New format, same old angst: Ohio St. sneaks into playoff over TCU, Baylor

Chuck Culpepper (c) 2014, The Washington Post.

GRAPEVINE, Texas — Joy filled Ohio as woe flecked Texas on Sunday with the release of the inaugural College Football Playoff field. The Ohio State Buckeyes, moored at No. 16 in the rankings Oct. 28, finished a long climb into the four-team playoff by snaring the coveted No. 4 spot. Baylor and TCU, Big 12 members whose conference cannot stage a championship game to advance their case with the selection committee, landed on the melancholy fringe at Nos. 5 and 6, respectively.

Ohio State (12-1) will face No. 1 Alabama (12-1) on New Year’s Day in one national semifinal, while No. 2 Oregon (12-1) will play No. 3 Florida State (13-0), the defending national champion, in another.

The four-team playoff is the product of an about-face from college football after 16 seasons in which the sport used a composite of human polls and computer rankings to produce the two teams that would meet for the national championship. The shift to the playoff system was an attempt to alleviate controversy, but instead it seems to have merely shifted the angst from the No. 2 and No. 3 teams to those occupying the No. 4 and No. 5 slots, the cutoff this season that divided exultation in Ohio from the tears in Texas.

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As the 12-member selection committee wrapped up seven weeks of meetings near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, Ohio State rode its loud 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game to a playoff spot and left Baylor (11-1) and TCU (11-1) as outsiders. It also left Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby to explain the aftermath.

“We’re smarting today,” Bowlsby said after the final field was revealed.

The final rankings illustrated several changes by the committee from its previous weekly evaluations in the second half of the season. TCU, in particular, slid from No. 3 in the penultimate ranking released Dec. 2 to No. 6 — even after a 55-3 win Saturday in Fort Worth over an Iowa State team that finished 2-10.

That plunge proved false the long-held assumption that ranked teams could maintain their position simply by winning. Replacing it was a reality in which the committee’s evaluations could fluctuate from week to week based on a team’s full body of work and strength of opponents. Through that lens, the committee rearranged Nos. 3 through 6 in the final week from TCU, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor to Florida State, Ohio State, Baylor and TCU.

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“With TCU being number three last week, we did say that those were very narrow,” said committee chairman Jeff Long, the athletic director at Arkansas. “It’s hard to put just exactly how close they were. It was 3-A, B, C and D, so while the public may look at it and say they fell from 3 to 6, the committee doesn’t see the fall as that far.”

The change said less about TCU, Long said, than it said about Ohio State.

The Buckeyes won most resoundingly Saturday, and that helped them overcome the 35-21 home loss to Virginia Tech (6-6) on Sept. 6 that had plagued Ohio State’s perception all fall. That domination of Wisconsin, then ranked No. 13, “spoke volumes” to the committee, Long said, but so did another factor: “that Ohio State’s nonconference schedule was stronger than Baylor’s.”

Outside of the Big 12, the Bears played SMU (1-11), second-tier Northwestern State (6-6) and Buffalo (5-6), while outside of the Big Ten, Ohio State played Navy (6-5), Virginia Tech, Kent State (2-9) and Cincinnati (9-3).

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The top three teams were “clear-cut,” Long said, with Florida State actually rising a notch after beating then-No. 11 Georgia Tech, 37-35, in the ACC championship game. Florida State remains the only unbeaten team among the 128 in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). From there, though, “the discussion about the fourth team was long and spirited,” Long said. “We ended last night at about 1 a.m. We convened again at 7:30 this morning.”

The committee often stated that its members, who included five athletic directors, three former coaches and former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, would be experts and watch all relevant contests to identify four top teams. That commitment and expertise has not negated the anger from teams left outside the final playoff field.

“We certainly haven’t been able to avoid controversy in going from two to four, and we wouldn’t avoid controversy in going from four to eight,” Bowlsby said.

In the case of his conference, the controversy that will never die in Texas centered on two issues, one broad and one arcane.

By NCAA rules, the Big 12 cannot stage the kind of title game that catapulted Ohio State because it has only 10 teams. “It appears we were penalized for not having a postseason championship game,” Bowlsby said, subsequently acknowledging the tough task of the committee. “I wish we could have been advised of that.”

The exclusion of TCU and Baylor already has led to talk of reform. In the offseason, the Big 12 could move to add a title game and remove its status as the lone major conference without one. To do so, it would require the conference to add an additional two teams or obtain a waiver from the NCAA.

In a second instance of outrage, more confined to the conference, Baylor Coach Art Briles believed it might have hindered the Big 12 that its bylaws declared Baylor and TCU co-champions even though Baylor beat TCU in Waco on Oct. 11.

“If you’re going to slogan around and say ‘One True Champion,’ ” as the Big 12 does, Briles said, “and all of a sudden you’re going to go out the back door instead of the front? Don’t say one thing and do another. That’s my whole deal.”

After Bowlsby spent Saturday presenting conference-title trophies to both TCU in Fort Worth and Baylor in Waco, Texas, he said the conference would revisit how it declares champions. Long, however, said, “The fact they were co-champions in the Big 12 had no bearing, no bearing, on the decision” for the top four.

Though they will not compete in the playoff, both TCU and Baylor will play in major bowl games. TCU will square off against No. 9 Mississippi in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve, while Baylor will face No. 8 Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl Classic on New Year’s Day.