Imagine, for a moment, all the things that could have gone awry. Imagine North Carolina recovering that onside kick on Saturday night (as they should have) and tying the game and squeezing out a win over Clemson in overtime. Imagine Michigan State's Jalen Watts-Jackson flopping to the grass with a dislocated hip a yard before he could reach the end zone against Michigan. Imagine Alabama losing to Ole Miss and Ole Miss losing to Memphis and then Ole Miss not getting victimized by an insane lateral. (For that matter, imagine a Florida team capable of scoring actual points.)
But sometimes you get lucky, and this is what happened in 2015, when the College Football Playoff committee caught a massive break: after last weekend's conference championship games, the top four teams have unfolded before them in the kind of neat confluence that makes you forget we're essentially taking our cues from an oligarchy.
There is no question that a playoff is a better system than the even more deeply entangled political mess college football had before, largely because four is better than two. The beauty of this glossy new era is that this is still a sport defined by strokes of luck and fortuitous timing, and by how those things affect national perception. There is little perceived difference this year between the No. 1 seed and the No. 4 seed, because they are all potential juggernauts and they are all potential letdowns, depending at least in part upon the breaks they get on New Year's Eve. For coaches, the difference between a possibly fireable season and a great season remains slim, which leads us to the one coach in the final four who has experienced those bipolar twists of fate more than any other over the past several years.
Hell, not even two months ago, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops appeared to have finally lost it, once and for all. Here was a coach who rearranged his entire staff in an attempt to infuse new energy into a team that had stumbled to an 8-5 record and a blowout loss to Clemson in a second-tier bowl game in 2014. Here was a coach who had been in the same job since 1999, and appeared to be presiding over a program in decline, a program marred by perceived nepotism, a program with a receding amount of energy within its own conference amid a pool of increasingly sexy competitors like Baylor and TCU and Oklahoma State. Here was a team that fell into a 31-24 win at Tennessee in large part because their opponent proved eminently capable of coughing up victories in dramatic fashion. And here was a team that lost to Texas, for which there were no ready excuses.
"The return of Big Game Bob? Um, no," wrote CBS Sports reporter Jon Solomon after the Texas loss.
How often is it that a coach sticks around long enough for his nickname to go from earnest to ironic and back to earnest again? But here is Stoops, who along with Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, is now the longest-tenured coach in college football, 15 years after winning a national title that has insulated him ever since. Stoops overhauled his program in the offseason; Ferentz wound up changing little to nothing in his, and came within a yard or two of making the top four. What can we really say? There are no definitive answers. There is no formula. College football is a giant conundrum, and Oklahoma exemplifies it.
See Stoops now, presiding over a team that enters the playoff with so much momentum that playoff committee chairman Jeff Long conceded that there were people in the room who believed Oklahoma should be the No. 1 seed rather than the No. 4 seed. According to the numbers, Oklahoma is the most dangerous team in the field; according to the oddsmakers, Oklahoma is the early favorite over a Clemson team that is the only major college program to go undefeated this year.
What's most striking about Oklahoma is that we really have no idea what we're seeing. Two years ago, the Sooners throttled Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and appeared to have more momentum than any team heading into 2014. And then they flopped. Stoops made the argument last year that his team was a few breaks away from being far better than 8-4 in the regular season; you could make the same argument that Oklahoma, lightly regarded this preseason, was a few breaks away from being 8-4 again ("The key for Oklahoma is not to be ranked high in the preseason," wrote college football guru Phil Steele in his annual magazine this fall). What if Tennessee had finished that game back in September? What if TCU had made that two-point conversion? What if the Big 12 had a championship game like all the other conferences, and the Sooners had come up short? What if the Sooners' quarterback, Baker Mayfield, had not matured into Johnny Football 2.0?
The point here is not to somehow declare that Oklahoma got lucky. The point here is to note that everyone gets kind of lucky in college football. Teams progress and regress; the numbers are not completely reliable because the sample size is so small and because emotion and imperfection play as much of a role as analytics. I'm glad Oklahoma is here, because it is a reminder that even in a seemingly clear-cut year, college football is essentially unquantifiable.