Flawed field creates wide-open playoff race

They all look so pretty once we put them on that pedestal, don't they? Give them a crystal football or whatever you call that new trophy, and all those blemishes disappear as if they had been dipped in Accutane.

But remember a year ago, when Ohio State squeezed into the College Football Playoff door just as it slammed shut? The 2011 debate over giving Alabama a second shot at LSU?

The 2013 Florida States, the 2009 Alabamas, the 1995 Nebraskas, the winners that mow down everyone in their path, come along in college football somewhere between once every Olympiad and once every Halley's Comet. The rest of the champions are like the rest of us -- flawed grinders that find the zone at the right moment.

The College Football Playoff selection committee, which needs a less unwieldy, rock-band name -- let's call it The Jeff Long Experiment -- gave us the four teams we expected to see. Championship Saturday delivered no surprise winners, so Championship Sunday delivered no surprises, either. No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Alabama and No. 4 Oklahoma have been written in pencil in the smart guys' bracket for weeks now, and no one has figured a way to keep out these third-ranked Michigan State Spartans.

There are no Cinderellas here. The Crimson Tide and the Spartans began the season in the top five. Clemson started at No. 12. Oklahoma, which finished last season by losing to the Tigers 40-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl, began at No. 19, and didn't enter the top 10 for good until it won at Baylor to improve to 9-1. But no coach took more teams (four) to BCS National Championship Games than Bob Stoops. The Sooners are not a surprise.

Still, in a season that provided one invincible individual performance after another -- Alabama tailback Derrick Henry's running game, Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds' scoring game, Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey's everything game -- the quartet of teams that will play on New Year's Eve is as vincible a bunch as ever made a postseason.

Do you see one team right now that laps this field? Clemson is No. 1 as an ode to its unbeaten record, not as a reward for taking time off late in games. The Tigers' late-season victories over Syracuse, archrival South Carolina and ACC championship foe North Carolina looked the same. The Tigers cruised to a comfortable lead and then curled up for a second-half nap. Is that your champion? As soon as we learned that the committee had made Clemson No. 1, we learned that Vegas considers them a 2.5-point underdog to the Sooners in the Capital One Orange Bowl.

Or what about Alabama, a team that combines a stifling defense with a stifled offense and will face Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic? Ask Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban why Henry carried the ball 90 times in the last two games, and he will tell you that's the best way for his team to win. In other words, Alabama has a limited downfield passing game. With a defense that allowed Florida 15 rushing yards and no third-down conversions in 11 attempts, one dimension is enough.

The Oklahoma that won at Oklahoma State and at Baylor is a team no one wants to face. The Sooners who lost to Texas -- Texas! -- and held on desperately in the second half against TCU are a team that is, with or without quarterback Baker Mayfield, eminently beatable.

And it seems redundant to point out how Michigan State falls short. The Spartans have a one-armed quarterback, a running back by committee -- the leading rusher, LJ Scott, has 691 yards -- and a propensity to fall behind good teams. How many miracles do they have? Do you love the team that comes back no matter what? Do you dismiss a team with six one-play victories?

I know what you're thinking: More negativity from the media, right? No, no. My point is this: One of these four teams is going to be the 2015 national champion. One of these teams still has two winning performances left in it.

And when Swinney holds aloft that trophy before creating the next national dance craze, or Saban holds the prize overhead for the fourth time in seven seasons, or Stoops concludes his season of redemption, or America finally figures out that Mark Dantonio is not former NBA head coach Mike D'Antoni, that coach and his team will be lionized for as long as college football fans love their history.

Whoever he is, his team's soft spots will be papered over by the confetti that falls from the closed roof of University of Phoenix Stadium in five weeks. There are four teams. There is only one pedestal.