Debates Down South: Was 2017 Alabama's résumé Playoff-worthy?
On the night of Dec. 2, 2017, the college football world appeared split.
Ohio State was fresh off a Big Ten Championship victory against undefeated Wisconsin. That was a few hours removed from Georgia’s beatdown of Auburn in the SEC Championship. Meanwhile, idle Alabama watched from home without a conference championship to play in.
And so, Twitter debated the topic of conversation in the college football world — should it be 2-loss Ohio State or 1-loss Alabama for the final Playoff spot?
Some argued that a conference championship had to mean something while others argued that not suffering a 31-point loss to Iowa had to mean something. What ensued was peak-college football in the Playoff era. Alabama made the field, won 2 games for a national title and enraged the college football world who felt the Crimson Tide were gifted an opportunity that they didn’t deserve.
There are plenty of people who are still bothered by how that played out, and there are others who believe the selection committee got it right.
Let’s dig into that.
Why was/is this a debate?
We need to get something out of the way here. We’re strictly debating if Alabama deserved to make the field over Ohio State with the information available on Dec. 3 when the selection committee made its decision. The whole “Alabama won the national championship so this isn’t worth discussing” thing is actually a bad argument. As I always outline in the Heisman debates, it’s not fair to use future events to justify why something happened in that moment.
As challenging as it is to ignore what Alabama did against Clemson and Georgia en route to a national championship — something that certainly helped the Crimson Tide in the court of public opinion that year — it’s not the focus of this argument.
So why did this become an argument in the first place? And why is it still discussed?
This debate fired up the “Bama bias” crowd. The fact that this was the first time we saw multiple teams from 1 conference make the Playoff enraged the “SEC bias” crowd. It took the masses back to 2011 when Alabama and LSU faced off in a rematch for the national championship. Six years after the desire to overhaul the sport’s system to crown a national championship peaked, the SEC bias crowd banged that drum again.
And just in case that wasn’t enough, UCF happened. You remember how that went down. An undefeated Group of 5 team that was left out of the field by a long shot (No. 12 in the final Playoff poll) beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl. That was the same Auburn team that beat Alabama and Georgia. UCF claimed a national title thanks to the Colley Matrix and then got into a war of words with Alabama for an entire offseason.
If you’re reading this, you might still be hungover from the chest-puffing parade of UCF’s “championship” celebration.
In other words, this debate got everyone involved. The aftermath stuck with the college football world well beyond Dec. 3.
What people said at the time
Kirk Herbstreit couldn’t believe it. The man who has seen it all had a physical reaction to the most-anticipated announcement of the Playoff era to date.
When Alabama’s logo came up instead of Ohio State in that No. 4 slot during the 2017 Playoff Selection Show, Herbstreit walked off the set out of shock:
Kirk Herbstreit was so shocked by the committee putting Alabama in he actually walked off set pic.twitter.com/U8cJTRobo6
— The Spun (@TheSpun) December 3, 2017
To be clear, Herbstreit’s reaction wasn’t made out of rage. He said that he wasn’t disappointed that Ohio State was left out and that his reaction came simply because the selection committee made the decision it did.
Surely Herbstreit wasn’t alone. Either way, it was going to be a historic decision. It was going to be the first 2-team bid by a conference or it was going to be the first 2-loss team in the field. It was the former, much to Herbstreit’s surprise.
There was another wrinkle. We had never seen a team make the Playoff with a loss of more than 14 points (Georgia ended that in 2017). Ohio State had not 1, but 2 losses by larger margins than that. The second of which was the one that became the punchline for that season.
When the Buckeyes suffered the 31-point beatdown against unranked Iowa, the funeral for Ohio State’s Playoff chances followed. It didn’t matter that the Buckeyes still had a path to a Big Ten championship. Despite what a certain Ohio State beat reporter wrote about for his game story that day in Iowa City, Ohio State’s Playoff chances died.
(I rarely call out writers in this business for blatant homer takes, but imagine watching that game in Iowa unfold and thinking, “hey, I know what I’ll write! Ohio State still has a Playoff path!” Never mind the fact that one of the strangest, most unpredictable games of the 21st century had just taken place. I don’t want to name this person for how horrendous of a take that was. Use those Google News search functions and I’m sure you can find who I’m talking about. What made it even worse was that after Ohio State beat USC in the Cotton Bowl, he wrote about how that game showed why the selection committee got it wrong. That’s right. Dude used that to justify his argument while ignoring the fact that Alabama had clinched a berth in the title game. Absurd.)
How do we know that Ohio State’s Playoff chances died at Iowa? Immediately following the Playoff announcement, we heard from selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt as to why the Buckeyes were left out in favor of Alabama.
“The selection committee looked at a 1-loss Alabama team. That loss coming to ranked Auburn. It compared it to the 2-loss Ohio State. The Iowa loss was damaging,” Hocutt said in 2017.
It was damaging in the same way Penn State’s blowout second loss to Michigan was in 2016 when Ohio State made the field as a 1-loss nonconference champion, even though the Lions beat Ohio State.
Hocutt was one of the few relevant post-decision opinions. As for the irrelevant post-decision opinions, there were plenty of those, too.
How about Ohio State superfan LeBron James?
“It is what it is. I think the committee, I think they did a great job honestly. Obviously I’m a huge Buckeye fan and we would’ve loved to be in the final four, to be able to compete for a national championship, but there’s never been a two-loss team in the final four, and if you look at the top four teams that made the final four, can you really argue? So we look forward to playing in the Rose Bowl vs. USC.”
That’s right. Even James admitted that his Buckeyes weren’t worthy.
If that didn’t surprise you, the reaction of Colin Cowherd probably did:
“You can’t lose by 30 to Iowa. You just can’t. I don’t care about your strength of schedule. Alabama’s not losing to Iowa by 30. And I’m so tired of hearing this thing ‘Colin, winning your conference championship must mean nothing.’ No, it just doesn’t mean everything.”
Don’t tell that to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who watched his conference champ miss out on the Playoff for the second consecutive year. Delany claimed that the Big Ten was the strongest conference in the country, and that playing more games against FBS competition should have pushed the decision in favor of the Buckeyes.
At the time of the selection show, here was the breakdown of their résumés side-by-side:
And again, that’s comparing a 1-loss team to a 2-loss team … that lost by 31 to an unranked team. Surprising that their résumés don’t look very different?
As for the conference strength argument that Delany made, it was somewhat irrelevant. The Big Ten and SEC had the same amount of AP Top 25 teams (5) and the same amount of teams ranked in the top 10 (3). Big Ten fans used the bowl season to justify their “we had the best conference” argument with their 7-1 bowl record while SEC fans justified their side of the argument with the “we had 2 teams play for a national championship” thing.
Those takes were heard loud and clear. So were the takes from Mr. anti-SEC himself, Danny Kanell.
In case you forgot, Kanell was strongly against Alabama getting the bid without a conference championship. Here was his post-selection show take:
Regular season matters
Conference championship matters
Strength of schedule matters
SEC gets automatic bid/favored status
“Unequivocally better” means “we think so but have no idea”
Criteria is written so committee can explain any away choice they make
— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) December 4, 2017
But wait, there’s more!
Funny how the SEC fans are so upset by UCF claiming a national championship. This from the conference that might have more made up titles than real ones 🤔
— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) January 3, 2018
The second tweet came on the heels of the national championship, which wasn’t exactly Kanell’s finest hour.
One quick thing on that wild take about claimed national titles. SEC programs claimed 11 national titles that aren’t acknowledged by the NCAA. One was Alabama’s 1941 title, which was definitely egregious. Obviously, it was also pre-Playoff era. From 1996 (when Kanell’s college career ended) to 2016, the SEC won 11 national titles that are acknowledged by the NCAA. That didn’t include the title game that was days before Kanell’s tweet, either. The “might” that he snuck in there was code for “I didn’t look this up so you can’t call me out if I’m wrong.” Well, consider yourself called out, Danny.
(I actually like Danny a lot, and understand why he plays the role he does. He just takes a lot of losses as a contrarian.)
The worst take you can have about this debate
You thought I was done with Kanell stuff? No chance. He was a big supporter of this awful take.
“Conference championships should be required for Playoff teams.”
Interestingly enough, you didn’t hear that argument as much when it was between Penn State and Ohio State in 2016. But when Alabama got involved … I digress.
Conference championships are not required for Playoff teams, nor should they be. In a sport that is more regional than anything we see on the professional level, that’s foolish. Why set a requirement like that when you don’t have to? Not all conferences are created equal. Nobody in their right mind would say that the SEC and Pac-12 have been on the same level during the Playoff era, so why give them the same possible reward? That’s silly.
Sure, we have division winners earn automatic playoff bids in pro sports. But we also have wild cards and non-division winners who can make the postseason. And in pro sports, is a year-to-year thing.
In college football, those changes are much more gradual. Like, would you bet on the ACC Coastal being as good as the SEC West the next 3 years? No chance. There’s no debate that some divisions and conferences are better than others. This idea that the No. 2 SEC team couldn’t possibly be better than another given Power 5 conference’s champ is strange.
You know what else is strange? This take.
“The Big Ten’s bowl season showed why the conference deserved a Playoff spot.”
Again, I cannot emphasize this enough. Anything that happens during bowl season is irrelevant as it relates to how we discuss decisions made in early December. The Big Ten had solid depth in the 2017 regular season. That’s a factor in the selection committee’s eyes, for sure. But does that mean the winner of the conference should be exempt from any sort of criticism about the flaws in its résumé? No.
Besides, the same people arguing why the Big Ten’s bowl season showed the selection committee made a mistake didn’t acknowledge the 2 SEC teams who played for a national title. Neither side should factor into the debate we’re discussing here, so let’s move on to the take you’ve been waiting for.
“UCF deserved the spot over Alabama.”
If we’re talking about a 2-loss Power 5 team getting into the field instead of unbeaten UCF, this might be a different discussion. But there were several issues with the “UCF deserved a shot” crowd. At the time, UCF hadn’t faced a Power 5 bowl team (Alabama had 4 wins in such matchups). The Knights’ toughest road test was against a 7-win Group of 5 team. In their 2 games against ranked foes, they won by 1 score apiece and allowed an average of 50 points.
For all the heat the selection committee took for ranking the Knights No. 12 in the final Playoff poll — they should have been ranked higher — let’s not forget that they were only No. 10 in the AP Top 25 and they were No. 9 using the BCS formula (which also had Alabama ahead of Ohio State).
Here it is, the final simulated BCS rankings of the season. Alabama edges Ohio State by the smallest of margins for No. 4 pic.twitter.com/QMHzsyCFPm
— BCSKnowHow.com (@BCSKnowHow) December 3, 2017
The metrics didn’t favor UCF, and neither did the pollsters. Things would have been different for UCF had it pulled the 2016 Houston move by beating a ranked traditional power like Oklahoma. The system was not built to allow that 2017 team a chance at a national title.
Having said that, do I understand why UCF became the loudest voice in college football in 2017-18? Absolutely. They claimed a national title, they trolled Alabama and they demanded change. They did what they should have done in that spot.
As a Group of 5 school, you have to capitalize on those opportunities to elevate the program. That’s been the theme throughout the 21st century.
Boise State’s 2006 Fiesta Bowl win was massive in establishing a national brand as the premier Group of 5 program. Utah’s undefeated seasons in 2004 and 2008 earned a Pac-12 bid. TCU’s Rose Bowl victory with Andy Dalton in 2010 helped the Horned Frogs get that Big 12 bid. UCF was trying to follow in all of their footsteps. National popularity and a potential Power 5 bid to the Big 12 were all desired at that time, as they should’ve been.
Did they annoy people? Sure. Did they get far more attention nationally than if they had quietly continued as another Group of 5 unbeaten? Definitely.
What SEC fans were frustrated by was that the self-declared national champs weren’t worthy of getting in ahead of Alabama. Not with that schedule.
OK. Rant over. Let’s get back on track.
The thing I forgot about/didn’t remember until researching this
I totally spaced on how watered down the Playoff candidates were. It’s easily the weakest group in terms of résumés entering the postseason.
Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia were the locks and all of them had what I’d call embarrassing regular-season losses, albeit for different reasons. Clemson lost to traditional doormat Syracuse after losing Kelly Bryant while Oklahoma laid an egg at home against unranked Iowa State. Georgia lost to a respectable foe in Auburn, but got walloped by 23 points.
Whether it was Alabama or Ohio State, both were going to have the weakest regular-season résumés to make the field. At the time of the selection show, Alabama didn’t have a win against a top 15 team while Ohio State’s aforementioned 2 losses were uglier than any suffered by a previous Playoff participant.
So why didn’t another team have a shot? It’s simple — they all had worse demerits:
- 1-loss Wisconsin: Had 1 win vs. Top 25 (at time of selection show)
- 3-loss Auburn: Had 3 losses
- 2-loss USC: Had 35-point loss vs. Notre Dame
- 2-loss Penn State: Had 1 win vs. Top 25 (at time of selection show)
- 2-loss Washington: Had 1 win vs. Top 25 (at time of selection show)
- 2-loss Miami (FL): Had 35-point loss to Clemson in ACC Championship
- 0-loss UCF: Had 0 wins vs. Power 5 bowl teams
USC was the only team in that group that won a Power 5 conference championship, too. There was much more parity than usual in college football in 2017. Some might wonder how Alabama made the field with its résumé in 2017, yet Ohio State missed the field as a 1-loss conference champ in 2018. It’s simple. In 2018, the field was better. The 2018 Ohio State team would have easily made the 2017 field.
But that’s not what we’re arguing. The weakest spot in the brief Playoff era was up for grabs, and someone had to get it.
Where I stand on this debate
I’ve been trying my best not to tip my hand too badly on this debate. I’ll say something that I’ve never said in this section of “Debates Down South.”
I hate that this even became a debate.
Alabama clearly deserved the spot over Ohio State then, and after revisiting all of this now, I’m even more in that camp.
Whenever someone discussed Ohio State’s Playoff chances after the Iowa game, I had a running joke that still plays. “Wait a minute. Ohio State is about to make history by building a time machine and prevent the Iowa game from ever happening? That’s so cool!”
You see, the damage was done on that strange early-November afternoon. The writing was on the wall. Just like when Penn State’s second blowout loss against Michigan proved to be a death sentence in 2016, the same was true of Ohio State. You can’t suffer a second loss and look that lifeless in the process.
The selection committee wants to put 4 teams in the field that are undoubtedly the best teams in the sport. They do that based on who the most deserving teams are. You don’t know if a 2-loss Ohio State team is going to show up and deliver another Iowa-like performance that results in a snoozer semifinal, but you know that Alabama would have never done that. Why? The Crimson Tide’s lone loss was a 2-score game on the road against a top-10 team.
Did Alabama’s lack of losses to non-top 15 teams since 2010 subconsciously play a part in that decision, too? Possibly, though I’d argue this should be based entirely on the 2017 season.
This is coming from someone who hates the “strength of loss” discussion, too. Ohio State was still allowed to make its conference championship with a conference loss. Alabama wasn’t. Ohio State got smoked in its big nonconference showdown against Oklahoma. Alabama didn’t.
While I don’t think you can claim that Florida State with a healthy Deondre Francois was destined for the Playoff, that season-opening 24-7 win against the Seminoles was far more impressive than what the final record showed (Francois suffered a season-ending injury in the 4th quarter).
Any notion that Ohio State had the better résumé is made under the assumption that the losses are equal. They’re not, and it’s not even close. As mentioned earlier, this is a different discussion if Ohio State had a 7-point loss at Iowa instead of a 31-point loss at Iowa. Or maybe it’s different if Iowa isn’t 7-5 and still unranked in the AP Top 25 when the selection show happens despite that dominant win against the Buckeyes.
And let’s just take a second to flip the script. If 2-loss Alabama, which had lost by 31 to an unranked team, had made the field over a 1-loss Ohio State team, can you even imagine? There would have been riots in the streets. Riots, I tell you. The entire college football landscape would have changed as a result of that decision. Fans would have tried to start a Playoff boycott. There’s no doubt.
So then with that in mind, why should Ohio State have gotten in? The Buckeyes were the team that needed help to make the field in 2014 and in 2016. A third time in 4 years of the selection committee bending for Ohio State would have been a far more egregious decision than putting a 1-loss Alabama team in the field. There’s no debate about that.