The stage is now set for the first College Football Playoff, and it is going to be fantastic. Alabama, champions of the SEC, will battle Big Ten champion Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl in one semifinal. Oregon, the Pac-12 champion, will face off with the defending BCS national champion and ACC champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl. Each will serve up a delicious course with terrific storylines to follow.
In the Alabama-Ohio State semifinal, we are treated to another round of Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer. The two have gone head-to-head four times before during Meyer’s time at Florida in the SEC. Saban holds a 2-1 advantage over his Buckeyes counterpart, but the two have split victories in postseason play with each claiming a championship in the SEC. Each of those SEC championships in 2008 and 2009 acted as a national semifinal with the teams entering the SEC title games with the top two spots in the BCS standings. This is hardly anything new for Saban or Meyer. Both have won BCS titles and knows what it takes to win a national championship. This year’s system may be slightly different, but the approach is similar. College football could not have asked for a better match-up of coaching in the semifinal round.
It also could not have asked for a better quarterback duel in the Rose Bowl. Jameis Winston, Florida State’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from a year ago, looks to keep the unbeaten streak of the Seminoles in order on the scene of last season’s national championship victory. To do that, Winston and the Noles will have to top a team also familiar with the thrill of victory in Pasadena, Oregon. The Ducks are led by the Heisman Trophy’s-leading contender, quarterback Marcus Mariota. By the time this game is played, it is expected Mariota will have the Heisman Trophy already in the trophy case, giving us a rare battle of Heisman Trophy quarterbacks.
Unfortunately, somebody had to be left out of the big party, and this year the Big 12 saw not one but two worthy candidates be shutout of the playoff. TCU and Baylor each had a decent case to be made, but the lack of a conference championship game may have proved to be too much to overcome for either co-champion. Even Baylor finally passing TCU in the eyes of the committee after weeks of heated debate over the ranking of this year’s Big 12 leaders was left as nothing more than a mild victory, because Baylor ended up being the first team out.
And this brings up a very good point about the College Football Playoff, although certainly not a new one. Is a four-team playoff model flawed from the start if it leaves out two one-loss teams that split their conference championship and had no conference championship game to prove worthy of consideration?
Perhaps the more important question is how the Big 12 looks itself in the metaphorical mirror and sees itself. Is the omission of TCU and Baylor from the playoff a reflection on the perception of TCU and/or Baylor, or is this a dig at the overall strength and respect for the Big 12? The Big 12 could certainly benefit from performing better in non-conference play during the regular season, but the lack of a conference championship game should in most cases be a benefit to the Big 12’s chances of landing a team in a four-team playoff field. Nobody in Waco or Fort Worth, Texas would have been calling for a conference championship game in the Big 12 had Georgia Tech upset Florida State, or Arizona upset Oregon, Missouri upset Alabama or Wisconsin taken care of Ohio State.
Yet here we are, and the Big 12 may only have itself to blame. What changes may come is anybody’s guess. Is expansion the answer? Probably not. Simply put, improving the non-conference scheduling efforts and winning those spotlight games is what it all comes down to for the Big 12. Without a conference championship game, the path to the playoff is still clear, if teams take care of business on the field and leave no doubt.
Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.