Losses by T.C.U. and U.S.C. Leave Playoff Powers With Unappealing Choices

ARLINGTON, Tex. — It took several years of wrangling and meetings — so many meetings — but college football’s powers-that-be hammered out an agreement that will bring about the long-awaited expansion of college football’s playoff to 12 teams.

This egalitarian decision, which beginning with the 2024 regular season gives so many a shot at the prize, is what the people want, we are told. More games, more opportunity, more exposure. More meaningful football!

(That the season is creeping ever closer to the length of the N.F.L. season and the players are not getting a cut of the revenue — so much revenue! — is said quietly, if at all.)

There exists the possibility, though, that this is all wrong. Instead of too few teams in the playoffs, perhaps four are too many.

It was hard not to consider that possibility Saturday afternoon when Texas Christian may have become the second team in less than 24 hours to play its way out of the playoff chase despite the gutsy heroics of a hobbled, wheezing quarterback.

The Horned Frogs, ranked third, lost the Big 12 title game in overtime to Kansas State, 31-28, the first blemish on a résumé filled with harrowing comebacks and scant marquee victories. Their defeat follows one by No. 4 Southern California, which was shellacked by Utah in the Pac-12 title game on Friday night.

This leaves the College Football Playoff selection committee with a unappetizing conundrum in filling out the four-team playoff behind Georgia and Michigan: who is the least undeserving?

Consider the choices: Ohio State (11-1), which was blown out at home by Michigan in its final game and Alabama (10-2), which lost to Tennessee and Louisiana State University, and whose best win was a squeaker against Texas — which was also beaten by Kansas State.

It is almost a certainty that half the playoff field will be populated by teams that did not win their conference.

Both Ohio State and Alabama looked better by not even playing in their conference championship games.

The same cannot be said for U.S.C. (11-2), whose turnstile defense was on full display, and the Horned Frogs (12-1), who didn’t look fluid on offense and lacked consistent teeth defensively but were carried into overtime by the determined running and passing of quarterback Max Duggan.

They met their end in overtime when Duggan was stopped just short of the goal line on a second-down run and Kendre Miller was stuffed just short on consecutive runs up the middle, the final one coming when linebacker Daniel Green and nose guard Eli Huggins met Miller in the hole, sending the Kansas State defense dancing off the field.

On the ensuing possession, Kansas State picked up one first down before kicker Ty Zentner’s 31-yard field goal bisected the uprights, kicking off a jubilant Kansas State celebration and leaving T.C.U. to plead its case to the committee.

“Our hope is not to have to rely on a beauty contest,” T.C.U. Coach Sonny Dykes said. “Our hope is to kick the door down and that we’re Big 12 champs and there’s no discussion about it.”

There has always been something unsatisfactory about how the college football season ends. By the 1990s, when Washington and Miami split the national championship, and then Georgia Tech and Colorado, and Michigan and Nebraska did the same, it begot the Bowl Championship Series when the two top-ranked teams would be pitted against each other.

That gave way to a four-team playoff beginning with the 2014 season.

In fact, the semifinals have rarely been compelling. Nine of the 16 previous semifinals have been decided by 20 or more points — and only two, Clemson’s comeback against Ohio State in 2019 and Georgia’s double-overtime defeat of Oklahoma in 2018, have gone to the wire.

It is rare that the playoff includes a plucky interloper.

Cincinnati acquitted itself well last year in a loss to Alabama, and though T.C.U. is a member of a more august conference, the Big 12, there are still raw feelings from the first year of the playoff when the Horned Frogs’ only defeat — 61-58 at Baylor — was enough to keep them out of the playoff. Baylor, whose only loss was at West Virginia, was also frozen out — in part because the Big 12 did not have a championship game.

“The Big 12 in a different place as it was then,” Dykes said. “I think they’re going to see it different, but at the same time you don’t know. I’m concerned obviously, but I have faith in the committee.”

It can be said with certainty that nobody expected the Horned Frogs to be here. They were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 after Dykes arrived from Southern Methodist, inheriting a 5-7 team. What he did not appear interested in inheriting was Duggan, who had started for three years but lost the starting job in August.

But when Chandler Morris, a transfer from Oklahoma, was injured in the opener, Duggan again took the reigns and hasn’t let go. He engineered second-half comebacks against Oklahoma State, Baylor, Kansas and Kansas State in the regular season. He nearly did it again on Saturday, overcoming a fourth-quarter interception in the end zone to bring the Wildcats back from a 28-17 deficit with less than eight minutes left.

He carried the ball six times on an 80-yard drive — the last of which was an 8-yard scoring run — that tied the score with 1:51 left after he threw to tight end Jared Wiley for a 2-point conversion.

It was the type of performance that seems certain to land Duggan at the Heisman Trophy ceremony next weekend in New York, where he will be a fitting exemplar for his school, which likewise is trying to poke its head among more celebrated company.

That was far from Duggan’s mind late Saturday afternoon.

Though more than an hour had passed before Duggan made his way to the interview podium, he struggled to mask his disappointment. He paused to wipe away tears with the sleeve of his sweatshirt and at times his lip quivered as he dutifully answered questions.

There was one final one: did he keep up with the rankings and who the committee might be considering as it finalizes its four teams?

“I don’t really care, especially at this moment,” Duggan said. “Wherever they tell us to go play, we’ll play.”

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