What is better (or worse, depending on perspective): Losing to Alabama by 28 on the road in early October or losing to Clemson by 24 in the Atlantic Coast Championship game Saturday?
For Notre Dame and Texas A&M, the answer to that question could determine a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The selection committee will ponder which teams should play in the final four after Clemson emphatically locked up its spot against Notre Dame, and Ohio State likely did the same, though not without difficulties beating Northwestern in the Big Ten championship.
The field gets set Sunday.
The Aggies (8-1), lurking at fifth in the CFP rankings, finished their regular season with a 34-13 win at Tennessee and quickly began lobbying for inclusion.
“Seven straight SEC wins. Some schools ain’t even playing seven games,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I don’t care what league you’re in. If you’re going to pick the best four teams, we’re one of them.”
Maybe the most important piece of Texas A&M’s resume is its lone loss. The Aggies fell 52-24 at No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 3. They haven’t lost since, including a comeback against Florida the week after losing to the Crimson Tide.
Alabama still had to play Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship Saturday night.
The Crimson Tide (10-0) was a big favorite and looked like a lock to make the playoff no matter what happens in Atlanta.
Notre Dame probably thought that, too, heading into the ACC title game with Clemson undefeated and with a victory over the Tigers already in the bank.
The rematch could not have gone much worse for the Irish.
Notre Dame played one solid quarter before Clemson ran out to a 34-3 lead. A fourth-quarter touchdown made it a little more respectable.
Trevor Lawrence was back in the lineup for Clemson after missing the regular-season matchup as he recovered from COVID-19 and he was spectacular, making a late push for the Heisman Trophy.
As well as Clemson freshman quarterback DJ Uiagalelei played in the overtime loss at Notre Dame, Lawrence makes a world of difference. As did having linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones and defensive tackle Tyler Davis back for the Tigers. Those three also missed the the regular-season meeting.
Notre Dame, sitting at No. 2 in the CFP rankings for a month, now will get thrown into a beauty contest with Texas A&M, neither conference winners.
“We’ve got two top-15 wins (including North Carolina). We’ve got a win over this Clemson team that was No. 1 in the country,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know that anybody has a resume that has those two wins. And we’ve played 11 games. … I think that in my mind puts us without question as one of the top-four teams in the country”
It doesn’t take a detective to decipher that both Fisher and Kelly were trying to drag Ohio State and its six-game season into this debate.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney did the same earlier in the week. Kelly has been beating this drum even longer. Last month, Kelly noted after beating Boston College to improve to 8-0 that the Irish had already played a full Big Ten schedule.
The Buckeyes didn’t even get that in because of COVID-19 cancellations. Then they slogged through the Big Ten title game against a game Northwestern team, pulling away in the fourth quarter.
Ohio State’s best victories? The committee had Indiana 11th and Northwestern 14th. That’s two top-15 teams, too.
An unbeaten Power Five champion has never been left out of the CFP. Of course, an unbeaten Power Five championship has never played only six games after its conference started late because a pandemic.
“If we had to play one game against anybody in the country, I’ll take the Ohio State Buckeyes,” coach Ryan Day said.
Anybody else want to make a case?
Oklahoma after winning the Big 12 has two losses. No two-loss team has ever made the playoff.
Cincinnati was unbeaten and ninth in the CFP rankings, a spot ahead of Oklahoma, heading into the American Athletic Conference championship game against Tulsa on Saturday. No team outside the Power Five conferences has ever made the playoff.
Everything about this season in a pandemic has been difficult. So it is only fitting the playoff selections will be, too.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/