Another year, another playoff committee controversy. At this point, the details don’t really matter, and unless you are a fan of one of the programs involved, it is hard to stay all that interested in the details of this year’s debate. Only the details change, but it’s the same argument over and over.
The issue is not who the Playoff Committee selected, it is the fact they lack any sort of transparency or legitimacy in making their selection. The standard of choosing the “four best” nearly allowed the committee to ignore the results of the football season and put two-loss Georgia into the field on gut instinct over two one-loss Power 5 conference champions.
It was taken as a given that Ohio St had no business going to the playoffs, as if their resume didn’t match up. Ohio St beat #7 Michigan, the best win of any of the contenders for the final slot. The Buckeyes added wins over the #12 and #22 teams in the final CFP poll. That’s a 1-0 record against the top 10 and 3-0 versus the CFP top 25.
Georgia, by contrast, went 1-1 against the CFP top ten, with their best win being #10 Florida. They added wins against the #14 and #23 teams, going 1-1 against the top ten and 3-2 against the top 25. Oklahoma didn’t even play a top ten team, as their best win was over #15 Texas, and it took them two tries to do it. They went 0-0 against the top ten and 3-1 against the top 25, notching wins against the #16 and #24 teams.
The point here isn’t that Ohio St should have gone to the playoffs, but that they should have at least had their case taken a bit more seriously. However, we have decided that quality wins and conference titles don’t matter as much as who you lost to. We have made a decision that we will sort teams by the worst part of their resume instead of the best part.
The worst part is that the committee could get away with this if they applied some sort of consistent criteria from year to year, but they seem to adjust their rationale to fit whatever strikes their fancy that particular season.
In 2014, conference championships mattered, as the Big 12 co-champions were excluded on the grounds of a contested title. Yet head to head didn’t really matter as TCU ranked ahead of Baylor. In 2016, conference titles no longer mattered, as Ohio St went in ahead of Penn St, the team that won the Big Ten and beat Ohio St on the field.
Last year, Alabama went to the playoffs despite not appearing the SEC title game, though at least this time, the conference champion also got a bid. Ohio St was left on the outside looking in. This year, we’re back to conference titles mattering again, with Big 12 champ getting in despite a lack of a win over a top ten team.
As Bill Hancock commented in 2016, “Football seasons are like snowflakes. They’re all different.” Which is true, but it’s allowed the committee to apply an ever-shifting standard each season to justify whatever conclusion they come to post hoc.
The advantage of the committee was that it would preserve the integrity of the regular season while also giving us good bowl matchups. Neither objective is being fulfilled. The committee now routinely ignores on field results in favor of their own subjective feel of which team is best, invalidating the concept of Every Game Matters.
They can’t even get bowl matchups right beyond the playoffs. LSU is no position to complain about its bowl positioning, but the committee had two NY6 bowls with no tie-ins and a pool of four teams: LSU, Florida, Michigan, and UCF. Michigan and Florida have played three times in the past nine years and twice in the past three. LSU has never played Michigan. This was not a hard call, and the Committee had full autonomy to create the matchups that, frankly, all four of the schools preferred. Instead, it’s Michigan-Florida again and I guess LSU-Michigan will have to wait.
The Committee hasn’t just lost its way, it never had one. It publishes criteria for selection which it willfully ignores. There’s no accountability and a friendly media will happily endorse whatever selection they make. Oh sure, they’ll say, the process is opaque at best, but once again, they got it right.
It’s absurd. It is time to make the regular season matter again and restore the importance of conference championships. It is time to go to an eight-team playoffs with six conference champions. The benefits over the current system are multiple:
ONE. Onfield results will matter again. Every Game Counts is a joke. It didn’t matter when Baylor beat TCU and it didn’t matter when Penn St beat Ohio St. We were close to putting in a Georgia team that lost to LSU by 20 points because of some subjective feel that they were one of the four best teams. If a committee, which we’ll still need for selecting the final two teams and seeding, wants to get a wild hair up its ass and select the nebulous “best” team in the future, at least teams that actually won their conferences will be protected. Because…
TWO. Conferences titles matter. In 1982, SMU kicked an extra point against #9 Arkansas to guarantee itself the SWC title, but costing itself a shot at the national title by not going for two. That was the value of conference titles. They literally mattered MORE than national titles. What has changed is how we view college football. Instead of seeing it as a loose confederation of a bunch of different conferences, we know view it as one giant league. But these teams rarely cross over and play top tier games outside their conferences. It’s almost impossible to judge a Big Ten team against a Big 12 team. But conference championships should matter, and it would restore the importance of those conference title games.
THREE. Access. Reserving one slot for the Group of Five gives teams like UCF a shot. The Group of Five is 3-1 in NY6 bowls in the playoff era and UCF is currently on a 25-game win streak. There has to be some sort of mechanism to give half of the teams in FBS some sort of shot at the title. Even if that means going on the road to Alabama.
FOUR. Home playoff games. How is FBS so bad at this? While FCS has long since figured this out, giving us boisterous home crowds for the lower levels of the football playoffs, we instead play the biggest playoff games in sterile neutral sites. While we can rotate the finals among the top bowls, how great would a playoff game in Tuscaloosa or South Bend be?
FIVE. The “second best” team is still protected. Call it the SEC rule. A team could lose the conference title to the #1 team in the country and still have access to the playoffs over all of those inferior conference champions. Georgia would have access to the playoffs, too.
This isn’t that hard, people. These playoffs were built to expand. That’s what the wild card is. By making a four-team playoff with wild cards, it was creating the seeds for future expansion in the birth of the playoffs. A playoff based on conference champions would also keep interest up in all teams across November, as every conference race would matter.
Or we could just go back to no playoffs at all and the glorious chaos of the old bowl system. That would be cool, too. And certainly better than what we have now.