Football

It’ll be three unbeatens -- and Oklahoma -- vying for the national title in college football

Alabama head coach Nick Saban walks on the field before an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Nov. 3, 2018.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban walks on the field before an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Nov. 3, 2018. AP

Alabama was a no-brainer.

So were Clemson and Notre Dame.

But when a 13-member committee sat down to fill in the last line on the four-team bracket for the College Football Playoff, the decision wasn’t so cut and dry.

Would it be Oklahoma, Georgia or Ohio State?

“The debate was deep, detailed and occasionally contentious,” said Rob Mullens, who chairs the committee. “There was division. It was as intense as any I can recall.”

In the end, it went with a one-loss Oklahoma team over Georgia (11-2) and Ohio State (12-1).

And, for the second straight year, an unbeaten Central Florida team was left out in the cold, relegated to a Fiesta Bowl matchup against LSU that will have zero bearing on determining a national champion.

“Obviously, we spent some time talking about UCF,” Mullens said of the Knights, who own a 25-game win streak but don’t play in a Power 5 conference. “In the committee’s eyes, the strength of schedule just didn’t hold up when you look at that peer group (of contenders).”

Instead, the CFP will be comprised of many of the same teams that show up annually.

The semifinal match-ups: top-ranked Alabama will face the high-scoring Sooners in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 29 while Clemson will take on the Fighting Irish that same day in the Cotton Bowl. The winners meet Jan. 7 for the national championship.

It’s the first time in the five years of the CFP that the field of four contains three unbeaten teams — Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame. The Sooners (12-1) are the only one of the bunch with a blemish.

If a team’s record was the sole criteria, the committee could have made it easy on itself by going with only unbeaten teams. There were four exactly, a perfect fit for a four-team bracket.

But, for the second straight year, the committee snubbed UCF, likely fueling more debate about the need to expand the playoffs to include eight teams. UCF finished at No. 8 in the final CFP ranking.

At least UCF, unlike Florida State, is playing in a bowl.

The Seminoles and Florida Atlantic Owls were the only two Florida teams — of the seven FBS schools in the state — not to receive bowl bids. With identical 5-7 records, neither was eligible. It’s the first time in 36 years that FSU didn’t qualify for a postseason bowl.

Miami is headed to the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27 to face Wisconsin, the Florida Gators drew Michigan in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 29, Florida International is matched with Toledo in the Bahamas Bowl on Dec. 21, and South Florida will face Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl on Dec. 20.

They are all undercard events to the CFP, though.

Alabama is back to defend its national championship after going 13-0 and rallying to defeat Georgia on Saturday in the Southeastern Conference championship.

Clemson (13-0) will be playing in the CFP a fourth straight year.

Notre Dame (13-0) will be making its first CFP appearance.

Oklahoma (12-1) is back for a third time. But the Sooners had to sweat it out as the CFP committee debated the merits of the three top contenders for the fourth and final spot.

Did the two-loss Georgia Bulldogs deserve the last spot, as many argued, after taking Alabama to the brink on Saturday before falling short? Was a one-loss Ohio State team that won the Big 10 title more entitled?

“No one was unequivocally better than the other,” Mullens said. “There was little debate about Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame. There was a lot of debate about Oklahoma and Georgia and Ohio State. I can assure, you, every combination was discussed in the room.”

The Sooners eventually prevailed.

“(Oklahoma is a) one-loss conference champion, with their only loss being on a neutral field, close loss to a ranked team (Texas),” Mullens said in defense of the Sooners.

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