Forward Pass: Is ‘Bama toughest it’s been in years or in for rude awakening?

On Sunday, Alabama became the first team to earn a repeat trip to the infant College Football Playoff. And while this year, unlike last year, the selection committee did not deem the Tide to be No. 1 in its final rankings, expectations are such that Alabama, not Clemson, will be the most popular pick in everyone’s … er, December/January Madness pools.

And if worthy adversaries Clemson, Oklahoma or Michigan State ultimately hoist the trophy come Jan. 11, everyone will declare that ’Bama was a pretender all along.

It’s not fair, but it’s reality. But the truth is, we still have no idea how good this Alabama team really is.

Remarkably, this is the fifth time in seven years that Nick Saban’s program enters the postseason with a national championship at stake. The first three times (2009, ’11 and ’12) the Tide marched straight to the BCS national championship game and made mincemeat of an overmatched opponent. An aura of invincibility emerged.

Last season, the first of this new, two-round tourney, underdog Ohio State traveled to Alabama’s backyard and humbled the Tide in the Sugar Bowl en route to a title. Ezekiel Elliott, Devin Smith and the Buckeyes proved the rare foe just as fast and athletic as Saban’s bunch. Coming on the heels of a Sugar Bowl loss the previous year to Oklahoma, mighty Alabama suddenly seemed slightly less mighty.

Fast-forward a year, though, and we’re right back where we were. After bludgeoning the likes of Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU and Mississippi State, Derrick Henry and Co. look like Saban’s strongest team since Eddie Lacy ran roughshod over Notre Dame in Miami three seasons ago. A defense that smothered Leonard Fournette, Dak Prescott and every other standout it saw this season will now face Michigan State’s Connor Cook — the type of drop-back, pro-style quarterback Alabama’s linebackers generally devour like a finely cooked steak — at the Cotton Bowl in one of the semifinals.

But peel back the Alabama/SEC blinders for a minute and you start to realize … wait a minute. Are any of the teams the Tide dominated this season anywhere near as good as Alabama’s fellow playoff participants?

When the committee issued its final rankings Sunday, the highest-ranked opponent on Alabama’s schedule was No. 12 Ole Miss (9-3) — the team that handed the Tide their sole loss back on Sept. 19. Next after that is No. 19 Florida (10-3), and if you watched the Gators’ offense over the last month you know that’s being generous.

After that is No. 20 LSU (8-3), whose coach very nearly got fired for his team’s offensive ineptitude. And finally, there’s No. 23 Tennessee (8-4), whose presence on the list appears to be solely for propping up Alabama’s and Oklahoma’s schedules.

To be clear, by any metric, Alabama played a tough schedule. Jeff Sagarin ranks it No. 4 in the country. The Tide’s opponents finished a combined .653, second-highest in FBS only to Maryland’s.  All but two reached a bowl game. Nobody can say Alabama did not earn its trip to Dallas (though plenty still will).

Unfortunately, though, it still went 13 games without a true signature win, in part because teams only seemed to get further exposed afterward. Georgia was undefeated before Alabama came to town; Mark Richt subsequently got fired. LSU was 7-0 before going to Tuscaloosa. Les Miles’ AD very nearly left him there.

Put it this way: Michigan State’s 17-14 upset at Ohio State on Nov. 21 — with its backup quarterback — was more illuminating than any game Alabama played this season.

And yet the Tide are nearly double-digit favorites.

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Personally, I would have loved to see Alabama matched up with Oklahoma — as would have been the case using the second-to-last rankings — rather than the Spartans just because of the unique challenge OU’s offense presents. With all due respect to Brandon Allen, ’Bama has not faced a quarterback anywhere near the caliber of Baker Mayfield. If A’Shawn Robinson and the Tide were to do to him what they did to Mississippi State’s Prescott, we’d all know to hide the women and children before Alabama’s championship game.

That being said, Connor Cook is a mere 34-4 as a career starter, including 4-1 against top five opponents (beating 2013 Ohio State and Stanford, 2014 Baylor and 2015 Iowa). Michigan State is now 65-15 since 2010 for a .813 winning percentage. And Mark Dantonio is second-to-none when it comes to playing the chip-on-our-shoulder card. The Spartans will be no easy out.

Finally, there’s Clemson, the most lightly regarded 13-0, consensus No. 1 team with three Top 10 victories one could ever imagine. Should both teams win their semifinal matchups, Saban vs. Dabo Swinney would be so outstanding for so many reasons. And Deshaun Watson is exactly the elite dual-threat quarterback that’s given Alabama headaches these past several years.

Once again, though, the Tide would be expected to win, and if they don’t, more obits will be written about their dynasty.

The 2015 playoff matchups may lack the sizzle of last year’s Mariota vs. Winston/Meyer vs. Saban doubleheader, and the Dec. 31 kickoffs will continue to arouse grumbling. But if there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that as long as Alabama is playing a football game of significance, Americans will find a TV on which to watch it.

They all want to know the same thing I do: How good is Alabama, really?

AND THE HEISMAN GOES TO …

While this year’s playoff field resolved itself naturally Saturday night, the 2015 Heisman race got incredibly heated. That’s because presumptive front-runner Henry ran 44 times for 189 yards against Florida, broke Herschel Walker’s SEC single-season rushing record by reaching 1,986 yards and was not even the most impressive candidate on the day.

Stanford all-purpose dynamo Christian McCaffrey made his case with a dazzling performance in the Cardinal’s Pac-12 championship game victory over USC. The sophomore ran 32 times for 207 yards and a touchdown, caught four passes for 105 yards and a touchdown, returned five kicks for 120 yards and two punts for 29 yards, and even threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to boot.

His 461 all-purpose yards gave him 3,496 on the season, breaking the FBS single-season record set by Barry Sanders in 1988 and putting him a staggering 1,086 yards above the next-closest player nationally this season (San Jose State’s Tyler Ervin).

He likely swayed more than a few voters who previously assumed they’d be casting ballots for Henry. But was it enough?

“There is nobody in the nation doing what he’s doing,” Stanford coach David Shaw said afterward. “It’s not even a debate.”

Meanwhile, all Clemson quarterback Watson did Saturday night was rack up 420 total yards and account for five touchdowns against North Carolina. Afterward he even struck the pose. Watson is the only player in the country who’s thrown for 3,500-plus yards (3,512) and run for anywhere near 1,000 (887), and he’s led his team to a 13-0 regular season.

“You’re talking about the best player on the best team in the country,” Tigers co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said afterward.

The one guy who did not help himself Saturday was Oklahoma’s Mayfield — because his team did not play. He’ll presumably be a finalist but will be hard-pressed to win.

It will still be surprising if anyone other than Henry wins it just because he’d led every watch list for the last month and finished on such a tear. But McCaffrey or Watson could well trump him. If nothing else, it’s the first suspense we’ve had heading into the ceremony since Robert Griffin III topped Andrew Luck in 2011.

ROSE BOWL THROWS STRIKE, BUT OTHER GAMES …

During the 2012 negotiations that spawned the new system, conference and Rose Bowl officials feared that the 102-year-old game would be seen as a consolation prize in years it did not host a semifinal.

Not this year.

Roughly 15 hours after losing the Big Ten championship game and a likely playoff berth in heartbreaking fashion, Iowa (12-1) found out Sunday it would still earn its first Rose Bowl trip in 25 years. The game pits the fifth-ranked Hawkeyes against sixth-ranked Stanford (11-2), the Pac-12’s champion.

"If this is the consolation prize,” said longtime Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz, “then what a deal it is for both of us."

Many wondered whether the Rose Bowl would take bigger-brand Ohio State, an 11-1 team that last went there in 2010, but its chairman had been adamant it would take the committee’s higher-ranked team, and the committee did Iowa a solid by dropping it just one spot after Saturday’s loss. The Buckeyes fell a spot to No. 7.

“They were inches away from a victory [against Michigan State],” committee chairman Jeff Long said, “so I think that this very close loss kind of validated the entire body of work for Iowa.”

In general, the new model of the committee using its rankings to create the New Year’s Six bowl pairings has proven a considerable upgrade from the BCS, where a rigid selection order led to some dud matchups. Heck, the Rose Bowl’s New Year’s Day undercard this year will be a Notre Dame-Ohio State Fiesta Bowl.

Even the Florida State-Houston Peach Bowl, which some many thumb their nose at, could be a better game than most Power 5 vs. Power 5 bowls. FSU star Dalvin Cook and electric Houston QB Greg Ward Jr. will be there.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, this year’s bowl lineup set new milestones for just how low it can sink. With only 77 of the necessary 80 teams reaching bowl-eligibility, Nebraska (Foster Farms), Minnesota (Quick Lane) and San Jose State (Cure) become the first-ever 5-7 teams to reach the postseason. And in a strange quirk, two Mountain West teams, 7-5 Colorado State and 6-6 Nevada, got stuck playing against one another in the new Arizona Bowl.

The latter elicited a harsh rebuke from conference commissioner Craig Thompson.

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“It is a travesty the Mountain West has been forced into this situation,” Thompson said in a statement. “Clearly, the system is broken. There is an excess of bowl games due in part to a disparate allocation of openings vs. conference bowl histories. The result is teams with sub-.500 records participating in bowl games.”

Thompson is correct, but he neglects to mention his own role in the too-many-bowls part. His own conference helped launch the Arizona Bowl despite no traditional TV partner. The Mountain West’s digital network planned to stream it. But Thompson would have you believe that other bowls with openings should have voluntarily taken his surplus 7-5 or 6-6 teams over 5-7 Big Ten teams.

It’s easy to say there’s no such thing as too much football, so why regulate the number of bowls, but the fact is that 5-7 San Jose State playing in a bowl game in Orlando or 5-7 Nebraska playing in primetime against UCLA only cheapens the entire bowl system – which includes sterling matchups like Iowa-Stanford and Ohio State-Notre Dame. In the playoff era, bowls will never carry the same prestige they did 30 years ago, but nor should they be a punchline.

I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON …

The BYU coaching search. Following Bronco Mendenhall’s move to Virginia, the school must find a quality coach who’s also an active member of the LDS church. Candidates could include Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo and Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson.

The South Carolina trainwreck. Will Muschamp? … Really? The former Florida coach went 17-15 in SEC play the first time around. Now he’s back in the same division but without the loaded recruiting base. He’s even bringing his former Gators OC Kurt Roper with him. What could go wrong?

Semifinal TV ratings. Organizers are confident they won’t lose much audience by playing their biggest games on a Thursday afternoon and on the biggest going-out night of the year. Last year’s Jan. 1 semifinal games averaged more than 28 million viewers. If ESPN can retain 90 percent of that number, it will be thrilled.

ON TO BOWL SEASON

Three games we’re most excited for:

–Orange: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Oklahoma (Dec. 31, 4 ET): The QBs will garner the attention, but both defenses rank in the Top 10 as well. Someone like Clemson DE Shaq Lawson or Oklahoma LB Eric Striker could steal the show.

–Cotton: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Michigan State (Dec. 31, 8 ET): This game will be physical but it won’t be Iowa-Michigan State-esque. Both teams will likely try to throw downfield if they want to exploit the other’s semi-weakness.

–Rose: No. 5 Iowa vs. No. 6 Stanford (Jan. 1, 5 ET): This is three Rose Bowls in four years for David Shaw, which is all the more remarkable when you consider this is the first of Kirk Ferentz’s 17-year Iowa tenure.

Five games you shouldn’t miss:

–Fiesta: No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 8 Notre Dame (Jan. 1, 1 ET): The Irish’s season came down to a missed two-point conversion at Clemson and a last-second field goal at Stanford. Here’s one more shot to beat one of the nation’s best.

–Alamo: No. 11 TCU vs. No. 15 Oregon (Jan. 2, 6:45 ET): TCU with Trevone Boykin healthy was a Top 5 team, and Oregon with Vernon Adams healthy may well have been the same. Both teams in near-peak form should be highly entertaining.

–Russell Athletic: No. 10 North Carolina vs. No. 17 Baylor (Dec. 29, 5:30 ET): These are the nation’s top two offenses in yards per play. Baylor resorted to running the Wildcat against Texas but could have QB Jarrett Stidham back by then.

–Sugar: No. 12 Ole Miss vs. No. 16 Oklahoma State (Jan. 1, 8:30 ET): Both teams kind of backed their way into this one, but it should be a fun, high-scoring nightcap after Ohio State-Notre Dame and Iowa-Stanford.

–Peach: No. 9 Florida State vs. No. 18 Houston (Dec. 31, Noon ET): FSU fans may write this off as a sequel to the crummy 2013 Orange Bowl against NIU, but this Houston team is much better. Of course, so is this ’Noles team.

One under-the-radar gem:

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–Las Vegas: No. 22 Utah vs. BYU (Dec. 19, 3:30 ET): Four Pac-12 bowls passed on the 9-3 Utes, infuriating their fans but allowing Vegas to bring back the Holy War a year earlier than expected. Which is just awesome.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.