Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher made one great point and one error in pleading his case for the No. 5 Aggies to make the College Football Playoff on Saturday after they capped off an 8-1 regular season with a 34-13 drubbing of Tennessee. Fisher's mistake was saying that the number of games a team plays "is supposed to matter and should matter."
That would be the correct argument to make if the Aggies were pitted against a 6-0 Ohio State team that is hanging its hat on victories over historical non-powers Indiana and Northwestern in the battle for a CFP slot. However, it appears Texas A&M's chief competition for the final spot in the playoff will be Notre Dame -- a team that is 10-1 after losing the ACC title game 34-10 to Clemson on Saturday.
The Fighting Irish have played two more games than Texas A&M and would deserve to be in over the Aggies if the number of games played was going to be the deciding factor. But the argument for why Texas A&M deserves to be in over Notre Dame hinges on the part of the argument that Fisher nailed: that A&M deserves respect for emerging with only one defeat from the most difficult SEC season in history.
"I want to see somebody else go 8-1 this league and stand up and do it," Fisher said.
If the Aggies end up on the outside looking in when the CFP Selection Committee reveals its final rankings on Sunday, it would be a snub like the SEC has not seen since an unbeaten Auburn team was left out of the 2004 BCS national title game. Some credit that snub with leading to the creation of the College Football Playoff, because it was simply unfathomable that an unbeaten team from such a highly regarded league could be robbed of the opportunity to play for a national title.
It would be nearly as cringeworthy for proponents of the four-team playoff if an SEC team in 2020 was left out of the field after winning seven straight games in an SEC-only gauntlet with a single loss to a dominant Alabama squad.
An SEC program has won 10 of the 15 national championships since Auburn's historic snub, and the league provided the runner-up in three of those five national title games it did not win. During that decade and a half of dominance, one of the league's chief criticisms has been that, while other conferences have adopted nine-game league schedules, the SEC stuck with an eight-game league slate. But that knock was rendered moot this season as the league adopted a conference-only approach to scheduling amid the pandemic.
While COVID-19 robbed the Aggies of getting to play a 10th conference game, they played more games against SEC competition in the regular season than any team had in league history. That should count for something, because there is no evidence that the SEC is in the midst of decline.
While Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida and Georgia clearly emerged as the class of the conference this season, the supposed lack of quality wins on the Aggies' schedule is based on the cannibalism produced by the conference-only slate. Victories over Auburn, LSU, South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Tennessee should not somehow be viewed as insignificant simply because those teams limped through what were arguably the most brutal slates in their program's histories. And don't forget, Texas A&M did beat SEC East champion Florida.
If there is a perception that the SEC is down this season, it can likely be attributed to the fact that many of the teams that typically comprise the league's middle-class could not pad their win totals in non-conference play. But through all the intraconference brutality, Texas A&M emerged as the league's second-best team. Sure, the Aggies lost 52-24 to Alabama. But Fisher was wise to point out that game was played before an unfortunate season-ending injury to one of the Crimson Tide's to playmakers in Jaylen Waddle.
In fact, Texas A&M was in that game against Alabama for much of the first half before the Crimson Tide turned it on. The Aggies' loss to Alabama was certainly no worse than Notre Dame's anemic effort in Saturday's ACC title game.
Notre Dame has its regular-season win over Clemson and a victory over North Carolina to build its case around for a CFP berth. Texas A&M has seven wins over quality opponents from the best league in the country and an eighth victory over lowly Vanderbilt.
Fisher made another good point when he mentioned that a one-loss SEC team has never been left out of the playoff. When a one-loss Alabama team made it as the No. 4 seed in 2017 after not playing in the SEC Championship game, it qualified over a 12-1 Wisconsin team that was on its way to the playoff until a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.
Those 2017 Badgers played in the only league that can give the SEC a run for its money in the conference supremacy race and were excluded from the playoff after suffering their first loss in the league title game, just like Notre Dame did on Saturday.
Alabama's loss in 2017 came against an Auburn team ranked No. 6 at the time. It was a much worse loss than the defeat the Aggies suffered against the high-flying Crimson Tide two and a half months ago. But the Crimson Tide made the playoff anyway.
Unless there is evidence that the SEC has slipped up in three years since and is no longer atop college football's pecking order, the case for Notre Dame to make the playoff over Texas A&M this year is shaky at best.
"Eight wins in the SEC," Fisher said. "I want to see somebody else do it."