Fourth and goal for CFP: Will it be Ohio State or Alabama?

If anyone deserved to catch a break, it was the guys who determine the College Football Playoff rankings.

After weeks of dealing with a constant churn among that top teams, one upset after another, the selection committee probably needed a day off.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

This weekend’s conference championship games delivered just enough surprises to give the CFP one more headache before it issues the final rankings Sunday, naming the four teams that will vie for the national title.

Top-ranked Clemson and No. 3 Oklahoma tried to make things easy with persuasive victories Saturday. In the Southeastern Conference, No. 6 Georgia became a safe bet by upsetting No. 2 Auburn.

The problem arose when No. 8 Ohio State held on for a 27-21 win against No. 4 Wisconsin. That forces the CFP to choose between the two-loss Buckeyes and Alabama, which is ranked fifth and has only one loss but did not qualify for its conference championship.

“Those teams are close,” Kirby Hocutt, the selection committee chairman, said last week. “Very little separation in the committee’s eyes between teams 5 through 8.”

When faced with similar conundrums this season — a jumble of teams at the top of the rankings — the CFP has fallen back on several catchphrases.

Each week is a new beginning, Hocutt has insisted, saying: “The committee works off a clean sheet of paper.” Teams are judged by a “resume” that continues to evolve, every game adding to an overall “body of work.”

What does it all mean?

Hard to say because Hocutt also has been fond of saying the CFP has great “flexibility” in weighing criteria that include strength of schedule and, yes, conference titles.

“The selection committee looks forward to championship weekend,” Hocutt said. “We look forward to some great matchups.”

This weekend marked the first time the 13 members actually watched games together. They convened at CFP headquarters in Grapevine, Texas, on Friday afternoon, arriving in time to see USC defeat Stanford for the Pac-12 championship.

That game was merely a warm-up because it did not figure to impact the playoff bracket. The real action began Saturday morning.

Oklahoma solidified its standing with a dominant effort against No. 11 Texas Christian in the Big 12 title game. Quarterback Baker Mayfield sparked a 41-17 victory — and all but secured the Heisman Trophy next week — with four touchdown passes.

“The most exciting thing about today was we controlled our own destiny,” Mayfield said. “We just had to take care of business.”

Clemson staked its claim with a similar performance against No. 7 Miami in the Atlantic Coast Conference, racing to a three-touchdown lead in the first half and cruising to a 38-3 win.

Georgia’s victory over Auburn was a bit surprising if only because the teams had met several weeks ago with the opposite result. This time, Georgia Coach Kirby Smart said, “we tried to keep it really simple — composure and physicality.”

Given Ohio State’s victory in the Big Ten later that night, the situation became less simple for the CFP.

Though the Crimson Tide failed to reach the SEC title game and was forced to watch on television — just like the committee members — Coach Nick Saban made an argument for inclusion. Saban noted that his team’s only loss came against Auburn.

“This team deserves an opportunity to get in the playoff by what they’ve been able to accomplish,” he said. “They won 11 games and not many people were able to do that.”

Conference championships are important to the CFP, but there is precedent for overlooking the criterion.

Just last season, the selection committee bypassed Big Ten champion Penn State in favor of an Ohio State team that, like Alabama, had fallen short of making its title game.

But this time, selecting Alabama would mean having two teams from the SEC and overlooking the Big Ten entirely — a step that might be hard to take.

“We have two wins over two Top-4 teams,” Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer said Saturday night. “We’re the conference champions … we deserve a shot.”

Committee members were scheduled to withdraw into their meeting room to begin debating as soon as Saturday’s games ended. When asked about who he thought might reach the playoffs, Smart did not hazard a guess. Ultimately, he didn’t seem to think it would matter much.

“They’re all good teams,” the Georgia coach said. “I mean, there’s a reason they are there.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

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