Four Downs: Who’s In The College Football Playoff?

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Who’s In? It’s the existential question for college football in this era of a Playoff, one the marketing gurus in Stamford have perpetuated from the first game of the 2014 season.

The omnipresent question that lingers over the college football season is answered the first Sunday of December. So…who’s in the College Football Playoff for the 2017 campaign, anyway?

Dominant performances in the Big 12, ACC and SEC Championships ensure Oklahoma, Clemson and Georgia berths. No muss, no fuss. As for that fourth and final spot? Oh, there will be a fuss.

Welcome to Four Downs.

FIRST DOWN: WHO’S IN THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF?

Bill Hancock revealed on Wednesday’s Paul Finebaum Show that the College Football Playoff committee convened Friday, beginning their weekend-long deliberations.

Their efforts are now essentially focused on just one spot, but it’s a contentious spot.

Four teams remain with a worthy case to be the last who’s in the College Football Playoff; however, one is UCF. Despite standing as the last undefeated in FBS, beating Memphis in an incredible American Athletic Conference Championship Game for what should be the Knights’ third Top 25 win (assuming the committee finally gives USF its due), the committee will never earnestly consider a Group of Five team without years of building up a reputation.

That leaves the committee with Ohio State, Alabama and USC.

Pac-12 champion USC got a head-start in its politicking Friday, and it made a surprisingly compelling case. Every point in the Trojans’ favor is a good one — but the same is true for Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost at home and fell to a team not ranked in the Top 25, two things USC avoided, but Ohio State’s Big Ten Championship win over Wisconsin and defeat of Penn State give the Buckeyes two victories more impressive than any of USC’s.

Ironically enough, however, precedent set in Ohio State’s favor a season ago — earning an invitation without winning its conference — works against the Buckeyes this year and in Alabama’s favor.

The argument for the Crimson Tide is remarkably tenuous, though. Alabama played the weakest schedule of any Playoff hopeful, and by a considerable margin according to Sagarin ratings. That much is evident when Nick Saban is having to go onto SportsCenter to champion a win over Florida State, which needed to win a rescheduled game against Louisiana-Monroe Saturday just to get bowl eligible.

Alabama’s case hinges largely on subjectivity. Those arguing for the Tide have invoked the phrase, “the four best teams,” one of those statements made on the rankings reveal shows that gets thoroughly dissected in college football media.

Alabama’s “best,” they’ll argue. OK: But according to what? Cumulative recruiting star rankings? Past seasons’ results? The most tangible argument in Alabama’s favor is that the Tide would likely be a Las Vegas favorite against any of the five teams either already in the Playoff or those jockeying for a berth. I’m not sure the committee is ready to open that Pandora’s Box, even if it does benefit Alabama.

What did not benefit Alabama was Auburn, one week from beating the Tide by double digits, getting absolutely trucked by Georgia. If the Dawgs bring that same defensive intensity and execution into the Playoff, they might bring Athens back its first national championship in almost four decades.

Georgia would likely have to beat a historic rival that looks close to unbeatable lately, though.

SECOND DOWN: IS ANYONE BEATING CLEMSON?

Who cares if Ric Flair was known to sport South Carolina Gamecocks gear, an indication of his friendship with Steve Spurrier? The Nature Boy’s most famous quote applies to South Carolina rival Clemson best as it pertains to the College Football Playoff.

To be The Man, you’ve got to beat The Man.

Clemson wears the title belt as defending national champion well. Sure, Miami came into the ACC Championship having won some ugly games, and the Hurricanes had plainly evident issues on offense. Still, the gravity of Clemson absolutely blasting The U should not be downplayed.

The defending champs thoroughly dominated a Top 10 team, flexing its defensive muscle against an overmatched offense. Chalk up yet another game since that head-scratching Syracuse loss in which the Tigers held an opponent to 14 points or fewer.

The way in which Clemson deconstructed a Miami defense that was excellent all season long truly makes the Tigers terrifying heading into their third consecutive Playoff.

To that end, does it really matter which of the three contenders lands that No. 4 seed? Can any of them beat Clemson?

Selfishly, I would not mind Alabama back-dooring its way into the Playoff if for no other reason than to complete the trilogy. The two epics the Tigers and Tide provided in the past two national championship games make this series the Okada-Omega of college football.

THIRD DOWN: THE OPTION REVIVAL LIVES ON

Nebraska football opted to go back to its roots with the hire of Cornhusker alum Scott Frost away from UCF. But while Frost played at Nebraska in the days of the triple-option, his tenure as offensive coordinator at Oregon and time as head coach of UCF changed Frost’s own offensive outlook.

His team operate an offense with option elements, including a mobile quarterback. Keep in mind, though, that Marcus Mariota attempted 445 passes in 2014 under Frost’s tutelage. McKenzie Milton’s thrown the ball 320 times in 12 games this season.

Frost will not be reinstating the triple option at Nebraska. Still, I remain steadfast in my personal belief, given the success teams at other levels have had in recent years, a power-conference program could flourish with the triple option.

The latest evidence in that favor: Upstart program Kennesaw State took down No. 3 Jacksonville State in the FCS Playoffs Saturday, moving onto the quarterfinals.

Former Paul Johnson assistant Brian Bohannon brought the option to the fledgling program, and this season it produced the best rushing attack in FCS. Kennesaw State joins Wofford as FCS Playoffs quarterfinalists running the triple option, while a third — James Madison — has a head coach in Mike Houston who oversaw the triple option at The Citadel and introduced elements of it for the defending national champion Dukes.

FOURTH DOWN: A BOWL GAME SIX DECADES IN THE MAKING

New Mexico State’s last appearance in the postseason came a short jaunt from its Las Cruces campus at the Sun Bowl, where the Aggies capped a perfect season beating Utah State, 20-13. They finished ranked No. 17 in the Associated Press poll, an honor to complement the team’s Border Conference championship.

Never heard of the Border Conference? That’s probably because it went defunct in 1962 after Arizona and Arizona State left for the Western Athletic Conference.

Yes, when New Mexico State last bowled, it shared a league with the Arizona schools; President-Elect John F. Kennedy began the transition from Pres. Dwight Eisenhower; and Pete Best was still a member of The Beatles.

The past 57 years have provided no shortage of brutal moments for New Mexico State football, much of it spent as arguably the worst program in Div. I-A/FBS. The Aggies had highs; Warren Woodson’s successful tenure, which included the 1960 Sun Bowl, ended with seasons of 8-2 and 7-2-1, but the dearth of bowl games at the time meant no postseason.

Likewise, a 7-5 finish in 2002 was not enough for a bowl.

But coming into Saturday’s Sun Belt finale for the Aggies — not season finale, mind you, but New Mexico State’s final game as a member of the conference — they were guaranteed the postseason with a win over South Alabama. No pressure, right?

Every intangible for the superstitiously inclined pointed to a New Mexico State loss. Not only were the Aggies playing to end nearly six decades of heartache, but South Alabama was playing for Joey Jones, the only coach the program’s never known, one final time. The Jaguars were not bowling win or lose, but denying a conference counterpart the postseason in Jones’ last game could have been the next best thing.

And USA nearly pulled it off. The Jags drove into the red zone in the late fourth quarter, but New Mexico State held them to a field goal. Trailing by two, all the Aggies needed to win was a field goal of their own — but Tyler Rogers took the #CollegeKickers possibility out of the equation with a touchdown pass.

Rogers throwing New Mexico State into the postseason fits. He’s the nation’s second-most prolific passer behind only Mason Rudolph. Throwing to a wide receivers unit that includes NFL-caliber talent Jaleel Scott, a 1,000-yard pass-catcher in 2017, New Mexico State plays an exciting style.

The Aggies’ potent pass attack is a testament to the excellent job Doug Martin and his staff have done adapting; just two years ago, New Mexico State featured a more run-oriented offense behind Larry Rose III.

Martin’s done so much more for the betterment for this program, too, which this Forgotten 5 tweet thread illustrates:

New Mexico State is headed to Tucson for the Arizona Bowl. In a nice bit of symmetry, the Aggies are likely set to draw Utah State — the same opponent New Mexico State played in the 1960 Sun Bowl.