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College football's Final Four

Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State begin vying for the national championship on New Year's Day.

Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston begins defense of his national title on Thursday.
Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston begins defense of his national title on Thursday.Read more

SO THE moment that college football junkies have been clamoring for, for way too long, finally is coming to a television screen near you: tomorrow's inaugural FBS playoff semifinals. Can there really be a much better way to ring in another year, especially now that the Eagles won't be playing any games that counts for 9 months?

It almost reminds you of the old days, when Jan. 1 meant 12 straight hours of matchups that mostly meant everything. Of course, the next 2 years the semis are on Dec. 31, but you get the concept.

Anyhow, the Selection Committee couldn't have come up with a more marquee opening Mount Rushmore than Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State, although you might not want to say that too loudly in Big 12 country. Only the presence of Notre Dame could have taken this thing completely off the charts. Of course, that was four Irish losses ago.

I'm still not convinced that the 12-person panel reached many different conclusions, if any, than the BCS system would have, other than to identify the four worthiest teams instead of merely two. But it doesn't matter any longer. Just be glad that the change came when it did, so nobody had to choose between leaving FSU or Oregon out. That might have gotten seriously contentious. Especially if the parties responsible for splitting those hairs had gotten it wrong.

The championship game is Jan. 12 at the home of the Dallas Cowboys, where Baylor or TCU might have had some kind of neighborhood advantage. We'll never know. The elimination heats start at 5 p.m., when Oregon (12-1) and FSU (13-0) get together in the Rose Bowl. Starting immediately afterward, Alabama (12-1) and Ohio State (12-1) will then take us right up until about midnight in the Sugar. Or maybe even beyond, if an overtime or three become necessary. And wouldn't that make for an extra-special ratings bonanza?

Florida State, for those who haven't been paying attention, hasn't lost since November 2012. Nonetheless, a sizable portion of America doesn't seem to think too highly of these Seminoles. A lot of that has to do with quarterback Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner, and his knack for doing some hard-to-comprehend stuff when he's not leading them on late, game-winning touchdown drives. There's also the fact that they've had way too many too-tight games, many against opponents who had little or no business taking them to the brink.

They won their last four by a total of 14 points, three against teams that were a combined 19-16. And there was that late penalty call against ND. About all they've done is keep finding a way. Not that there's anything wrong with that, even if it did get them dropped from first to third over time in the media poll. That can happen sometimes.

This is the first time the Seminoles haven't been favored since September 2011. For whatever it means, the last two times FSU was an underdog it lost outright. It hasn't lost in a bowl as a dog since the 2007 Music City, when it did at least cover the spread against Kentucky. Back then the Noles were getting nine, which is what they're getting now. Just pointing out. It's called research.

And they did win last January in their Pasadena debut.

Oregon never has won a national title. But it had never produced a Heisman Trophy winner before this season, either. Now it has one in QB Marcus Mariota, who Chip Kelly recruited to Eugene. Heisman winners went 1-6 in title games from 2000-08. But in the past five seasons they've gone 3-0.

The Ducks haven't scored less than 42 since losing to Arizona at home (31-24) on Oct. 2. And they beat the Wildcats in the Pac-12 final rematch, 51-13. The book on beating them has been to keep them under 30. Since Kelly went there in 2009 they're 2-8 when that occurs, and 0-for-their-last-6. Two were in bowls. And they've only lost once in that span when they scored over 30. That was in 2011. FSU has held nine teams to 27 or fewer, but none of them was Oregon. And Auburn did get 31 in last year's finale before Winston pulled it out at the end.

In managing to do just enough, the Noles have saved their best for when they needed it most. Yet the last thing you want to do against Oregon is play from too far behind. It might come down to how many punches to the jaw the Seminoles can deliver, and how early. Ask Stanford how that works. Because unlike FSU, the Ducks haven't had to do very much in very many fourth quarters.

They're 2-4 in the Rose, but won the last time they went there following the 2011 season (45-38 over Wisconsin).

That brings us to OSU-Bama, in New Orleans, where Nick Saban has won two of his four rings (only Bear Bryant has won more). The first was with LSU, in 2003, the other with the Tide against LSU 3 years ago. His two others came in 2009 and 2012. And might have at least been playing for one more last year, if not for that last play at Auburn.

Urban Meyer also has raised the trophy twice, with Florida in 2006 and '08. In '08 he beat Saban in the SEC final. The following December he lost to Bama in that game, in another 1-2 scrum. So there's a little history.

This might not be a vintage Bama team, yet it's only given up more than 23 points once. That was the 55-44 win over Auburn in which the Tide dug out of a 12-point, third-quarter hole with a 34-3 run in 21 minutes. And they did beat four ranked teams, though none was higher than 15th. Blake Sims may not be AJ McCarron, but Amari Cooper is the top receiving threat not yet in the NFL. They also averaged 235 yards on the ground (and 5.6 a carry) in their last two games. They won the fourth quarter of those by 42-8.

Bama is 9-6 in the Sugar. It lost there to Oklahoma last January by 14 as a two-touchdown favorite. But that didn't mean anything after Auburn.

The Buckeyes, who lost to Virginia Tech by 14 at home in early September, are down to their third quarterback. It obviously didn't make any difference against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Whether Cardale Jones can continue to make people forget about J.T. Barrett, who was able to make folks forget about Braxton Miller, we'll find out. The Buckeyes did beat No. 8 Michigan State on the road in November by a dozen. Still, the Big Ten East wasn't exactly the SEC West, which has given us five of the last seven champs from three different programs.

The Buckeyes are 2-3 in the Sugar. They won their last trip to the Louisiana Superdome, after the 2010 season (31-26 over Arkansas). They're 4-0 in Meyer's three seasons as the underdog.

Four have made it this far. Half will move on. One gets to ultimately raise index fingers skyward. Even if this is a much scaled-down version of what's been in place at every other level, it's at least something. That's a start.

If nothing else, there's a reason besides the Mummers to properly toast this holiday again.