Sooners or Utes: Who's In?
If the Oklahoma Sooners and Utah Utes each win their conference championships, and Georgia loses to LSU in the SEC championship, there will be a highly contested debate among analysts over who will receive the last bid into the College Football Playoff. The Sooners and the Utes would each have a road loss to a respected opponent and when stacked up against one another each team has very similar statistics. And if that’s the case then how is a decision made? Well, the Sooners have a key component that the Utes don’t quite have: a massive fanbase and name-brand recognition capable of stimulating a hefty payday for the NCAA.
The Sooners have one of the best offenses in football, but they are not as sharp defensively. Whereas, the Utes have a phenomenal defense, but they are less talented offensively. The Sooners have a few more quality wins than the Utes, with road victories over #9 Baylor and #21 Oklahoma State. However, the Sooners have looked vulnerable in several games this season including wins over TCU, UT and Iowa State, and most notably in the road loss to Kansas State. Meanwhile, the Utes have dominated their competition as they rank 5th in average scoring margin. Yet, their loss to a USC team hindered by injuries at the Coliseum has some weary of their capabilities. Based off the eye test, there is not one exact thing that voters can point to that can separate the two teams from one another. Therefore, the final spot in the CFP could be decided by another factor, one that is outside what the teams can control on the field.
According to a census produced by the NCAA in 2018, the Sooners ranked 11th in total home attendance in all of college football with an average attendance of 86,735. More importantly, they are 9th in all games attendance which measures team’s fan attendance in home, road and neutral games. In 14 games, they had a total of 1,073,464 fans in attendance. When it comes to TV viewership, the Sooners have outperformed the Utes in the ratings nearly every week. A part of that can be attributed to the fact that Utah is in the PAC-12 and thus, starts most of its games around 11 p.m. eastern time. However, I believe more viewers are drawn to the Sooner brand-name and are more inclined to tune in. OU is a football school and has been for a long time. A storied program with a championship pedigree, that holds seven national championships and is ranked 7th all-time in total wins, it is no wonder why the Sooners draw a crowd. It is simple: more fans means more money for the NCAA.
We have also seen the Playoff committee choose a name-brand school over two lesser known football schools in the past. In 2014, the first year of the CFP, the committee was faced with the tough task of choosing who should be awarded the 4th spot in the playoff between three teams: The Ohio State University (OSU), Texas Christian University (TCU), and Baylor University (BU). Based off the eye test that year, both TCU and BU were more deserving of the spot than OSU as each team had more wins against ranked opponents and had played more challenging schedules. However, the Big 12 had not yet established a conference championship game, thus there was no true conference champion. Meanwhile, OSU throttled Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big 10 championship game and found a spot in the CFP. However, that is not the sole reason OSU was awarded the final slot. The Buckeyes, too, have one of the most legendary programs in all of college football and have been a perennial power for decades. In addition, they bring with them a crazed fanbase that was 1st in both total home attendance and total attendance (home, road, and neutral) in 2014. Buckeyes fans travel and the NCAA knew they were a money tree that was ripe for the picking. Like the Sooners, when it came to TV viewership, OSU was ahead of the Frogs and Bears nearly every weekend. Knowing OSU had a proud and large alumni base that would travel across the country to watch their team play, the CFP committee chose a team that would bring monetary value to the NCAA and I believe the same could thing could happen in 2019.
Many fans will wonder: well then why is Utah ranked ahead of OU in the current CFP rankings? In 2014, OSU was 5th and TCU was 3rd in the rankings in week 15. However, come week 16 it was the Buckeyes who had surpassed the Frogs into the top 4 after a large victory over Wisconsin. Similarly, I believe a commanding victory over the Baylor Bears by the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday will allow them to jump the Utes in the standings. The Bears will be a more rigid test than the Utes opponent, the Oregon Ducks, who are not only lower in the rankings, but are also a weaker team statistically. Furthermore, the 2019 Oklahoma Sooners possess the star talent on the field, much like the 2014 Buckeyes, that voters like to see. The 2014 Buckeyes had star-studded players such as WR Michael Thomas, RB Ezekiel Elliot and DB Eli Apple. Likewise, the Sooners have playmakers like WR CeeDee Lamb, RB Kennedy Brooks and fan-favorite QB Jalen Hurts. The transfer from Alabama, Hurts has a massive following off the field and will attract viewers to the screen. The Utes have a star in QB Tyler Huntley, however I believe more people will be drawn to their television screens to watch Oklahoma, solely due to the name recognition the Sooners possess.
While this is assuming both teams win this weekend, I believe the choice CFP voters will have to make between the Oklahoma Sooners and Utah Utes will be one where each and every factor, including the ones off the field, will be evaluated very closely. Unfortunately for Utes fans, they will be going up against one of the most well-known and storied football programs in NCAA history with a massive following and fanbase. Historically in the CFP selection, that does not seem to bode well for the “little man.”