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The 2019 College Football Playoff is set. It’ll be No. 1 LSU vs. No. 4 Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl and No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.
After several months of everyone arguing over who belongs at No. 4, that ended up being the easiest decision of the playoff era.
Georgia and Utah entered conference championship weekend at No. 4 and No. 5, but each lost its league title game by at least 22 points. Meanwhile, No. 6 Oklahoma eked out a Big 12 championship in overtime against No. 7 Baylor. There’s no vote count for the CFP Top 25, but the Sooners may well be the unanimous No. 4 team on all 62 AP ballots—which would be 1,364 points—when that poll is published.
Lack of debate over No. 4 doesn’t mean it was a controversy-free day for the selection committee, though.
With LSU blowing out Georgia 37-10 in the SEC championship and Ohio State having to rally from a 21-7 deficit to take care of Wisconsin in the Big Ten finale, the bickering over who belongs at No. 1 raged on late into the night and will likely continue for days.
Should the Tigers have jumped ahead of the Buckeyes, or did the selection committee make the wrong call by dropping Ohio State from the top spot?
LSU’s argument boils down to a superior strength of schedule. The Tigers won five games against teams that were ranked in the Top 10 at the time of the game—45-38 at No. 9 Texas, 42-28 vs. No. 7 Florida, 23-20 vs. No. 9 Auburn, 46-41 at No. 3 Alabama and the “neutral-site” game against No. 4 Georgia in Atlanta.
The Texas game probably isn’t worth bragging about anymore, but it should serve as a feather in LSU’s cap as far as attempted schedule strength is concerned. LSU was the only team anywhere close to the CFP conversation that played a nonconference road game against a preseason Top 25 opponent—let alone preseason Top 10.
We shouldn’t discredit LSU’s scheduling effort just because Texas crashed and burned any more than we should invalidate Clemson’s 13-0 record because the rest of the ACC is terrible. There’s only so much these teams can control.
And even though Tua Tagovailoa clearly wasn’t operating at full strength in his recovery from ankle surgery, LSU’s road win over Alabama was arguably the most impressive win of the entire season. The Crimson Tide had won 48 of their last 49 home games prior, not to mention five of the last 10 national championships.
The blowout of Georgia—which would have been a lock for the CFP if it had won the SEC championship—was LSU’s magnum opus. Joe Burrow shredded that vaunted Bulldogs defense just as effortlessly as he did the likes of Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. And for the second consecutive week, LSU’s oft-maligned defense balled out. Seven days after limiting Texas A&M to 169 yards and seven points, the Tigers shut down Georgia as well.
But while LSU’s schedule was formidable, it’s not like Ohio State was busy beating up on No-Name State and Anonymous A&M.
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Using time-of-game rankings like we did for LSU, the Buckeyes twice dismantled the No. 13 team (38-7 vs. Wisconsin; 56-27 at Michigan), twice defeated the No. 8 team (28-17 vs. Penn State; 34-21 vs. Wisconsin) and tacked on a win over No. 25 Michigan State back when we thought the Spartans might be decent. The Buckeyes also opened the season with four consecutive blowout victories over teams that ended up with at least eight wins. All three of Ohio State’s nonconference opponents—Cincinnati, Florida Atlantic and Miami-Ohio—played for their respective conference championships Saturday.
Moreover, Ohio State won each and every game by double digits—and 11 of the 13 by at least 24 points.
The collection of LSU’s five best wins is perhaps a little better than Ohio State’s, but the Tigers had to survive shootouts against Alabama and Texas, never pulled away from Auburn, and that 14-point win over Florida was way closer than the final margin suggests. Prior to the win over Georgia, LSU had not soundly beaten a quality opponent.
Was LSU’s five-point win at Alabama really that much more impressive than Ohio State’s stomping Michigan by 29 in the Big House? Were LSU’s close home wins over Florida and Auburn any better than Ohio State’s 38-7 drubbing of Wisconsin and its 28-17 win over Penn State?
Did it seriously just come down to LSU beating Georgia more convincingly than Ohio State’s second victory over Wisconsin—playing against a Top 15 team for the third consecutive week?
Here’s the problem with that conclusion: All the metrics say Ohio State is the better team, and by a considerable margin.
ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks the Buckeyes at No. 1 with a score of 33.8. LSU is No. 3 at 28.9.
Bill Connelly’s SP+ ratings have Ohio State at No. 1 with a score of 35.4. LSU is No. 3 at 31.8.
Jeff Sagarin’s ratings put the Buckeyes in the top spot at 106.5. The Tigers are No. 3 at 100.8.
And TeamRankings.com has Ohio State at No. 1 with a rating of 39.8. LSU is, again, No. 3 at 30.0.
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The actual numbers aren’t important, and we got rid of the BCS for a reason. However, the size of the gaps should have been relevant. The 4.9-point gap between the two schools in the FPI is even larger than the difference between No. 5 Georgia (23.7) and No. 14 Utah (19.7).
That’s because Ohio State was the most well-rounded team in the country, playing well on both sides of the ball all season. The Buckeyes rank No. 1 in scoring offense (48.7 points per game) and are No. 2 in scoring defense (12.5).
Clemson was also statistically elite (fourth on offense, first on defense) and ranked ahead of LSU in three of the aforementioned metrics, but the Tigers from South Carolina didn’t face anything close to the schedule that LSU did. The Buckeyes did, though, and deserved the No. 1 seed.
Though I disagree with the committee’s decision from an analytical perspective, as a fan of entertaining college football, I’m thrilled with the outcome.
LSU and Oklahoma were the two most entertaining teams this season and will square off in the Peach Bowl. It’s likely that for the second consecutive year, the Heisman Trophy winner and runner-up will go toe-to-toe in a battle between the SEC champion and the Sooners. And if Joe Burrow vs. Jalen Hurts is anything like Tua Tagovailoa vs. Kyler Murray, buckle up.
And in the Fiesta Bowl, we have Ohio State and Clemson, arguably the two best teams this season. Though the Tigers did get a scare from North Carolina in late September, neither of these teams allowed more than 21 points nor 300 yards in any of its first 11 games. And this quarterback battle might be even better than the one in Peach Bowl, as Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields will very likely be No. 1 and No. 2 in all the way-too-early 2021 NFL mock drafts.
If the committee did make a mistake, at least it’s a happy accident. Buckeyes fans won’t be pleased, but this College Football Playoff is going to be phenomenal.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.