Newspaper article International New York Times

Playoff Offers Fans Clear Title Picture ; Clemson Plays Sooners, and Michigan State Faces Alabama in Semifinals

Newspaper article International New York Times

Playoff Offers Fans Clear Title Picture ; Clemson Plays Sooners, and Michigan State Faces Alabama in Semifinals

Article excerpt

The college football champion will be one of four teams: Clemson will play Oklahoma, and Alabama will face Michigan State. The winners will play Jan. 11.

When Mack Brown left North Carolina after the 1997 season to become head football coach at Texas, he received some parting words of wisdom from Dean Smith, the celebrated Tar Heels men's basketball coach.

"Don't make football like basketball," Smith told Brown, "where there's only one happy team at the end of the year."

Smith, who died in February, knew that the 1998 season would inaugurate the Bowl Championship Series, which was college football's first postseason that could truly claim to crown a consensus national champion.

As the College Football Playoff selection committee announced Sunday, this season that champion will be one of four teams: No. 1 Clemson will play No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and No. 2 Alabama will face No. 3 Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31. The winners will play Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz.

The committee did its job extremely well. It selected the best four teams and placed them in compelling matchups, so that the national champion will be nearly indisputable.

It is worth remembering, though, what the committee could not do, which is recreate the previous, funky norm of college football.

For decades, the season concluded with several unrelated or loosely related bowl games. A national title was a nebulous thing, and so a greater premium was placed on beating one's archrival and winning a conference title. Then there was the bowl game, sunny and extravagant, which ideally resulted in victory. Several groups voted on which was the best team. Sometimes they agreed; sometimes they did not.

But as the stubbornly provincial sport grew more popular and national, fans clamored to know who the best team was. Thus the B.C.S.; and thus the Playoff, which was not a retreat but an advance, with more postseason and more credibility.

Did football become like basketball?

"That's what has happened," Brown, who won one B.C.S. title and is now an ESPN analyst, said on Sunday.

He added, "Now, you haven't really been successful if you get to the four unless you win it all."

All four teams have something special to recommend them. At 13- 0, Clemson is the Football Bowl Subdivision's last undefeated team, and the Tigers beat a whopping three of the other teams in the committee's top 10. Alabama won the Southeastern Conference, features the Heisman Trophy front-runner Derrick Henry at tailback and has a fearsome defensive front seven. Michigan State figured out how to win every kind of game this year, including one without its quarterback against Ohio State, the defending national champion. Oklahoma reeled off a string of victories over ranked conference rivals and may be playing the best football of anyone. …

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