Tyler Davis and Mike Jones Jr. In the rematch, the Tigers manhandled the ACC regular season champions, dominating on both sides of the ball en route to their sixth straight conference crown.
Another factor: Notre Dame won its regular season conference title. It played in the league’s championship game. Texas A&M couldn’t say it has done either, even if it did defeat Florida, the SEC East winner. In the six-year history of the playoff, only two teams — Ohio State in 2016 and Alabama in 2017 — have been selected without reaching their conference championship game.
“We’ve got two top-15 wins,” Kelly told reporters Saturday after the lopsided loss to Clemson. “We’ve got a win over this Clemson team that was No. 1 in the country. I don’t know that anybody has a résumé that has those two wins, and we’ve played 11 games. That matters, playing 11 games. Testing your team week in and week out I think in my mind puts us as without question as one of the top four teams in the country.”
Predictably, Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher used the strength of the SEC as the basis of his argument on Saturday, and took aim at Ohio State and not Notre Dame, claiming that the amount of games a team plays needs to be factored in. He also pointed out that no one-loss SEC team has ever not been included in the playoff and when the Aggies faced Alabama, it had superstar receiver Jaylen Waddle, who has been out since October with a broken ankle.
“If you’re gonna pick the best four teams, we’re one of them,” Fisher said.
That’s, of course, up for debate.
It’s hard to envision anyone else really being in play, though other contenders include undefeated Cincinnati of the AAC, and Big 12 champion and two-loss Oklahoma. Both, however, are long shots.
Ranked ninth, Cincinnati lacks the type of win the committee values — No. 23 Tulsa doesn’t cut it — plus a non power-conference program has never been invited to the playoff. Oklahoma is streaking at the right time, with seventh straight wins, three top-25 victories, a victory over sixth-ranked Iowa State and four wins over teams with a .500 record or better. However, a two-loss team has never been selected, and a setback to four-win Kansas State is a major stain on the resume.
It almost certainly will come down to Notre Dame and Texas A&M. Early Sunday afternoon, we find out what this committee values more: Résumé or recency.
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