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College playoff still creating controversy

Commentary

When the College Football Playoff system was mercifully installed back in 2014, coaches, players, fans and media breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The process of determining the national champion would presumably finally be cut and dried, and decided on the field, with none of the maddening ambiguity that had previously been generated by the ineffective Bowl Championship Series and poll formats.

But in 2020, a year in which nothing in sports or otherwise has gone smoothly or made any sense, there’s a big controversy among the field that was selected for the four-team playoff by the College Football Selection Committee.

Specifically, about Notre Dame as the fourth choice.

Nobody can argue that top-ranked Alabama (11-0) and second-ranked Clemson (10-1) belong. Odds are heavily in favor of the Crimson Tide and Tigers meeting again in the national championship game on Monday, Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Third-ranked Ohio State faced controversy entering this postseason, when the Big Ten Conference waived its six-game minimum for the 2020 regular season and allowed the 5-0 Buckeyes the opportunity to play Northwestern in the conference championship game this past Saturday.

The Buckeyes didn’t strengthen their case with a lackluster 22-10 victory in the Big Ten title game, but they didn’t take themselves out of the College Football Playoff picture with it, either.

As one commentator remarked, it would have been nearly impossible for Ohio State, after winning the conference championship game and boasting the Big Ten’s only unbeaten record this season, to drop out of the top four selected for the CFP field.

Notre Dame was a different story.

Notre Dame was shellacked by Clemson, 34-10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game Saturday, an ugly loss that opened a Pandora’s Box for that vocal crowd that believes that the Fighting Irish should have dropped out of the CFP fourth spot and either Texas A&M, Oklahoma, or even non-Power Five Conference unbeatens Cincinnati or Coastal Carolina should have been promoted.

Personally, I’m OK with Notre Dame in the fourth spot. But not by much. In this craziest of seasons, I can see and respect the other side’s point of view as well.

Notre Dame, after all, was 10-0 entering the ACC title game, and one of those victories was a thrilling double-overtime win over Clemson on Nov. 7 at Notre Dame Stadium.

It was Clemson’s only loss this season, but it came with a huge asterisk attached. The Tigers’ top NFL quarterback prospect, Trevor Lawrence, was injured and unavailable that night, and just how much of a game-changing difference that Lawrence makes was highlighted when he led Clemson to a revenge romp over Notre Dame in the conference title game.

Among Notre Dame’s best victories this season was a solid 31-17 road win over a good North Carolina team which finished the regular season 13thin the College Football Playoff rankings, and a 45-3 road blowout of a decent Pittsburgh team.

Despite the fact that Clemson was without its centerpiece in the first meeting, the fact is that Notre Dame did deal the elite Tigers’ program its only loss of the season so far.

Notre Dame brings a bigger and more intriguing brand name to the College Football Playoff field than does fifth-ranked Texas A&M (8-1), and certainly, than does either eighth-ranked Cincinnati (9-0) or 12th-ranked Coastal Carolina (11-0).

Texas A&M is hanging its hat on the fact that it’s the first one-loss team in Southeastern Conference history to endure a College Football Playoff snub.

But the Aggies — who will play North Carolina in the Orange Bowl — were humiliated by Alabama (52-24) for their only regular-season loss. Their best win came via a late rally, 41-38 over a seventh-ranked Florida team that wound up losing late in the season to a poor LSU outfit.

Can Notre Dame give Alabama a better fight than Texas A&M did? We’ll find out soon enough when the two teams meet on New Year’s Day in one of the two CFP semifinal games. The Alabama-Notre Dame game will be the Rose Bowl game, but this year, it will be played in Arlington, Tex. rather than Pasadena, Calif., where no fans — including parents and relatives of the players — would have been permitted to watch because of California’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Then there’s Oklahoma, ranked 6thas a two-loss team, but currently riding a seven-game winning streak. The Sooners (8-2) had a bad loss at home to Kansas State, followed immediately by a road loss the following week at 10th-ranked Iowa State. Oklahoma avenged the Iowa State loss in this past weekend’s Big 12 Conference Championship Game, but two losses is still two losses.

Just ask Penn State, which was kept out of the 2016 CFP with two losses despite winning the Big Ten Conference Championship Game that year.

Cincinnati had an outstanding season this year under former Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell, but playing in the American Athletic Conference, the Bearcats simply lack the street cred that is boasted by the Power Five Conference teams.

Cincinnati (9-0) could strengthen its argument considerably by knocking off ninth-ranked Georgia (7-2) in the Peach Bowl. But if the Bearcats lose that game, their advocates will be silenced.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day has been wildly outspoken about his team’s chances to beat Clemson in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, which is the other New Year’s Day CFP semifinal.

We’ll see. Ohio State hasn’t seen a quarterback like Lawrence all season.

In this craziest of years, the deadly virus may have the final say in how the college football season ultimately winds down.

But everything that has happened this year in determining the four-team College Football Playoff field could very well result in the argument for an expansion to a six or eight-team playoff system to become a deafening one.

John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com.

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