College Football Playoff gets it right, gives us matchups we wanted

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This is a strange and awkward thing to type, and, quite truthfully, we might be making history here. Has anyone ever said, “Thank you” to the College Football Playoff selection committee?

Because, on Sunday, the 13 people tasked with getting the top four right deserve a giant thank you, a lifetime supply of bacon at the Gaylord Texan Resort and, while we’re at it, let’s throw in an ice cream sundae bar and unlimited Cheez-Its if we really want to go crazy.

After years of selection moments filled with anger, vitriol, complaints, hot takes and unrelenting criticism, this year feels refreshing in a way. If one second had been put back on the clock in the Alabama-Auburn game, Selection Day could have been a whole lot different. Imagine the outrage over a debate centered around one-loss non-conference champion Alabama and Big 12 champ Oklahoma (thanks, SEC officials!).

With no debate about the four teams that would make the playoff, the toughest decision the committee had to make was whom to rank No. 1, and that was not a hard decision at all. Truthfully, the committee made it harder on itself when it decided to drop LSU from the No. 1 spot a few weeks back for reasons that still defy logic. LSU had the better résumé and the best win of any team in the country, a road victory against Alabama. We know its defense was not playing at the same level as its offense, and injuries played a part in that. But it made no sense to declare Ohio State “the most complete team” in its move to No. 1, while LSU had won other favorite metrics, like eye test, strength of schedule and body clocks.

Wait no. Not that one.

The Ohio State No. 1-LSU No. 2 flip led us to Championship Saturday. Headed into the day, it seemed that would hold. Why would the committee make the switch if only to change it back two weeks later? Then, LSU proved for the 13th time this season it is not a team to be trifled with; and after Ohio State needed to rally to beat Wisconsin, it seemed fairly clear the committee should undo the mistake it made in the first place.

So now we have the matchups the college football world truly deserves: No. 1 LSU against No. 4 Oklahoma in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta and No. 2 Ohio State against No. 3 Clemson in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona (both games on Dec. 28, ESPN/ESPN App). It sets us up for what could be an absolutely epic national championship game between two sets of Tigers in New Orleans. It would have been a disservice to both teams to be paired up in the semifinals — and that is not a slight against Ohio State, but a belief LSU and Clemson are right now the two best teams in the country.

Anyone who even thinks about dismissing Clemson because of its conference affiliation should flip on the tape of last year’s national championship game between Clemson and Alabama, and the ACC championship game between Clemson and Virginia on Saturday. Clemson did virtually the same wholesale destruction of an above-average ACC team that it did to the No. 1-ranked team going into their title tilt in Santa Clara, Calif.

The revisionist history that started immediately after that game about why Clemson embarrassed Alabama (its weak schedule, of course!) has only followed the Tigers into this season. Coach Dabo Swinney appreciates all your outrage and has already used it to motivate his team, which, oh by the way, managed to win all its games this season only to drop three spots from its preseason perch. Try explaining that one to anybody who does not follow college football on a daily basis.

But there is a whisper in my ear as I type that. “We’re focused on one game at a time,” the whisper says. Fine, let’s look at the first games on the docket. The semifinal matchups are filled with juicy storylines and quite a bit of intrigue.

LSU (13-0) versus Oklahoma (12-1) gives us quarterback Jalen Hurts in his fourth playoff appearance and familiarity with the Tigers. He beat them every year he was a starter at Alabama. And then, there’s the individual matchup between Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb and LSU superstar freshman Derek Stingley Jr., whose interception on Jake Fromm in the SEC championship game proved to be a key moment in the win.

Then, there is Ohio State (13-0) and Clemson (13-0), two teams with plenty of familiarity between each other. The last time they played, Clemson won 31-0, also in a playoff semifinal in Arizona in 2016. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence were ranked 1-2 in the ESPN 300 recruiting rankings for the class of 2018. Both also played high school ball in Georgia. And how about this individual matchup between Clemson receiver Tee Higgins and Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah? Or, perhaps, the best offensive line Clemson has had during its five playoff appearances tasked with finding answers for Ohio State superstar end Chase Young?

For a year that did not have much drama when it came down to the final rankings, the committee still had to get the seeding just right. These are the right matchups at the right time, and, for that, a little bit of faith in the committee should be restored.–*

* — Until the first rankings of 2020; mark your calendars accordingly.

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