Playoff what if? Oregon vs. Alabama

June, 25, 2012
6/25/12
1:17
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The most interesting and potentially controversial part of the four-team college football playoff it appears we are about to adopt is the selection committee. Who's on it? What will be their criteria? How transparent will the process be? What, ultimately, will be their foundation for impossible distinctions?

The Pac-12 blog has gone on and on about its "just because" concerns. That's the idea that if you have an 11-1 team from the SEC it will get an automatic bump over an 11-1 team from any other conference, even if there is evidence that it shouldn't.

So let's do a "what if" that blends reality and fiction.

What if LSU, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin had all finished unbeaten in 2011. And what if Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado's 37-yard field goal in the waning moments against USC was good, and the Ducks then prevailed over the Trojans in overtime.

Our question: Which 11-1 team, Oregon or Alabama, gets the No. 4 spot in a four-team playoff?

Actually, that can't be our starting point because Oregon would go on to win the Pac-12 title and eyeball the postseason at 12-1, while Alabama would be the SEC West runner-up.

This is an interesting case for a variety of reasons. For one, it matches college football's nouveau riche (Oregon) vs. old money (Alabama). It's SEC vs. Pac-12. And it features teams from those conferences with a rarity: A common opponent.

That would be the point A for the selection committee. Oregon lost 40-27 to LSU in the season opener. Alabama lost 9-6 in overtime on Nov. 5.

For some, that would be enough. The Ducks lost by 13, the Crimson Tide by three in overtime after making just one of four field goals.

But should it be? Here's where biases and perception insinuate themselves into the process.

Ducks fans, reasonably, have been long perturbed by the widely held misperception of their game with LSU, even from media members who should know better. While LSU's defense was undoubtedly beastly and mostly shut down the Ducks' running game, Oregon outgained LSU 335 yards to 273. It averaged 3.4 yards per rush vs. 3.6 for LSU.

The single biggest reasons Oregon lost to LSU was turnovers. The Ducks had four, LSU one. One Ducks turnover, a fumbled punt return -- a brilliant strip and dash from Tyrann Mathieu -- was converted into a touchdown. Two fumbles concluded potentially big plays from true freshman De'Anthony Thomas in Oregon territory.

Yes, turnovers are a critical part of football. You can't just write them away. But so are field goals. (Just ask Stanford).

Alabama also outgained LSU -- 295 yards to 239 -- but it averaged just 3.1 yards per rush. LSU averaged the same per run against that dominant Alabama defense -- 3.6 yards -- as it did against the Ducks. Turnovers were even at two apiece.

Further, Oregon was playing a season-opener on the road -- Cowboys Stadium played like a home game for the Tigers. Alabama was playing at home in November. One team was breaking preseason camp in front of a hostile crowd 2,000 miles from home while another should have been peaking in front of a friendly audience. And don't the Ducks deserve some recognition for ambitious scheduling?

If you had 10 fair-minded people in a conference room, it's hard to believe the common opponent comparison wouldn't end up a push. Or very close to it.

Schedule? The Ducks would have had two quality wins: Stanford and USC (in our "what if" scenario). Alabama would have beaten Penn State and Arkansas. Clear advantage for the Ducks. Top-to-bottom strength of schedule would have been fairly close.

Finally, oh by the way, Oregon won its conference. Alabama did not. Word out of the BCS meetings is that will be important for the selection committee. This scenario would certainly test that, eh?

So here we are: The clear choice is Oregon.

If a selection committee were to analyze these two teams in this scenario -- and not give priority to an "eye test" or past history -- the Ducks are the No. 4 seed.

Ah, but here's the problem, and when cheering Oregon fans start throwing tomatoes at me.

Alabama was better than Oregon last year. Even in the above scenario, I strongly suspect I would have believed that. As would most folks, even many Oregon fans.

Let's put it this way: If the 2011 Oregon and Alabama teams were to meet next weekend, and an all-powerful alien said he'd melt your face with his illudium Q-36 explosive space modulator if you picked the game incorrectly, would you pick the Ducks or the Tide?

I'd have picked the Tide. My guess is many of the folks ripping me below for being a traitor to the Pac-12 would do the same. It's easy to trash talk when there are no real stakes, but not when your face is melting.

Would my Tide pick reflect a bias inculcated in me during my wayward youth as an SEC fan growing up in the Southeast? Or perhaps a bias ingrained by the relentless media drum beat of SEC awesomeness? Perhaps some. But I think it would be more a case of the Tide's freak zone talent on defense, the inexorable Trent Richardson and a coach in Nick Saban who can match wits with Chip Kelly.

Therein lies the potential quandary for the selection committee. No doubt there could be a political mire ahead. For the process to seem fair to everyone outside SEC country, Oregon probably should be the pick in this scenario, at least based on a resume you can point to, one that is notably topped by a conference championship. But there would be strong, national sentiments that the Ducks wouldn't be the right choice as the "best" team.

In this scenario, one program's fans and administrators -- as well as one conference office -- would go ballistic. And they'd be able to produce a compelling argument for how they got screwed.

In other words, it would feel a lot like the old BCS system we are eagerly kicking to the curb.

Ted Miller | email

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