Two weeks ago, Alabama lost to Auburn, and Nick Saban knew well enough to start making his pitch. Forget the fact that his team failed to win its division, let alone its own conference. He started stumping that the Tide deserved playoff consideration.
They lurked just outside the top four going into championship weekend, and it did seem very real indeed that this team could make the College Football Playoff despite a sloppy performance in a loss to its rival. It just needed a few games to go its way.
Then Saturday night happened, and the biggest piece that had to fall into place did: Ohio State beat undefeated Wisconsin, leaving the Tide and the Buckeyes jockeying for the No. 4 spot. The 12 hours in between Ohio State's getting crowned Big Ten champions and the playoff reveal were filled with delirious anticipation and debates that raged over how, exactly, the selection committee would judge these two teams.
Should they be judged on the eye test? Overall résumé? Ranked wins? Conference championships? Was one unequivocally better than the other?
Ultimately, the selection committee let us know in decisive fashion that Ohio State and Alabama really were not that comparable, rendering the arguments that ensued over the past 48 hours moot. The members let us know in no uncertain terms that Alabama was indeed unequivocally better than Ohio State, despite sitting at home this weekend while watching five Power 5 teams earn conference championships.
That includes the Buckeyes, of course. They, too, made the playoff last year as a one-loss nonconference champion. So the precedent had already been set. But what the committee announced with this vote Sunday is that "unequivocally better" means that conference affiliation has no bearing on that definition.
For the first time, two teams made the playoff from the same conference, and the committee members seemed to dismiss the notion that they would have a hard time doing that with a collective shrug.
"The selection committee just favored Alabama's full body of work over Ohio State, and it was consistent over the course of the year, as we saw Alabama play week in and week out," committee chairman Kirby Hocutt told Rece Davis after the semifinals were announced. "Our rankings showed each and every week the selection committee believed Alabama was the better football team."
Alabama was ranked ahead of Ohio State in every single playoff ranking this season, going back to the first one revealed Halloween night. So there is consistency in that explanation. Alabama also did not lose by 31 points to Iowa. That loss by itself was enough to sink Ohio State's chances, at least in the committee's view.
Whether the committee got it right is subject to your own interpretation about what should be most important. Here is why I believe the committee got it right: Based on performance alone, Alabama consistently looked like a top-four team. Ohio State did not.
In all honesty, Ohio State should have been disqualified from consideration for that dreadful 55-24 loss against Iowa. Had that been the Buckeyes' only loss this season, the committee would in all likelihood have been willing to overlook it. Clemson has a bad loss, too, but the Tigers have so many quality wins and an ACC championship that it hardly mattered. If Ohio State had only one loss, I firmly believe the Buckeyes would be in today.
But there is no scrubbing away the performance we saw from a supposed top-four team at Iowa. This is not remotely similar to Alabama's loss, or even Clemson's loss to Syracuse. Ohio State had its full complement of players and got boat raced. The committee had every right to hold that against the Buckeyes. In this case, the Big Ten conference championship shouldn't have been used as the trump card to end the argument.
Placed in a vacuum, without names or conferences attached to these schools, Alabama had the better strength of record. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the average Top 25 team would have only a 9 percent chance of going 11-1 against Alabama's schedule. Accordingly, the average Top 25 team would have a 14 percent chance to go 11-2 against Ohio State's schedule.
Alabama also beat its opponents more decisively and spent all season ranked in the top two until its final loss to Auburn.
"I would say our charge is very simple," Hocutt said. "Our charge is, the selection committee has to identify the four very best teams in the country. When there are close separations between the teams, we're instructed to look at certain criteria. In this case, the margins weren't close enough to look at those."
Given that explanation and the way the committee ranked Alabama all season, what happened Sunday shouldn't come as a massive shock. In hindsight, it should have been completely expected. Couple that with the decision to put Ohio State in last season, and the committee has proved in consecutive years now that it will choose the four teams it deems to be the best. Conference championship or not. So Alabama is in. And now the matchup we all clamored for when the season began is here, just a little earlier than anticipated. It's Clemson vs. Alabama, Part III. Though nobody anticipated back in September they'd meet in the semifinal, the thought back then was the Tigers and Tide were indeed two of the best teams in the country.
Now that December's here, that idea hasn't changed.