By Mark Clark
When January 8 comes around, it will be time to crown another National Champion for college football. The decisions have been made as to which teams will have a chance to win the coveted title. Now, all we have to do is wait for the game’s participants to be determined.
The committee chose three obvious teams for the playoffs and one which many viewed as a shocker. The three obvious teams to make the playoffs are Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia. The shocker? Well, that is Alabama which most people with a clue about college football would not even suggest the Crimson Tide’s selection was a shocker. A shocker would have been a two-loss Ohio State making the field of four. Or, maybe, an undefeated University of Central Florida would have been a shocker. Wisconsin making the field after losing to Ohio State in its last game of the season would have definitely been a shocker.
The biggest shocker would have been Auburn had the Tigers defeated Georgia in the SEC Championship game. That is not said to belittle the Tigers. If the Tigers had accomplished beating the No. 1 team in the nation twice over the course of three weeks and then beaten one of them again in the SEC title game, they would have been selected for the playoffs even with losses to LSU and Clemson. Auburn’s selection after a win in the SEC title game – had the Tigers won – would have really set up a situation unheard of in the history of college football. The Tigers would have had the opportunity to play a third No. 1 team – Clemson. It would also have given the Tigers a chance to play Alabama, Georgia and Clemson twice in the same season. Now, that would have been a shocker.
But, that did not happen. Auburn lost to Georgia and put the Bulldogs into the playoffs. If Auburn had won, in my opinion, Alabama would not have made the playoffs. The final slot would have been filled by Ohio State and its two losses. The final four would have been Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Auburn. Again, that is just my opinion like this column is each week.
So, now that we have four teams that will be in the playoffs and that will determine the next National Champion, which two will make it to the final game? Of the four teams, which two will give us the best game? Which two would be best for the sport of college football?
Here are the possibilities – Alabama vs. Georgia, Oklahoma vs. Clemson, Clemson vs. Georgia and Alabama vs. Oklahoma. Any of the four possibilities sounds like a good game.
For folks who love SEC football, Alabama vs. Georgia is a dream game. If is also the one that most of the nation would prefer not to happen. It would be like 2012 when Alabama met LSU for the title – a replay of the Game of the Century is what people called it when the two met for the second time in a season. LSU won the first game and went on to win the SEC title game. Teams ahead of Alabama fell to the wayside and allowed the Crimson Tide to get another shot at the Bengal Tigers. The second time belonged to Alabama. The Crimson Tide won 21-0. An Alabama vs. Georgia game would be intriguing as it would pit Nick Saban, the teacher, against Kirby Smart, the student. While both teams have offenses that can put up points, the key to winning for both teams is defense. That is the area Saban and Smart know the best.
The next worst game in most folks’ eyes would be Georgia vs. Clemson. Why? They are geographically too close and exclude the rest of the country just as Alabama vs. Georgia would. The two schools are about 80 miles from each other and have played each other 64 times with Georgia holding a 42-18-4 edge in the series. The good thing about the game is that it would give viewers a chance to see a strong Clemson defense matched against a strong Georgia running game. And, if Clemson won, the Tigers would have defeated SEC teams in back-to-back games. That would be as close as any team comes to matching Auburn’s feat against two No. 1 over three weeks.
Clemson vs. Oklahoma is the best match up possible among the four teams on paper with the top two teams playing for the National title. It would be No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 2 Oklahoma. Clemson has faced the Sooners five times and leads the series 3-2. The two met in the Orange Bowl in 2015 with Clemson winning 37-17. You would have a pretty good match up when it comes to coaching with Dabo Swinney taking on Lincoln Riley. However, while this might be the best match up on paper, it might not draw a lot of viewers – at least not the number you would expect for a National Championship game. Neither team has the appeal of an Ohio State, Penn State, Notre Dame or Alabama.
My selection for the best possible game for the title is the one we have watched the last two years – Alabama vs. Clemson. The last two games have been classics. But, that cannot happen since the two teams meet in the first round in the Sugar Bowl. So, let’s go with the next best thing – Oklahoma vs. Alabama. Oklahoma is 3-1-1 against Alabama and the last meeting came in the 2014 Sugar Bowl when the Sooners won 45-31. This game would match Baker Mayfield in a game against a dynasty built by Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa. Mayfield’s arm would be matched against the Crimson Tide defense that spent most of the season as the top defense in the nation. With several injured defenders returning to the Crimson Tide unit, it could be the top defense against the best passer in college football. Of course, Mayfield is liked about as well nationally as Alabama. Which would bring up a good question, who will the rest of the nation cheer for – outside of Alabama and Oklahoma? The only way this game could be more interesting is if Bob Stoops would return for one more shot at an SEC team and Nick Saban.
We will know the answer to who will be the National Champion in a few weeks. The debate will end when the final seconds tick off the game clock. One team will celebrate. The other team will start looking toward next year.