Cotton Bowl matchup makes good case for four-team playoff

Ohio State knows this weekend’s venue well. The Buckeyes' last trip to AT&T Stadium three years ago ended with confetti covering the field and a national championship trophy in their locker room.

Each of this year’s players can picture the scene. Even those who weren’t on the roster in 2014 see it every day. The halls of the team’s practice facility in Columbus are plastered with images of past championship teams and reminders of major accomplishments in Buckeyes history.

There’s a wall not far from the locker room dedicated to the 2014 team with mural-sized photos of their trip to AT&T Stadium and the hardware they picked up there. And while this year’s fifth-ranked Buckeyes are on the outside looking in at the four-team playoff, the feeling leading up to this Texas trip hasn’t been as different as they might have imagined or feared.

“There will be a wall for this team,” coach Urban Meyer said the day he learned that his team would be facing No. 8 USC in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic instead of playing in its third semifinal game in the past four years. “This is a special group.”

Meyer has won three national titles during his coaching career and has constructed a juggernaut at Ohio State that is capable of competing for his next one every year. Nonetheless, neither Meyer nor his team have said they feel particularly cheated (by their own efforts or the selection committee’s decision) for not getting to play for a championship this time around. The Trojans, who hit a few bumps on the path between trendy preseason playoff pick and Pac-12 championships, say the feeling is mutual.

If you’re looking to make an argument that a four-team playoff is a sweet spot for the sport, this week in Dallas would be a pretty good place to start.

College football is arguably better than any of our country’s major sports at producing games that create intrigue based on something other than what’s coming next, which is to say that victories in most sports are usually viewed most important or valuable when they move the winner one step closer to a championship. College football has long tried to operate outside that model. This Friday's Cotton Bowl is a prime example of why.

USC was involved in another such game a year ago. The Trojans' 52-49 win over No. 5 Penn State in the Rose Bowl was at least one of the best two postseason games of the year. USC players knew from experience that they were in for a game that would match the intensity and level of play of the playoff bowls when they heard they’d be pitted against another traditional power in Dallas.

“It was almost a little more excitement than the playoff,” linebacker Cameron Smith said. “Because what other teams do you want to see play each other? I hope they come out in their traditional uniforms. What a great look for that on the same field. It's going to be a blast.”

Realistically, would both teams rather be playing with a ticket to a national championship game on the line? Of course, and in an expanded playoff, this pair of conference champions would almost certainly have had that chance. It’s not a stretch either to imagine Ohio State and USC both competing with, if not beating, some of the four teams that nabbed playoff spots ahead of them.

An eight-team playoff format would have opened the door for both of them to play for a national title. What we can learn, though, from the excitement around this game and the potential for a worthwhile matchup is that missing out on a title shot might not be the travesty some want to believe it to be.

“If you look at a win or success or failure of a season based on a national championship, then you're in the wrong business,” Ohio State center Billy Price said earlier this week. “Because, again, if you're that uptight about having to win a national championship every single year or you're defined as a failure [if you don’t, it’s] not a good situation.”

USC’s Rose Bowl win against Penn State and its meeting with Ohio State would not have happened with an expanded playoff. Sure, they would have been replaced for each program by quarterfinal games with higher stakes that included the potential for a championship.

That’s not a bad trade for those teams, but the sacrifice to get there would mean pushing the rest of bowl season closer to becoming football’s version of the NIT. In a sport that does as well as any at creating games that are worthy of excitement for their own sake, it would be a shame to lose games like this year’s Cotton Bowl. It’s great to have games that -- even if a win doesn’t open the door for something bigger -- are worth commemorating by hanging a picture on the wall.