You can say, yeah, yeah, yeah, Michigan's quarterback shouldn't have thrown those interceptions and the Wolverines should have stopped Ohio State when it was fourth-and-one in overtime, right before Curtis Samuel won the game for the Buckeyes. Everybody who doesn't make it into the playoff in college football ends up with some kind of weepy story at last call about how they could've done this and should've done that. Oklahoma State would be knocking on the door if it hadn't had a game against Central Michigan stolen from it by the zebras.
So now Michigan, which is absolutely still one of the best four college football teams in the country, needs help from Colorado against Washington in the Pac-12 championship game. Or it needs help from Virginia Tech against Clemson in the ACC championship game. But if either Colorado or Virginia Tech wins, then Michigan, with its two losses, should be one of the four teams still playing on New Year's Eve.
And please don't tell me that you can't put two teams -- Ohio State, Michigan -- into the playoff even though neither one of them won the official Big Ten championship. Sure you can, even if Penn State beat Ohio State earlier in the season. These conference championship games weren't invented because of truth or beauty or even determining the "true" champion of any big league in America. They were set up for the same reason that conference tournaments were put into play in college basketball:
To make more money for the conferences, so we don't have to run benefits for them.
By the way, you know what the selection committee usually does with the conference championship games on Selection Sunday? Ignores them.
It is honestly terrific that Penn State has once again made itself the kind of football power capable of winning the Big Ten. And Wisconsin always seems to have a terrific program, and played one of the most dramatic games of the regular season on a Saturday night, in Madison, against Ohio State. But neither one of them is one of the best four teams in the country. Michigan beat Penn State 49-10 and it could have been 69-10 if Jim Harbaugh had been of a mood that day. Michigan beat Wisconsin 14-7 on a day when it missed a bunch of field goals. And would beat both of them again.
There is one other thing to talk about here, before greed takes over and they start talking in earnest about expanding the current playoff to eight teams, as if doing that will simply double the fun. (It won't, actually. It will just frankly diminish the urgency of the regular season, starting in September, when college football feels as if it is March Madness every single weekend. This isn't Little League. Not everybody gets a trophy just because they want one.)
But as we get ready for all these conference championship games this weekend, doesn't anybody want to talk about the random and often capricious alignment of these divisions? You look at the SEC, and the SEC East in particular, and wonder -- no matter how they say they determined the divisions -- if they simply picked names out of a hat: Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Missouri. With Alabama and LSU in the West. And Auburn. And even Texas A&M, which seems to have seasons that eventually resemble air coming out of a balloon.
Could Florida shock the world on Saturday and beat Alabama? Sure. Is that the way you'd bet the rent money? This is a television event on Saturday. And ought to have absolutely no bearing on the final playoff standings in the sport.
In the Big Ten, Ohio State and Michigan are in the East. Why, so it will make Michigan-Ohio State a bigger game than it already is? On what planet? The ratings were so big last Saturday -- and even with everybody knowing that it was possible that neither one of them would be playing this Saturday -- that teams of accountants are still trying to add them all up. It wasn't just one of the best college football games you will ever see in your life. It was one of the most watched, a game to remind us, as if we needed it, why we love sports, whether you had a big rooting interest or not.
You know who played for the real championship of the Big Ten last Saturday afternoon in Columbus? Ohio State and Michigan did. And the Buckeyes won by three points in overtime when Samuel ran away from everybody the way Ezekiel Elliott, who used to play for Ohio State, ran away from the Steelers a few weeks ago. People are still talking about the game, the ending, the amazing eight-yard run that Samuel made two plays from the end, when he caught that little swing pass on the right and then gave you the idea that he was running to Ann Arbor and back as a way of keeping his team's chances alive.
My first -- and second, and third -- reaction when I watched and heard Jim Harbaugh's comments about the officiating, especially the bad spot he thought he got on fourth down in overtime, was that you don't talk about the whistle after a game like that. But the more I thought about it, I realized that he wasn't talking to the media in the interview room. Or to you and me. He was talking to the committee. And basically saying that two or three bad calls had contributed, in his mind, to his team losing by three points to the No. 2 team in the country. At the same time he was calling out the refs, he was like a basketball coach working the refs in the committee room.
Harbaugh: "Two penalties called all day [on Ohio State]. Multiple holding penalties let go, multiple false starts. The official on my side, who is supposed to be watching that, is concerned about whether our coaches are in the [coaches' box] or not. Their coaches were on the field, practically in the huddle at times. I'm bitter."
Again: His guys should've stopped Samuel, twice. Should have stopped Ohio State on fourth-and-one. Shouldn't have had Wilton Speight, the injured quarterback who for a while looked to be on his way to the game of his life, throw it to the wrong team. Still doesn't change the fact that even what we thought was a knockout game for the loser doesn't necessarily have to be one for Michigan.
The Wolverines need help, absolutely, from either Colorado or Virginia Tech. But if they get it, they should get in, not the winner of the Big Ten championship game, no matter how much weight the committee is supposed to give to the winners of these conferences. Wisconsin fans or Penn State fans will be the ones yelling this year if Michigan makes it and their team doesn't. Good. Yelling like that is always part of the whole thing in college football.
The committee has mostly done the right thing, since the first week of its rankings, and applied the eyeball test to this college football season. If Michigan gets the help it needs, the members of the committee need to do it one more time. Their job is identifying the four best teams in the country. The truth is, Michigan is still one of those, whatever happens this weekend. Because of the eyeball test we applied to the Wolverines last weekend.
You know what conference championship games really are? Fundraisers.