Let’s assume for the sake of this evening that No. 1 Alabama, No. 3. Clemson and No. 4 Ohio State have secured spots in the College Football Playoff. Alabama remains the team with the best résumé in the country after an SEC championship game win over Florida.
Both Clemson and Ohio State secured their league titles on Saturday, with varying degrees of difficulty. What remains is the battle for the No. 4 spot, as the gap between being ranked No. 4 and No. 5 is shaping up as a canyon of prestige, perception and pain if you land on the wrong side.
This looms as the most dramatic and potentially most controversial decision in the history of the College Football Playoff. It’s likely the most tension and mystery since the inaugural 2014 season when No. 5 Ohio State leaped No. 3 TCU and boxed out No. 6 Baylor to snare the No. 4 spot. (There appears to be more mystery than when Alabama snared the No. 4 spot over Ohio State in 2017.)
There will be plenty of other noise around the sport, including the deserved clamor for undefeated Cincinnati to get a shot if it finishes out its season with an AAC title. There will also be more politicking about Ohio State’s short schedule, as the Buckeyes finished 6-0.
But the defining din from Championship Saturday through college football’s Selection Sunday will be Notre Dame vs. Texas A&M for the No. 4 spot. It’s South Bend vs. College Station, Rudy vs. the 12th Man, and the sport’s most dominant conference (SEC) vs. the sport’s most iconic independent.
How will the debate go down? It will revolve around whether Notre Dame’s 34-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC title game on Saturday should be judged as punitive enough to eliminate it from contention.
The case for Notre Dame
Notre Dame has the best win of any team in the country. They beat top-ranked but undermanned Clemson, 47-40, in double-overtime back on Nov. 7. Star Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence didn’t play in that game. Nor did three key Clemson defensive starters.
But for the sake of the case for Notre Dame, that win over No. 1 Clemson and a solid win at then-No. 19 North Carolina are the crux of its case. The Irish are 10-1, and their 10 victories should count for something. How much? We’ll find out. (The 10 wins are an argument more to be used against Ohio State, but it’s hard to imagine the Buckeyes dropping from No. 4).
With UNC now at No. 15 in the current CFP rankings and Clemson solidified as one of the country’s two best teams, Notre Dame’s case revolves around quality and volume of victories. The Irish have two quality wins as opposed to A&M’s lone quality win.
Don’t underestimate the cachet of Notre Dame. A game with Alabama could be a 20-point spread, but it would be two of the past century’s defining brands and a ratings monster (as opposed to an in-conference rematch that wouldn’t capture the whole country’s attention the same way).
The case for Texas A&M
The Aggies are No. 5 and are riding a seven-game winning streak, as they finished 8-1 and have a victory over then-No. 4 Florida at home.
They dominated a dreadful Tennessee team on Saturday, winning 34-13 and giving A&M another impressive victory over an unimpressive team. A&M has steadily improved since that loss, flashing a dominant run game and poised play from senior quarterback Kellen Mond.
The case for Texas A&M revolves around one good win and one quality loss. The 41-38 win over Florida is the shining star of the résumé. The only loss came at Alabama, a 52-24 shellacking. A&M lost by 28 to the then-No. 2 Tide. Notre Dame ended up losing by 24 to Clemson on Saturday.
A&M’s case is rooted in the notion of SEC superiority, which could be picked apart in a conference-only season. A&M’s second-best win came at Auburn, 31-20, which finished 6-4 and fired its coach. Jimbo Fisher dusted off the SEC stump speech from somewhere around 2011 saying “something’s wrong” if A&M missed the playoff as “no one-loss SEC team has ever missed the playoff.”
The cases for A&M in many ways is the case for the SEC.
The case against Notre Dame
Recency bias is real. And Notre Dame laid a dinosaur egg against Clemson on Saturday night, losing by 24 and looking impotent in doing so. In some ways, the tenor of the loss devalues Notre Dame’s earlier win, which came with Clemson’s D.J. Uaigalelei at quarterback and starting Tigers defenders James Skalski (LB), Mike Jones Jr. (LB) and Tyler Davis (DT) missing.
Few are going to argue that the ACC has the top-to-bottom depth of the SEC. So after Notre Dame’s two top-15 wins, the résumé gets a bit thin — road wins over Boston College (6-5) and Pittsburgh (6-5).
After America watched Notre Dame get blasted wire-to-wire by Clemson, do we really want to see them get shellacked by No. 1 Alabama? The Irish’s shortcomings in all three phases against Clemson stood out, with the pass rush making star quarterback Ian Book look like the limited quarterback we’d seen in big games early in his career. That poor secondary would get eaten like an appetizer by Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith.
The case against Notre Dame can be pinned to not valuing that first Clemson win as much because they played so poorly in the second game. And it’s a case against the ACC.
The case against Texas A&M
Do we really want to see No. 1 Alabama execute a sequel to the first blowout of Texas A&M? It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Alabama has improved distinctly since first dispatching the Aggies, and a bloodbath looms. Brace yourself for the conspiracy theorists chattering about ESPN rigging this for ratings if Notre Dame gets in. They’re coming.
Texas A&M has been solid all year. But have they really done anything that screams that they are an elite team?
A&M won consistently in a very good league, but the lack of a marquee win other than Florida is the heart of the argument against them. A&M didn’t win its division, and the Florida victory could be further scrutinized after its loss to Alabama on Saturday.
Will the committee value Texas A&M beating up on the flotsam and jetsam of the SEC more than Notre Dame beating up the flotsam and jetsam of the ACC? It’s hard to imagine, especially with so few data points to truly identify the quality of leagues this year.
If the committee wanted to jump A&M over Ohio State, it would have done it already. So that argument appears moot after Ohio State won the league title.
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