Texas A&M is back. But it’s also maybe not their year.
Jimbo Fisher’s third season as head coach has produced the most accomplished Aggies team since Johnny Football won the Heisman Trophy in 2012. Picked (by the media) to finish fourth in the SEC West division, they are instead the second-best team in the conference, with wins over LSU, Florida, and Auburn. And having begun the season at thirteenth in the Associated Press poll, the 7–1 Aggies are now ranked fifth by both the AP and the College Football Playoff committee.
Problem is, they’re the second-best team in the SEC because they lost to Alabama, 52–24. And only four teams get into the playoff.
So while A&M finishes its season Saturday with a meaningless but must-win game against UT—the other, unburnt-orange one in Knoxville—the conference championship tilts involving number one Alabama, number two Notre Dame, number three Clemson, and number four Ohio State will probably determine the Aggies’ fate. Especially since Notre Dame and Clemson play each other in the ACC title game. Another twist: Ohio State, while undefeated, has played five fewer games than the other teams, a result of the Big Ten’s more conservative approach to playing college football during a pandemic.
What!? There’s a pandemic? You definitely wouldn’t know it from the message boards or call-in shows. Given the circumstances of this particular season, you’d think it would be hard to care about the number of games played, conference strength of schedule, or the semantics of “best team” versus “most deserving team.” But hardly anyone or anything does denial and suspension of disbelief like college football does.
While Fisher has wisely chosen not to talk about the playoff rankings while his team still has a game to win, that didn’t stop junior defensive back Leon O’Neal from tweeting:
It also didn’t stop Mr. Football himself from weighing in:
For a person that writes about college football you obviously don’t know shit. Notre Dame beats Clemson, A&M is in along with Ohio State. You can’t trash an A&M team that’s beaten Florida and lost one game to the best team in America. Know less… https://t.co/2UXb4wZ3Fm
— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) December 14, 2020
So let the debates continue! Here’s what might play out on Saturday to get us to a #GigEm #CollegeFootballPlayoff.
(Obvious note: All scenarios also depend on A&M beating the Vols. Preferably by a lot.)
Big Ten Championship: No. 14 Northwestern (5–1) versus No. 4 Ohio State (5–0)
The easy way for A&M: Northwestern wins.
This is, of course, highly unlikely. The Buckeyes are favored by nearly three touchdowns (and beat Northwestern by exactly that much in the 2018 game). But if it happened, Ohio State would drop below the Aggies, and even America’s vast platoon of Northwestern-educated writers—hey there!—couldn’t credibly argue for the Wildcats to rocket ten spots in the rankings.
A ray of hope: Ohio State pulls out a close one.
It’s hard to see the committee passing over an undefeated Big Ten champion under any circumstances, but if it takes a field goal—or even better, overtime, then at least we’d all be able to tweet, “BUT THEY BARELY BEAT NORTHWESTERN.”
Something to fight over: Ohio State wins big.
The argument is that an 8–1 team with a loss to the top team in the country is better than a 6–0 Big Ten team—that the Aggies played a tougher schedule in both quantity and quality. But it’s an argument that Ohio State, with its higher ranking, has won so far. Also—a grain of salt—according to a projection by The Athletic, Ohio State would have finished 11–1 against its original 2020 schedule, while A&M would have been 10–2.
Becoming Big Ten champions in a blowout might even move the Buckeyes up to number three, depending on …
ACC Championship: No. 3 Clemson (9–1) versus No. 2 Notre Dame (10–0)
Rock and a hard place for the Aggies: Clemson wins.
The Fighting Irish beat Clemson on November 7, 47–40 in two overtimes. In other words, a tie by normal football rules. But the Tigers were without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who missed two games with yes, you guessed it, a positive coronavirus test.
Everyone expects Clemson to win the rematch—they’re favored by a somewhat surprising 10.5 points—and that means both teams should remain in the CFP top four.
Book Your Plane Ticket: Notre Dame beats Clemson.
A two-loss team has yet to make the College Football Playoff. A two-loss team that didn’t win its conference seems especially unlikely. If Clemson loses another close one, people will argue that having fallen twice to the number two team in the country shouldn’t necessarily drop Clemson to number five. And with two wins against Clemson, Notre Dame might even rise to number one. So feel free to be nervous. A playoff with no Tigers is the only path that makes room for both Ohio State and A&M.
SEC Championship: No. 1 Alabama (10–0) versus No. 7 Florida (8–2)
Win or lose, Alabama is in the playoff.
And win or lose, Florida should not be. Still, the Gators only dropped from sixth to seventh after last week’s loss to LSU. As previously mentioned, a two-loss team has never made the CFP. But at the same time, as ESPN’s Heather Dinich noted earlier this week, an SEC champion has also never not made the playoff.
Conference champs or not, you’d think there’s no chance the committee would favor a 9–2 Gators team over an 8–1 Texas A&M team that beat them. Better that we never put this scenario to the test, and the Crimson Tide, favored by seventeen points, should spare us that nail-biter.
Big 12 Championship: No. 10 Oklahoma (8–2) versus No. 6 Iowa State (8–2)
The easy way for A&M: Oklahoma wins.
In theory, there’s no reason for A&M fans to watch this game, which is at the same time as both Ohio State–Northwestern and the Aggies’ own contest against the Vols. Even with a conference championship, the Sooners are unlikely to crack the top four.
Something to worry about: Iowa State wins.
But in practice, A&M fans may want to keep one eye on the score of this one. The Cyclones have risen from number thirteen to number six over the last three weeks without anything you’d call a blue-chip win, so it’s not out of the question that a second win over Oklahoma plus a conference championship could vault Iowa State to number four.
That has the potential to not only screw over Texas A&M (and Florida, should the Gators upset Alabama), but also number thirteen USC (5–0 heading into Friday night’s Pac-12 championship game) and two unbeaten Group of 5 teams, number nine Cincinnati (8–0) of the American Athletic Conference, and number eleven Coastal Carolina (11–0) of the Sun Belt Conference.
Also in the Sun Belt is number nineteen Louisiana (9–1), which beat Iowa State way back in September. The Ragin’ Cajuns were supposed to face Coastal Carolina for a second time in the Sun Belt Championship game Saturday, but that’s been canceled because of COVID-19. The virus is also why Cincinnati hasn’t played its last two games, why Ohio State played five instead of eight heading into this weekend, and why even Texas A&M has fallen short of ten.
So let’s keep some perspective. Schools are passing up a chance to play in bowl games so their players can go home for Christmas. Saturday’s Frisco Bowl between SMU and UTSA has already been canceled as a result of COVID-19—the fourth such cancellation for the Mustangs. The Rose Bowl won’t have people in the stands (so don’t book that plane ticket).
Yeah, Ohio State will play only six games. Yeah, the ACC canceled Clemson’s and Notre Dame’s respective December 12 contests, sparing both teams an upset—i.e., what happened to Florida—prior to the championship. But in a year like this, to treat that as a referendum on the merit of a football program, as even SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has done, is gross. “They should be penalized for not having put themselves at risk as many times as other teams,” ESPN analyst and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said of Ohio State on Thursday. Presumably he meant the risk of losing to Tennessee or Arkansas, not the risk of helping spread a deadly virus. But why split hairs?
Pandemic or not, college football is never fair. If you are Texas A&M—or Ohio State or Clemson or Notre Dame or Alabama—you are already complicit in, and a beneficiary of, a beauty-pageant system that rewards its biggest brands. This was true in the split-champion bowl days, it was true during the two-team BCS era, and it’s still true now. The College Football Playoff is an argument. With only four spots and five Power 5 conferences, someone always draws the short straw, starting with TCU in 2014.
And the Group of Five teams don’t even exist. UT hired Tom Herman in part because his University of Houston team beat Oklahoma in 2016, but that game could never happen in a playoff because Houston would never get invited. No serious football fan believes Coastal Carolina could hang with Alabama most nights, but it only has to happen once. And nearly every season, one of those brand-name teams also loses so badly in the playoff that you wonder how they got there in the first place.
So don’t cry for the Aggies if they don’t get in. As I wrote at the beginning of this column, it is maybe not their year. Is it anyone’s?
But if we’re just talking about college football, A&M is getting closer to the success the university is paying Jimbo Fisher $75 million over ten years to achieve. Wins over Alabama. SEC championship game appearances. And an end to columns like this one. The dream is to become one of the College Football Playoff teams that fans of the fifth-ranked school complain about.