Oklahoma slides; Alabama, Michigan State to play in Cotton Bowl

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, center, celebrates with fans following the Sooners’ victory over Oklahoma State.
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, center, celebrates with fans following the Sooners’ victory over Oklahoma State. AP

For the second time in as many seasons, a Big 12 champion moved backward on the final day of deliberations by members of the College Football Playoff selection committee.

But this time, Sunday’s backslide by Oklahoma did not prove to be a deal-breaker in the Sooners’ playoff hopes. Oklahoma slipped to No. 4 in the final CFP rankings, down one spot from Tuesday night, but that proved to be enough to send the Sooners (11-1) into a Dec. 31 semifinal matchup against No. 1 Clemson (13-0) in the Orange Bowl (3 p.m., ESPN).

Oklahoma, which was idle this week, surrendered its No. 3 spot from Tuesday to Michigan State (12-1). The Spartans climbed two spots in the final rankings after Saturday’s 16-13 victory over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game and will face No. 2 Alabama (12-1) in the other semifinal, Dec. 31 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington (7 p.m., ESPN).

For the Big 12, it marks the first time for a league champion to crack the playoff field in the two-year history of the CFP. Last year’s Big 12 co-champs, TCU and Baylor, were the two highest-ranked teams omitted from the 2014 playoff. The Horned Frogs dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 in last year’s final rankings, missing out on the playoff despite closing with a 55-3 rout of Iowa State to cap the regular season.

Oklahoma avoided the same last-minute disappointment as TCU in large part because the Sooners were this year’s outright champion in the Big 12 while the Frogs shared last year’s title with Baylor. Regardless of how the Sooners got there, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops made it clear in a Sunday conference call that he is more interested in the opportunity to win a national championship than in his team’s seed or first-round playoff venue.

Had the Sooners remained at No. 3, they would have faced Alabama in Arlington. Instead, OU draws Clemson, the nation’s lone remaining undefeated FBS team and the school that routed the Sooners 40-6 in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl.

“I could care less about [being ranked] 3 or 4. You’re not avoiding anybody when you get in this situation,” Stoops said. “It’s about the opportunity. You have to go down there and win.”

Asked about the opportunity to atone for last year’s bowl embarrassment against Clemson, Stoops said: “Everything is motivation.”

In announcing the playoff pairings, CFP selection committee chairman Jeff Long said there was a “lengthy discussion” about the flip of Michigan State over Oklahoma. Eventually, the Spartans’ two victories over top-10 teams in the final CFP rankings, particularly the victory over Rose Bowl-bound Iowa (12-1) to clinch the Big Ten title, separated the teams in the minds of committee members.

Long said Oklahoma was “absolutely not” downgraded one spot in the final rankings to make sure the Sooners did not play in Arlington, where OU fans might have gotten access to more tickets than fans of higher-ranked Alabama. Bill Hancock, CFP executive director, confirmed the seeding process went according to protocol: No. 1 seed [Clemson] placed in the playoff bowl game closest to its campus, with the next three playoff participants seeded in order of their perceived strength.

Truth be known, Oklahoma probably has drawn a more winnable playoff matchup by facing Clemson in Miami than by facing Alabama in Arlington. Time will tell. For today, the issue is why the Sooners fell one spot.

Long acknowledged Michigan State’s ability to shine in a conference championship game helped the Spartans maximize their playoff seed. A year ago, Long cited the “13th data point” applied to Ohio State’s body of work after winning the Big Ten championship game as a factor in the Buckeyes passing TCU to grab the final berth in the 2014 playoff field.

The Big 12, as a 10-member league, has no conference championship game. It is noteworthy that the three playoff teams from leagues with title games are all seeded ahead of the Sooners. Is that a coincidence or a subtle message from CFP officials to Big 12 administrators?

“That’s for the Big 12 to decide,” Long said. “Oklahoma didn’t have to play, so they didn’t have that risk-reward.”

Michigan State, meanwhile, took a risk and reaped the reward of a Cotton Bowl berth by taking down Iowa. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said he looks forward to playing his former boss, Alabama coach Nick Saban, in a high-stakes playoff matchup on New Year’s Eve at AT&T Stadium. Alabama opened this season by defeating Wisconsin 35-17 on Sept. 5 in Arlington.

“We have a great amount of respect for Alabama and, in particular, for coach Saban, having worked with him for five years,” said Dantonio, whose team defeated Baylor 42-41 in last year’s Cotton Bowl. “We were there last year and had a tremendous experience.”

For Oklahoma, the goal is to improve on last year’s dismal bowl experience against Clemson in this year’s bowl rematch with playoff implications. During a Sunday news conference on campus, OU cornerback Zack Sanchez said: “Our motivation now is winning a national championship. You don’t have to say a whole lot.”

For the Big 12, having a school backslide in the Selection Sunday rankings and still receive a playoff berth marks a step in the right direction after last season’s CFP shutout.

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