Even after Southern California's loss to Utah made things unnecessarily complicated, the College Football Playoff selection committee has rarely had things so easy.
With Ohio State ready to step in for USC, the committee simply had to bump the Buckeyes one spot to complete a very interesting four-team mix.
No. 1 Georgia will be the home team against No. 4 OSU in the Peach Bowl. Held in the Bulldogs' backyard, this matchup will pit the two teams that ranked atop the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll for most of the regular season.
No. 2 Michigan will host No. 3 TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. Even after losing in overtime to No. 9 Kansas State, the Horned Frogs remained the third seed and avoided a very intimidating matchup against Georgia. Not that Michigan will be much easier — the Wolverines are rolling into the postseason with a second Big Ten championship in a row.
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Just outside the top four came No. 5 Alabama and No. 6 Tennessee, as the committee continued to ignore the Volunteers' head-to-head win against the Crimson Tide earlier this season.
Both teams will land in a strong slate of New Year's Six bowls:
The Volunteers and No. 7 Clemson will meet in a very orange Orange Bowl;
The Sugar Bowl will pair Alabama and Kansas State;
No. 10 USC will draw the best team in the Group of Five, No. 16 Tulane, in the Cotton Bowl;
No. 8 Utah will represent the Pac-12 and No. 11 Penn State the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.
Despite having a very unconvincing argument for making the top four ahead of the Buckeyes, the Tide are the biggest losers from an easy selection Sunday:
As a gift for making the playoff, OSU gets to face off with the defending national champions — an opponent that does what Michigan does, only better. Last time we saw the Buckeyes, they were getting stampeded by the Wolverines' physical style; the Bulldogs might do the same and then some. But there's a pretty good track record among the previous three teams that backdoored into playoff:
2016 Ohio State was blanked by Clemson 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl;
2017 Alabama beat Clemson 24-6 in the Sugar Bowl and then topped Georgia 26-23 in overtime in the championship game;
And last year's Bulldogs lost the SEC championship game to Alabama before beating Michigan 34-11 in the Orange and defeating the Crimson Tide 33-18 in the rematch.
Sometimes, these late-season losses can force teams to exhale, take a step back and reevaluate things heading into postseason play. After a somewhat sloppy but still effective regular season, the Buckeyes could be recharged by the loss to Michigan.
The big fear for the Horned Frogs coming out of the narrow loss to Kansas State wasn't whether they'd be jumped by Ohio State but whether the committee would give Alabama the benefit of the doubt at the Frogs' expense. By keeping TCU in the top four, the committee avoided making a historically bad decision that would've cast a dark cloud over the entire selection process. Better yet, TCU wasn't docked for losing to one of the nation's best teams — another very good decision by the committee — and will take a shot at exploiting a Michigan pass defense that has given up 715 yards through the air on 7.5 yards per attempt in the past two games.
There was a good chance Penn State would have landed in the Rose Bowl even had the Buckeyes not made the playoff, since bowl organizers might have been tempted to avoid back-to-back bowl matchups of OSU and Utah. But the path was cleared by the Buckeyes' rise, sending the Nittany Lions to Pasadena for the fifth time in program history and the first time since the 2016 season.
The consensus pick for the top seed among the non-major conferences after topping Central Florida for the AAC championship, Tulane becomes the seventh program from the Group of Five to reach the New Year's Six: Boise State did so in 2014, Houston in 2015, Western Michigan in 2016, Central Florida in 2017 and 2018, Memphis in 2019 and Cincinnati in 2020. No. 24 Troy and No. 25 Texas-San Antonio joined the Green Wave in the playoff rankings after winning the Sun Belt and Conference USA championships.
Not having USC in the playoff is another painful blow for the conference, which hasn't sent a team to the semifinals since Washington did so in 2016. Despite that late disappointment — and the impact on the resulting bowl slate for the Pac-12, as we'll discuss below — the playoff rankings reflect the league's impressive depth. The Pac-12 matched the SEC for the most teams in the rankings with six: Utah, USC, No. 12 Washington, No. 14 Oregon State, No. 15 Oregon and No. 18 UCLA.
Nick Saban made the rounds Saturday across multiple networks to issue one final plea: Alabama lost two games on the final play against two elite teams, Tennessee and LSU, and were playing well at the end of the regular season. After all, he suggested, the playoff should be about which four teams can win the whole thing. A better option would've been to win just one of those two losses; the one-loss Crimson Tide were getting in ahead of OSU, but the two-loss option didn't have the resume. Coming up short of the playoff leads into an intriguing offseason for the program, which could make staffing changes in addition to losing star quarterback Bryce Young.
The Bulldogs are the favorites to win a second straight national championship regardless of the number of Big Ten heavyweights in the playoff field. But the road is much more difficult with the Buckeyes' late move into the top four, which presents Georgia with a sterner test than the other two options in that spot: USC, had the Trojans not lost Friday night, or TCU, had the committee not shied away from creating a rematch between OSU and Michigan. The Peach Bowl will match the Buckeyes' passing game, which ranks second nationally in efficiency and touchdowns, against Georgia's pass defense, which allowed just 11 touchdowns in 454 attempts.
While there's no way to know for sure, Clemson probably would've made the playoff over Ohio State had the Tigers not slipped up against No. 19 South Carolina. That loss made a major impact on the larger bowl slate for the ACC and specifically on No. 13 Florida State, the league's next-best team in the playoff rankings. Had the Tigers made the semifinals, the Seminoles would have been picked as the ACC representative in the Orange Bowl and had the chance to put a real exclamation mark on what has been a breakthrough season under third-year coach Mike Norvell.
In a similar way, the No. 12 Huskies were a trickle-down loser from Utah's Pac-12 championship. Had the Trojans won and advanced to the playoff, Washington probably would've been the second-best team in the conference and earned the program's second Rose Bowl berth in five years. With the Utes back in the game, the Huskies fall into an Alamo Bowl matchup with No. 20 Texas.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ohio State, Alabama lead College Football Playoff winners and losers