It’s been two full seasons since college football moved away from using the BCS system to determine post-season bowl games and the national championship matchup. So far, college football has behaved itself within the four-team playoff format. To date, arguably the only true drama surrounding a team chosen by the selection committee came during the inaugural season when Ohio State jumped ahead of TCU and Baylor during the final and determining selection of the season, obtaining the fourth and final playoff spot. The committee cited Ohio State’s outright Big 10 championship as the differentiating factor in sending them ahead of co-Big 12 champs TCU and Baylor.
Through the first two playoffs, controversy had been resolved and order maintained by one primary criterion: a conference championship. All four teams selected each year have been conference champions from one of the Power Five conferences.
CFB does not color within the lines; it occasionally throws out conventional wisdom and always provides the possibility of bent rules and norms. We all knew the day would come when the precedent of weighing conference championships as the key resume factor for a team to make the playoffs would be challenged. After a mere two seasons of relatively smooth selections, anchored by the conference championship criteria, Mother Football has decided to take away our sure thing, to take away the precedent set of selecting conference champs. And who else better to serve as the messenger than our old friend Ohio State?
After Ohio State beat No. 3 Michigan on Saturday, we have a situation where Ohio State (#2, 11-1) will sit idle whilst two-loss Penn State and Wisconsin battle to be Big 10 champs. This situation arises because the Big 10 is split into East and West divisions, where the two best teams in the conference (Michigan and Ohio State) both reside in the East. Therefore, only one can make it to the title game. This year Michigan holds losses to divisional opponent Ohio State and conference opponent Iowa thus removing them from the BIG title picture. Ohio State holds one loss to divisional opponent Penn State who has the same conference record (8-1) as OSU, thus sending Penn State to the Big 10 title game.
College football mimics life; it is unpredictable, at times illogical, and always tosses in an unexpected wrinkle. The fact is that pure statistics cannot account for a hot team, a team that lost on a fluke play, a team that lost on an incorrect call, a team that just flat-out looks good, or the number two team in the nation not having the opportunity to win its conference. Let me reiterate: pure criteria and numbers just cannot decide, hence the death of the BCS. The human element that the college football selection committee provides allows for human consideration and reason to account for the endless and not-always-foreseeable variables that play into identifying the four best teams in the nation.
I’ve heard some complain that the Selection Committee is some sort of magical hat, teams get ranked and thrown into the hat before conference champions are decided, the games are played and… voila! Four teams are pulled from the hat. The “magic” the committee uses during selection is loosely defined, leaving those of us on the outside speculating as to what sorcery led to the end result.
Of course the selection committee does not have carte blanche to select just anyone. The committee is provided extensive statistics and game film to aid in their decision-making and the following criteria is used to evaluating teams:
Conference Championships Won
Strength of Schedule
Comparative outcomes of common opponents
Any other “relevant factors” deemed important in comparing teams
Having this loose criteria and the “any other relevant factors” catch-all gives the committee the freedom to select whomever they truly think is the best team. They do, in essence, have their magic hat. This season is a perfect example as to why it is essential to allow the committee this freedom. The committee is able to adjust based on all the unique circumstances surrounding a particular season, this year it is Ohio State and the Big 10. Next year who knows what situations the committee will face, the point is they have the flexibility granted by loosely defined criteria to adjust.
The beautiful thing about college football is that the regular season matters, and it really matters, unlike the MLB, NBA, and (to a lesser extent) the NFL where the regular season is diminished by a more inclusive playoff system and extended regular season.
Every single game matters when considering a four-team scenario. The scenario we see unfolding before us will most likely (and I would argue correctly) include Ohio State in the playoffs even though they will not be conference champions. If OSU does indeed remain in the top 4 (currently ranked #2) it will be an indication not that we should call for an eight-team playoff; or even a six-team playoff with two first round byes, as some would suggest. This will be an indication that the committee is operating in the exact manner it’s designed to.
Sure, we could expand the playoffs, but the controversy will remain the same. We will never have a perfect system for determining the best teams in the nation. The only thing we can count on is that the unexpected will take place and the odds will be defied. College football was born to cause controversy, and a four-team playoff determined by a selection committee that has the freedom to adjust to constantly-changing variables is the best way to evaluate who deserves to be on the inside and who deserves to be out. As I said, college football always has a trick up its sleeve; regardless of a 4, 6, 8, or 16-team playoff, the committee is absolutely essential to correctly determining playoff teams. The unique situation Ohio State and the Big 10 present to us this year confirms the need for the committee to have the current freedom they have in evaluating teams.
As we watch the conference championship games this weekend, it is almost certain that both Alabama and Ohio State are locks to be included in the playoffs. This leaves two spots available to be filled by the Big 10 winner, ACC winner, PAC-12 winner or even another non-conference winner like Michigan.
There is sure to be plenty of controversy.
Fan bases are going to feel slighted, professional and novice analysts alike will argue their opinions, and the committee’s decisions will be analyzed from every imaginable angle. In the end, I believe the committee has the right tools and structure to present us with the four best teams in the nation, regardless of conference titles. There is no perfect system and to be honest, I don’t think we would enjoy having one. What would we talk about if everyone were in agreement? Half the fun is striving for perfection and analyzing the situation at hand. We all love a good debate so here’s to the discussion. Here’s to the controversy. College football never ceases to provide on both fronts, and this year will be no different.