Here’s an interesting fact: by the end of the regular season, Ohio State and Penn State will have each played all of the other teams in the Big Ten East, plus three randomly chosen teams from the Big Ten West. The three teams Ohio State has played are Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Northwestern, with a combined conference record of 14-7. Penn State has played Iowa, Minnesota, and Purdue, who have combined for a conference record of 9-12. Michigan, by the way, has played Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois, who have combined for an 11-10 conference record.
Here’s more: Louisville has played only Duke and Virginia from the ACC Coastal, who have combined to go 2-12 in the conference, which would have been worse if they had not played each other. Washington State has achieved an unbeaten conference record in part by avoiding Utah and USC. Virginia Tech appears poised to qualify for the ACC title game without having played Louisville, Clemson, or Florida State. Or even Wake Forest, for that matter. Florida will go to the SEC championship game without having played Alabama, Auburn, or Texas A&M. Minnesota has an outside shot at winning the Big Ten without having played Ohio State or Michigan.
Now, it’s generally left up to each conference how they choose their champions, and that’s fine. And all of these teams will have to beat the best team from the other side of their conference before they are actually crowned as champion. But we now have this four team playoff, and it appears that conference championships will weigh heavily in their selection process. As the only objective criteria that is available, this is as it should be. But it is obviously now the case that even conference schedules are not all created equal. The question is, should this matter?
We don’t know if it matters to the committee, because for all we know they might be using a dartboard to make their selections. But should the fact that Ohio State, if it wins out, will have beaten three teams that were ranked in the top ten when they played them, plus another that is in the top ten now (Oklahoma), trump the fact that Penn State beat Ohio State, even if Penn State wins the Big Ten? Suppose Clemson goes to the ACC title game and loses to Virginia Tech. Does Louisville, with one loss, go ahead of Clemson, with two losses, even though Clemson has the tougher schedule, even inside the conference, and has the head-to-head win?
My guess is that Alabama gets in the playoff unless it loses twice before the end of the season. That is unlikely, but in a month that has seen the Cubs and Donald Trump win, I’m not ruling it out. Clemson, Washington, and Michigan will all get in if they win out. If it goes that way, there will be very little controversy, except for diehard Big XII fans. But it won’t go that way. Those three teams have a total of nine games left, as many as six against ranked teams, and Michigan may not have their quarterback. If any of them lose, we are in for a mess.
Imagine this scenario: Ohio State beats Michigan, gets in the Big Ten title game and loses. Washington State beats Washington and wins the Pac 12. Oklahoma beats West Virginia. Louisville loses to Houston (at one point this year that would have been a tossup). Clemson loses the ACC championship game. None of those five outcomes is outlandish or even particularly unlikely, which means there’s about a three per cent chance that all of them could happen, in which case we would have no one-loss teams, and as many as twelve two loss teams, not even counting teams from outside the Power Five conferences who will feel justified in making a claim. Who do you have then for the playoff? Western Michigan?
Chance to Make CFB Playoffs (%)
(figures per FiveThirtyEight.com)
This is made all the more complicated when you can’t even say, for example, that an SEC team played a tough schedule just because they are in the SEC. If Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Nebraska all have two losses, who represents the Big Ten? Can you deny the Big Ten, when the alternative might be Colorado? There is no criteria to separate those teams from each other that will come close to seeming fair, in which case the whole thing turns into a beauty contest, which is what the playoff was designed to avoid. So the best move in that situation is to select conference champions, but what if that leaves you with Utah, Penn State, Florida, and Virginia Tech?
I don’t really have an answer, at least for this year, and I’m betting the committee doesn’t either, except to pray for favorites to win every game the rest of the way. But for the long term, I would propose that we impose some structure on this train wreck. Step one is to go to an eight team playoff. That way, all five conference champions are assured of getting in. Step two is to base division championships solely on record within the division. That way you are making an apples to apples comparison between teams. There are downsides to this: one is the increased possibility of a three or four way tie in which the champion is decided by an arcane tiebreaker. The other is that a division champion loses all of their games against the other division and makes the conference title game with a 7-5 record. I would submit that the first possibility is rare enough to be worth the risk and that the second is superior to winning a division simply because you didn’t play anyone.
Step three is to develop objective criteria for the other three spots in the playoff. Well, objective may be stretching it a bit. One spot would be reserved for the highest ranked team from outside the Power Five conferences. Don’t ask me how this would be determined; it seems like most years there’s a clear choice. This year it appears to be Western Michigan, which is undefeated with two wins over Power Five teams, which seems like ample qualifications. The other two spots would be allocated to the conferences with the most wins against the other Power Five conferences, which should give everyone an incentive to schedule such games. I understand that this may mean athletic directors will beat a path en masse to Kansas’ door, but two years ago the teams that scheduled Colorado thought they were getting a gimme, so you never know.
I know this isn’t perfect, but as teams bulk up their schedules to impress the committee the likelihood of one or more two loss teams making the playoff will increase. We can just trust the committee to come up with a just solution, but two weeks ago these guys thought Texas A&M was a playoff team.