In a few hours the college football playoff committee will release its four playoff teams and our annual arguments over the four best teams in the sport will end until next fall.
But before we get to the playoff discussion here in the Starting 11, I want to praise the players, coaches, administrators and leaders of college football, the people who refused to cancel the season even when the coronabros in the sports media demanded it.
In particular, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey deserves the most praise. He was the most steadfast in refusing to cancel the season even in the face of immense media pressure. When the Big Ten and the Pac 12 canceled in July, it was Sankey — along with the ACC and the Big 12 leaders — who refused to buckle and cancel their seasons as well. That’s why we even have a college football season to debate — because the SEC’s leader refused to cancel in the middle of the summer when all the coronabros in sports media were demanding that he do so.
To their credit the ACC and the Big 12 eventually stayed strong alongside of him, but it was Sankey’s leadership that held the season together. He’s gotten a fraction of the credit he deserves — and make no mistake there are many people who deserve credit for the season happening not just him — but what the SEC did, in particular, was, I believe, the most impressive accomplishment in the history of the league.
The SEC played 69 of its 71 scheduled games this season. All with fans present. And all without any serious health issues from any players or coaches. And last night the SEC crowned an undefeated and undisputed champion in Atlanta — far from there being an asterisk Alabama’s 11-0 record is two more conference wins than any team has ever tallied in the history of the conference. Alabama is, without question I believe, the most legitimate champion in the conference’s history. No one has ever done more than they have.
What the SEC — and the Big 12 and the ACC — achieved was a quintessentially American achievement — in the face of tremendous obstacles they found a way to persevere. And in so doing they delivered a major body blow to the coronabros in the sports media who insisted it was impossible to play a college football season this fall. Somewhere along the way it’s become considered brave to curl up in the fetal position, withdraw from all competition, and claim there’s nothing at all you can do to combat the difficulties in front of you.
Well, I reject that concept entirely and, thankfully, so do most of the millions of you reading Outkick every week.
So before we all start arguing, let’s not understate the tremendous achievement that this season was.
Okay, let’s dive into the final Starting 11 of the year.
1. Here’s the final tally of games played by the power five conferences.
The SEC 69 out of 71 — 97.2%
The Big 12 53 out of 56 — 94.6%
The ACC 86 out of 91 — 94.5%
The Big Ten 51 out of 64 — 79.7%
The Pac 12 32 out of 43 — 74.4%
The Sun Belt, the American Athletic Conference, the MAC, the Mountain West and Conference USA all played as well.
Again, without Greg Sankey’s leadership I don’t think any of this happens.
But there’s a clear line of demarcation here, the three conferences that were brave enough to start playing in September had the flexibility to finish most of their season while the two conferences that started in late October and November did their teams, players, and fans a disservice by playing a small fraction of the games they would have been able to play if they’d started in September.
2. Okay, so let’s dive into the playoff debate.
Alabama and Clemson are clearly your number one and two seeds in the playoff — and it seems likely that despite all the playoff arguments we are headed for a fifth playoff match up between the duo in this year’s title game. But the big debate now is which two of these three teams — Notre Dame, Ohio State and Texas A&M — deserve to make the playoff alongside Alabama and Clemson?
Here’s the final poll I put out last night asking you guys to pick which of these teams should be left out:
Final poll before the playoff committee votes. Alabama will be the one seed, Clemson will be the two seed, which of these three teams should be left out of the playoff and finish fifth?
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) December 20, 2020
So let’s break down the arguments for each of these three teams.
3. Ohio State’s best argument is the eye test.
The Buckeyes are incredibly talented and they finished 6-0 in the Big Ten, with wins over top 25 Northwestern and Indiana teams.
If you asked oddsmakers to pick the best team of the these three, they would pick Ohio State.
The biggest detraction against the Buckeye resume is they played only six games.
4. Texas A&M’s best argument is the historic strength of the SEC and the fact they won seven straight in the nation’s toughest conference, including their final six SEC games by double digits.
The Aggies lost just one game, against number one Alabama on the road back in early October, but they lost that game by 28 points. Since that time they have gotten progressively better for most of the season, winning their final six conference games by double digits.
The Aggies lost one game to cancellation, which hurts their resume a bit, since they would have had a good chance to beat Ole Miss and finish 9-1 otherwise.
5. Notre Dame’s best argument is they beat Clemson earlier in the year, finished with ten wins, and shouldn’t be penalized for an ACC title game loss.
The Irish notched ten wins in the regular season, including wins over Clemson, granted without Trevor Lawrence, and North Carolina.
The best argument against the Irish is their win over Clemson was illegitimate without Lawrence playing and they lost their final game of the season by 24 points, which would be the most points a team has ever lost a final game by and made the playoff.
6. So what would my final four look like if I were on the college football playoff committee?
I’d vote as follows:
3. Texas A&M
4. Notre Dame
Okay, why would I do this?
Because the number of games played has to matter.
Every season I say there are two primary criteria to consider teams for the playoff — best and most deserving. Sometimes these categories correspond — Alabama and Clemson, it seems clear, are both the best and most deserving teams in college football. So their selection for the playoff is easy.
But sometimes these criteria don’t correspond. Ohio State may be the best team, but they aren’t the most deserving team, at least not compared to Texas A&M and Notre Dame. The Buckeyes just didn’t play enough games.
Look, I fought as hard as any media member in the country for the Big Ten to play football this fall. But ultimately the conference champion only managed to play six games.
For years we’ve dinged Notre Dame in the college football playoff over the number of games they played. How often have we heard it referenced as a significant factor that Notre Dame didn’t have to play a conference title game and everyone else did? And that was just the difference between 12 and 13 games played. In a normal year, without a pandemic hanging over the entire sport.
Does it make sense that Ohio State should get to play for the championship despite playing nearly half of the games played by Alabama, Notre Dame and Clemson? And despite playing three less games than Texas A&M?
Not to me.
The college football season is a marathon filled with pratfalls, as Buckeye fans who recall double digit losses as double digit favorites to Iowa and Purdue well know.
A champion has to emerge fully challenged.
And I just don’t think Ohio State has been challenged as much as the other four teams in contention for the playoff spots.
That’s not Ohio State’s fault, their leadership failed them.
But decisions have consequences.
Just as we’ve essentially eliminated the Pac 12 from playoff contention based on the lack of games their conference played, so too, I believe, do we have to eliminate Ohio State.
Otherwise we’re just picking the most talented teams. And if we’re doing that, what’s the point of playing an entire season?
And that’s ultimately the difference maker for me. We should reward the teams and leagues who did everything they could to play football this season, not the ones who tried to cancel the season and then returned to the sport late in the year to play a fraction of the games they would have otherwise played.
To be fair, this wasn’t Ohio State’s fault. In fact, the Buckeyes fought as hard as they possibly could to play this fall. But their conference’s decision to cancel the season in July set in place the near cancellation of the season and ultimately created a situation where a champion could be crowned in the Big Ten and the Pac 12 with only six games played.
Everyone is rolling their eyes at fact that Oregon won the Pac 12 with a record of 4-2.
So why isn’t everyone also rolling their eyes at Ohio State winning the Big Ten with a record of 6-0?
Ultimately, Ohio State may be one of the four best, but they aren’t one of the four most deserving teams and so I can’t put them in my playoff.
7. What do I think the college football playoff committee does?
I think they’ll pick the teams and games that guarantee the most viewers and the most money.
That means I predict the college football playoff committee’s final four will be:
3. Ohio State
4. Notre Dame
We’ll get Alabama vs. Notre Dame and Clemson vs. Ohio State, two games that will rate incredibly well and bring in massive viewership in a year when college sports have lost massive amounts of money.
8. What does Tennessee do with Jeremy Pruitt?
Put simply, I have no idea.
There’s a faction that wants to allow him to remake his coaching staff and come back for a fourth year and there’s a faction that wants to go ahead and rip the band aid off and fire him.
I’m in the latter camp.
When you don’t have faith that your coach is the right guy after three years, how often does he become the right coach in season four, five or six? Almost never. Instead you just spend another year waiting to fire him.
If I were Tennessee’s athletic director, I would fire Pruitt and go hire Hugh Freeze.
Given the mess at Auburn, you might even be able to ultimately grab Kevin Steele as your defensive coordinator to pair with Freeze before all is said and done.
Again, that’s what I would do, I have no idea what Tennessee will ultimately decide to do.
9. Who wins the Heisman?
It’s possible Alabama has the three best players in college football based on what we saw from Mac Jones, Devonta Smith, and Najee Harris all season and last night.
But I wonder if all three will end up getting votes, leading to Kyle Trask, potentially, being able to capitalize and win the award based on the votes being split among those three guys.
But ultimately I think Mac Jones is going to end up the winner.
10. My final regular season Outkick top ten:
3. Texas A&M
4. Notre Dame
5. Ohio State
10. Coastal Carolina
11. My final regular season SEC power ratings 1-14.
2. Texas A&M
8. Ole Miss
11. Mississippi State
13. South Carolina
Thanks as always for your support of Outkick, even in this crazy 2020 year.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m headed to Universal Studios in Orlando to spend the day with my family there.