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College Sports: Oklahoma’s CFP berth not only helped Big 12, but also prevented playoff committee from opening Pandora’s box

GRAPEVINE — Oklahoma won a contentious selection committee debate in Grapevine and earned the fourth and final spot in the College Football Playoff.

The Sooners (12-1) are headed to a meeting with No. 1 Alabama (13-0) in the Capital One Orange Bowl in the national semifinals. No. 2 Clemson (13-0) will face No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Both games are Dec. 29.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was pumped to make his first visit to AT&T Stadium, donning a cowboy hat on ESPN, even if he wasn’t quite sure of the location.

“I’ve never been to Jerry’s World … We’re going to paint Dallas orange,” Swinney said.

Good news for Oklahoma even helped Texas. Because Oklahoma was selected for the CFP semifinals, the Longhorns (9-4) will play in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day as the runner-up in the Big 12, facing Georgia.

The Big 12 put seven teams into bowl games, including Baylor facing Vanderbilt in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl and TCU meeting Cal in the Cheez-It Bowl.

After its seven-overtime win over LSU a week ago, No. 19 Texas A&M will play North Carolina State in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.

The playoff debate was halted at 1:30 a.m. Sunday at the Gaylord Texan Resort and resumed at 8 a.m. focusing on Big 12 champ Oklahoma, SEC title game loser Georgia and Big Ten champ Ohio State as the possibilities for the No. 4. The SEC had put together a major effort on Georgia’s behalf, joined notably by ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit.

In the end, Oklahoma had the better résumé in the eyes of the committee, with Heisman candidate Kyler Murray, the nation’s No. 1 offense and only a three-point loss to Texas in Dallas. Oklahoma evened the score Saturday in the Big 12 title game.

“Oklahoma was ranked No. 4 because they’re a one-loss conference champion with a dynamic offense, and their one loss was a close game to a ranked team at a neutral site,” said CFP selection committee chairman Rob Mullens, the athletic director at Oregon.

Oklahoma’s defense had a game-turning safety of Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger on Saturday and scored two touchdowns off turnovers in a key Nov. 23 win over West Virginia, something the committee noticed, Mullen said.

Mullens said the discussion “was as intense as any that I can recall” on the committee.

Each team had flaws — Oklahoma had its defensive woes, Georgia didn’t have a conference title and Ohio State had lost to a 6-6 Purdue team by 29 points.

Mullens said the committee “did not believe that any one team was unequivocally better than the next” between Oklahoma, Georgia and Ohio State, and went to the selection protocol: championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and common opponents. The subsequent vote had Oklahoma at No. 4 ahead of Georgia and Ohio State.

By picking Oklahoma, the selection committee avoided opening a Pandora’s box by taking two SEC teams for the second straight year and excluding three power conferences. A serious push for expansion could have emerged. For now, the status quo prevails.

“There’s been no talk about a format change in the meetings of the commissioners and the presidents who manage the CFP,” playoff executive director Bill Hancock said.

After losing in overtime to Georgia in last year’s playoff semifinals at the Rose Bowl, Oklahoma now gets another SEC power — Alabama, which has won five national championships since 2009 under Nick Saban. The Sooners have the explosive Murray (4,053 yards passing, 892 yards rushing) and the nation’s leading offense (49.5 points a game).

“I’ve seen him on TV a couple times, and I think he’s about as dynamic as any player I’ve seen all season long,” Saban said. “He’s got great quickness, he does a good job of executing their offense, he can run, he can throw and make a lot of explosive plays. They’ve got a really good offensive scheme, and the system is something that he flourishes in.”

Alabama and Oklahoma each have injury concerns to top offense players.

Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the perceived Heisman front-runner, is nursing a high ankle sprain suffered against Georgia, Saban said. The normal recovery is about two weeks, Saban said, meaning Tagovailoa would be ready for the start of bowl practice.

Standout Oklahoma receiver Marquise Brown had a walking boot on his left foot after leaving the Big 12 title game.

Riley said Brown underwent tests upon returning to Norman.

“We’re hopeful but I’m sure we’ll learn more here in the next few days,” Riley said.

Twitter: @ChuckCarltonDMN

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