MIAMI — As the committee of football philosophers meets Monday and Tuesday in Texas, studying the statistical and the unknowable, it might grapple with a fresh dynamic in its four-year existence. The way things have shaken, and shaken, across this fall in the kooky chambers of college football, it looks like these wise men could wind up awarding, or considering awarding, a playoff spot to somebody who spent a Saturday somewhere getting absolutely mauled.
This has not happened before.
In the first three years of the College Football Playoff selection committee, nine teams with a loss on the CV got playoff berths. Of those nine, only two lost by more than one possession: Washington, when it fell, 26-13, to Southern California in November 2016, and Ohio State, when it lost, 35-21, to Virginia Tech in 2014. “They kicked our ass,” Texas Coach Tom Herman, then the offensive coordinator at Ohio State, recalled this past summer, but they just did not kick it in the way other posteriors have gotten kicked lately.
How should a committee member, with the galling absence of an open bar in the meeting room, weigh such matters as No. 1 Georgia taking a 40-17 obliteration by Auburn on Saturday? How should one process No. 3 Notre Dame’s 41-8 decimation by Miami (Fla.) on Saturday, or Ohio State’s 55-24 annihilation by Iowa the previous Saturday?
If Georgia (9-1) wins against Kentucky, Georgia Tech and either Alabama or Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, it would make the playoff, wouldn’t it? Or could enough of the jury of 13, come Dec. 3, see a tight Clemson-Miami ACC title game with no losers, see an unbeaten Wisconsin, see a surging Oklahoma that won handily at Ohio State, see a Georgia team outrushed 237-46 Saturday at Auburn, and see fit to dole Georgia an agonizing No. 5 ranking? Similarly, as the supporters of Ohio State (8-2) and Notre Dame (8-2), believed to number in the trillions, root for chaos and for a potential two-loss playoff team, surely the sight of those two in Iowa City and Miami Gardens, respectively, could give pause.
Did Miami shoo Notre Dame from playoff consideration mostly because it wrought not just a win, but a destruction?
It would seem that it almost certainly did.
It certainly redrew the football map.
That map includes again motley, funky Miami, not your average college town and something else altogether. The tailgate music booming from its vehicles at Hard Rock Stadium certainly sounds more booming and more delightfully apocalyptic than elsewhere. There’s the wondrous, peerless energy from the mingling of all the colors of the human spectrum.
Mike Bianchi, the great Orlando columnist, once beheld a non-sellout of a Miami Dolphins playoff game and surmised that the worst American sports city was Miami, with the second-worst Miami and the third-worst Miami. Reputedly, they won’t come until you win, yet win Miami has, by 69-18 over then-No. 13 Virginia Tech and then-No. 3 Notre Dame the last two Saturdays.
“How can you not play hard for that crowd?” said second-year Coach Mark Richt, the 57-year-old former Miami quarterback and Georgia coach who pronounced himself “really inspired” by his players. The reemergence of that old titan Miami after some irrelevant years has thrown the whole ACC up the playoff chain, and has caused Richt to caution, “I still wouldn’t say we’re a dominating football team. I mean, tonight was, I guess, a dominating performance, on the scoreboard, anyway. I don’t know if we’re just truly a team that can sit there and impose our will on everybody we play but we can bring it.”
It even briefly regenerated the old, racist “Convicts” theme from the “Catholics vs. Convicts” T-shirts of the 1980s, which had some Miami fans defiantly wearing “Convict” T-shirts on Saturday night, and got quarterback Malik Rosier to say, “It’s actually kind of funny. I mean, they call us, what, ‘convicts,’ but I think we’re number one in, like, community service, so you can’t really say that. I don’t think convicts do that. Willingly.”
A listening room laughed.
“When I came back, or when I decided to continue to coach, I really did want to enjoy it,” said Richt, fired in 2015 after 15 seasons of 74-percent wins at Georgia. “I wanted to have fun. And what better place than Miami, can you have some fun? Gosh, it’s just great. It’s been a blast” — and a fast blast at that. They just wanted to win the ACC Coastal Division, which finally they’ve done in a 13th season of trying, but now they’ve joined the heap of early qualifiers for conference title games, including Southern California (9-2) in the Pacific-12, Wisconsin (10-0) in the Big Ten, Georgia (9-1) in the SEC, Clemson (9-1) in the ACC and, just about assured, Oklahoma (9-1) in the Big 12.
They’ve even redefined Notre Dame, beating it for the first time in five meetings across 28 years, to help throw the committee two unspeakable romps, the other coming at Auburn, whose Kerryon Johnson, coming toward you carrying a football, would have to be one of the scarier sights in the sport.
At least the committee doesn’t have to mull Alabama getting routed, for the handy reason that in a sport without “nevers,” Alabama never gets routed. Its worst loss among the mere 19 across Nick Saban’s 11 seasons has come by 14 points, which happened twice, and without any disintegrating crushing.
When Alabama withstood Mississippi State, 31-24, after trailing 24-17 early in the fourth quarter on Saturday night, it boasted the element that could carry it through its unusual rash of injuries and its coming thickets: the calm, playmaking capacity of Jalen Hurts, that rare sophomore quarterback who, within a still-short life thus far, already scored a go-ahead touchdown late in a national championship game.
“I don’t think you know, when you get a guy, if he has that [calm] or if he doesn’t,” Saban told reporters in Starkville. “But Jalen certainly does. Most of the time, the bigger the situation, the better he is.”
In the hard, loud, ringing horror of Starkville, Hurts ran 13 yards on a fourth down and 4, down 24-17. He passed 31 yards across the middle to Calvin Ridley on third down and 15 in the final minute, after seeing “something in the defense,” Hurts told reporters, telling Ridley about it, hearing Ridley demur, and saying, “Baby, trust me. I got you.” The play after that, he threw 26 yards to DeVonta Smith for the winning touchdown 25 seconds from the end.
“Just who I am,” Hurts told reporters. “It’s some things, you can’t coach. A person’s demeanor is one of them.”
“I think sometimes, you need ‘hard,’ ” Saban told reporters, meaning games where “every play counts,” where “every third down is important,” while, he said, “We don’t always have that when we win 49-0.” Clearly, he’s a man who can speak from 49-0. He just can’t speak, Alabama-wise, of being on the other end of it, or something even near it. The meaning of that fate that befalls others is for 13 sages to parse.
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