GRAPEVINE, Texas — This year in the College Football Playoff, the Big 12 was only a bystander to the drama when the selections were made Sunday.
The conference already had Oklahoma safely in the four-team field with no chance of being jilted.
The big story was elsewhere. Alabama (11-1), which didn’t even play in the SEC title game Saturday, claimed the fourth spot ahead of Big Ten champion Ohio State (11-2) in a battle of name brands. For the second straight year, the committee took a team that didn’t win its conference — Ohio State made it last season — and for the first time took two teams from the same conference.
“The committee’s conclusion that Alabama is the fourth best team in the nation was widespread and strong,” said selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt, the Texas Tech athletic director. “It was unequivocal. It was informative, for instance, to hear the coaches’ point of view about how and why they believed Alabama is a better team than Ohio State.”
The New Year’s Day semifinals are set with ACC champ Clemson, the defending CFP champion, facing Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Big 12 champ Oklahoma will face SEC winner Georgia in the Rose Bowl, the first meeting of the schools.
Elsewhere in New Year’s Six, the Goodyear Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29 may have landed the top matchup outside the playoff with CFP No. 5 Ohio State facing No. 8 Southern Cal, a meeting of the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions normally reserved for the Rose Bowl.
The Big 12 lost a second team in the New Year’s Six bowls with the return of its title game. TCU, which fell to Oklahoma for the Big 12 championship, plunged to 15th in the final CFP rankings. The Horned Frogs will face Stanford at the Alamo Bowl.
Kelsie Patterson, the wife of the TCU coach Gary Patterson, tweeted soon after the rankings were released a picture saying that “a camel is a horse designed by a committee.”
The choice of Alabama over Ohio State was a test for the committee. For the first three years of the CFP, the committee had emphasized the quality wins. This year brought the notion of the disastrous loss. Ohio State was blown out 55-24 last month at Iowa. Alabama coach Nick Saban targeted the loss Saturday as a possible disqualifier for the Buckeyes.
The argument apparently gained some traction or at least was mirrored in the committee room at the Gaylord Texan.
Twice in media availabilities, Hocutt suggested that the Iowa loss was “damaging” to Ohio State. He also noted that Alabama was consistently ahead of Ohio State in the weekly CFP rankings. That outweighed the fact that Alabama’s top win this season was over No. 17 LSU. Ohio State had two top 10 wins.
“The losses matter,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “To lose the way (Ohio State) lost (to Iowa), it sent a message that the committee couldn’t forget.”
The selection committee debated until about 1:15 a.m. Sunday and continued into the morning. CFP executive director Bill Hancock described the debate as “pointed” but Hocutt said the difference between the two teams was not close enough to trigger protocols and metrics, including conference championships.
While expected, the news was still welcome at Oklahoma, which had also played in the 2015 semifinals.
“It’s exciting to see your team, to see that OU logo flash across the screen and know for certain. So it was a neat moment,” first-year coach Lincoln Riley told reporters at his press conference Sunday. “It lasted for about five seconds. Then we started planning.”
Oklahoma has won its last four meetings with the SEC — the standard of dominance in college football. Georgia ranks fourth nationally in total defense, allowing 270.9 yards per game. But the Bulldogs have only faced two teams ranked in the top 25 in total offense, No. 7 Missouri and No. 25 Notre Dame.
Oklahoma leads the nation in total offense at 583.3 yards per game and is averaging 47.4 points in its last seven games after being held to 29 by Texas.
Cougars to face Spartans in Holiday Bowl
Michigan State is headed back to California and not Florida after all.
The 19th-ranked Spartans will take on No. 21 Washington State in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28 in San Diego.
MSU (9-3) has never played in the Holiday Bowl before. The Spartans are 5-2 all-time against the Pac-12 Cougars (9-3), who defeated MSU 23-21 the last time the met in 1977.
A number of bowl analysts projected the Spartans to either the Citrus Bowl in Orlando or Outback Bowl in Tampa. However, those Florida bowl games appear to have gone in different directions.
Because Wisconsin is in the Orange Bowl because of contractual obligations with the Big Ten, the Citrus Bowl could not select a Big Ten team and instead has Notre Dame vs. LSU. Michigan got a berth to the Outback Bowl, where the Wolverines will face South Carolina.
MSU defeated U-M this season, 14-10, in Ann Arbor. The Spartans remained No. 16 in the College Football Playoff rankings, where they spent the final three weeks in the committee’s rankings. The Wolverines (8-4) have not been ranked since losing at Wisconsin on Nov. 18.
Huskies, Lions to duel in Fiesta Bowl
In Penn State football history, few bowl games are remembered as fondly as the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, where the Nittany Lions defeated Miami, 14-10, for their second national championship.
The Lions discovered Sunday they will be playing in the Fiesta Bowl for the seventh time, and their opponent this time on Dec. 30 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., will be Washington. The Huskies of the Pac-12 claimed the last of the four College Football Playoff spots last year, while Penn State barely finished on the outside at No. 5.
The Nittany Lions, who finished No. 9 in this season’s last College Football Playoff rankings, are 6-0 in the Fiesta Bowl. Their last appearance came at the end of the 1996 season, when they defeated Texas, 38-15. They are 2-0 all-time against the Huskies; their last meeting was a 13-10 win at the 1983 Aloha Bowl.
The Lions and the Huskies both finished the regular season 10-2. Washington finished tied for first in the Pac-12 North with Stanford but lost the head-to-head tiebreaker, falling, 30-22, to the Cardinal.
The Huskies boast the nation’s No. 1 rushing defense, a familiar scenario for Penn State. Michigan and Michigan State were No. 1 in the FBS in rushing defense the week they competed against Penn State.
Washington coach Chris Petersen has some history at the Fiesta Bowl himself, having led Boise State to a 43-42 overtime upset over Oklahoma in the 2007 game. He said he respects Penn State’s ability on both sides of the ball.
“You get excited about going into the game,” he said. “Then you figure out your opponent and you’re excited about that, and then you put the tape on and you’re, like, ‘Oh-oh, here we go. We’ve got to figure some things out.’ I already know that without putting the tape on. You don’t go into a game like that without playing a really good program.”