Ohio State vs. Oklahoma: The start of the College Football Playoff's greatest debate yet
There have been tough calls every year for the CFP Selection Committee, but this could be its toughest
Lincoln Riley was asked this week about his defense. No, no, no. Not the on-field unit that is dead last in the Big 12 and among the worst in the country -- both statistically and in reality. Oklahoma's coach was asked about his defense of that defense.
If the Sooners are going to edge their way into a second consecutive College Football Playoff, a lot of things are going to have to happen this week. Beat Texas, for starters, in the Big 12 Championship Game. Have Alabama beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, too. That opens up a spot in the top four.
But it would also help if Oklahoma can convince anyone within the sound of Riley's voice that a team equipped to outscore anyone in the country is worthy of that CFP spot despite that defense.
"If I have to defend winning, I'm going to go do something else," Riley said. "Winning's hard … especially like that game the other night. People that haven't been it can't understand how much that takes."
That game the other night saw OU beat West Virginia 59-56 to clinch a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. Even in by Big 12 standards, that was crazy.
OU and its league are not traditional, but you already knew that. But what is traditional? OU indeed reached the playoff last year having to outscore the opposition. It did until it didn't, blowing a 17-point first-half lead in the Rose Bowl semifinal, losing to Georgia in overtime 54-48.
That's either distasteful to you or just the way things are in college football today. Especially when the team Oklahoma is being compared to for a playoff berth, Ohio State, is just about playing the same way. The teams will likely be ranked No. 5 and No. 6 in some order when the last regular-season College Football Rankings are released Tuesday night.
Those Buckeyes just scored 62 to beat Michigan, combining with the Wolverines for 101 points. Urban Meyer's defense (67th nationally) is the program's worst in yards allowed in at least a decade.
"Look at Michigan right now. No shade on them," Riley said. "They're easily one of the top defenses in the country. No question about it. Great defenses and coaches and all that. But when you play an explosive offense and they get moving a little bit, it's hard to stop."
Welcome, then, to the playoff era's ultimate week of debate -- arguments, even -- over … everything.
Tua Tagovailoa vs. Kyler Murray vs. Dwayne Haskins for the Heisman Trophy. Alabama vs. Georgia, possibly twice if the teams rematch in the playoff. If we're going to rip Notre Dame's schedule, let's first take a look at Clemson's in a down year in the ACC. Offense vs. defense. Ohio State vs. Oklahoma for that last playoff spot if certain results occur.
Oklahoma has an explosive offense but a deficient defense. Ohio State has a better win (Michigan) but a confounding loss (Purdue). The Boilermakers took all the momentum from that upset and limped home 2-3, barely qualifying for a bowl. That deserves to be on the Buckeyes' resume, too.
And don't get all high and mighty, SEC. The two highest-scoring conferences in the land are the Big 12 and SEC.
Defense wins championships? If Oklahoma makes it into the Football Four, it would have the worst defense perhaps ever to play for a championship -- 111th in yards allowed. And yet, the Sooners are a heartbeat away from a third playoff appearance in five years.
"The game's moving a lot faster, man," said Georgia defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter. "People are scoring at will. The game is kind of changing."
Ohio State is in this position only because, nine days ago, Maryland's Tyrrell Pigrome missed freshman Jeshaun Johnson in the end zone with a two-point conversion pass that would have won the game. Now we're supposed to entertain the idea of the Buckeyes being a playoff team?
Sure, why not? They just beat Michigan, which took us all for chumps. The old bait-and-switch. Jim Harbaugh created the impression his team was … good. His teams have traveled to Rome and Paris. When -- those Maize and Blue loyalists are asking -- is Michigan going to get to Indianapolis (site of the Big Ten Championship Game)?
Oklahoma is the first team in the wire-service era (since 1936) to give up at least 40 points in four straight games and win. The world is watching. Riley defending basketball scores reveals a lot about him, OU and college football. The NFL obviously is watching, too. Riley's name has been brought up lately as one to watch in NFL coaching circles.
"To dismiss [the Big 12] as not quality football is crazy; it's lazy," Riley said. "I think it's uneducated, in my opinion. This league plays great football."
Never mind Riley has been a head coach for all of two years. Like Ledbetter said, the game is changing.
This is the week when everyone is absolutely right and absolutely wrong and all of them are scheduled to appear on TV to make their case this week.
Nick Saban ought to know. After beating a 12th consecutive opponent by at least 20 points, after putting Gus Malzahn's job security in question (again), Saban quickly switched to campaign mode for Alabama on Saturday afternoon. In Saban's world, nothing is assured, certainly not the fact that one of the most dominant teams in the sport's history could afford to lose in Saturday's SEC Championship Game.
"The SEC's a very good league," he told reporters. "For the team to go undefeated is quite an accomplishment."
Was Saban actually making his case for Alabama being in the playoff? If there is a coach who doesn't have to stump for his team, it's Saban. His team is a double-digit favorite over anyone it would face in the playoff. The CFP Selection Committee would have to swallow hard to drop a team out of the top four that has been No. 1 since they started running gassers in early August.
The same logic applies to Tagovailoa's Heisman chances.
"You don't get to win a Heisman Trophy if you don't have the right stuff," Saban said. "Kobe Bryant got asked when he was here, 'What motives you more, how much you hate to lose or how much you love to win?' He said, 'Neither one. I get motivated because I want to be the best player I can be.'"
The right stuff lives here. For the third time since 2009, Alabama could be celebrating a championship berth and a Heisman in the same week.
Saban has been borderline brilliant at gamesmanship within gamesmanship. Who can forget his compelling appearance on "College GameDay" the Saturday of the 2011 conference championship games, basically campaigning for his team's appearance in the 2011 BCS Championship Game?
Hint: It worked. Alabama beat out Oklahoma State for the BCS by the closest margin ever. That was the week it hit home: A team didn't even need to win its division to play for a national championship. Since then, it has happened two other times: Ohio State in 2016 and Alabama again in 2017.
This weekend, Georgia can be two-time defending SEC champions. By next month, it could also be back-to-back playoff losers to Alabama.
Is that right, wrong, fair or just the way the game has changed? Get in line to state your case like everybody else.
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