It’s easy enough these days to assume that everything we hear in the media is bullshit that sometimes when someone tells us the truth it blows right by us. Listen to this quote:
“It was determined that Washington was the more talented team.”
That’s College Football Playoff Committee Chairman Kirby Hocutt, describing the rationale for choosing Washington ahead of Penn State in the four-team playoff. Not that they had a better season. Not that they accomplished more or did it against a tougher schedule or played in a tougher conference. Not that they fared better against common opponents (Washington beat Rutgers by 35 at home; Penn State won by 39 at Rutgers).
The committee just decided that Washington had better players.
They also decided that Ohio State was “unequivocally better” than Penn State, even though Penn State beat Ohio State and won the division and conference that they shared with Ohio State.
Hocutt listed a series of metrics that the committee used, gave credit to the former coaches on the committee for pointing out key factors in the decision and made specific reference to Penn State having a “non-competitive” loss to Michigan.
If you weren’t convinced before that this is a beauty contest, a reality TV show, are you now? Hocutt told us the truth. The playoff field isn’t based on any objective criteria. Two years ago, a weak schedule doomed Baylor. This year, it was okay for Washington. Two years ago, Ohio State got points for closing strong. This year, that didn’t help Penn State or Oklahoma. The committee looked at the field of contenders and picked the four they liked the best. This process is no better than figure skating.
I know the answer: this is exciting; it gives everybody something to debate, it makes every game significant. Well, steroids made baseball more exciting, and big wrecks make NASCAR more exciting. R-rated movies are more exciting than PG movies. In none of those cases does “exciting” translate to “better.” Excitement, particularly in sports, is only a good thing when it does not compromise the integrity of how the games are played and decided. Integrity is put in jeopardy whenever twelve people make a decision with no accountability for the outcome. When that decision is made according to standards and criteria that appear to be as fickle as the weather, integrity is out the window.
Look, I’m not saying that Washington should not have gotten in, although scheduling Portland State and Idaho seems like a more grievous offense that getting spanked by Michigan. And I’m not necessarily saying that Ohio State doesn’t belong, even though winning a conference is the only truly objective criteria. It is plain, though, that this committee is making up the rules as they go along, and that coaches and fans all over the country who thought they understood the formula for making the playoff really have no clue.
Washington looks “more talented” than Penn State? Hey, Oklahoma has two Heisman finalists.
Ohio State is “unequivocally better” than Penn State? In the last two weeks of the regular season, the Buckeyes beat Michigan State by a point thanks to a missed two-point conversion; the following week, Penn State beat the Spartans by 33. Take away Michigan, and against the five other common opponents, Ohio State has a scoring differential of +146; for Penn State it’s +117. Is that enough to override a head to head win and a conference title? Apparently so.
The biggest objective difference between the two teams is that in Ohio State’s biggest nonconference game they beat Oklahoma soundly, while in Penn State’s biggest nonconference game they lost to Pitt. Okay, that makes sense. But Washington’s biggest nonconference game was against Rutgers. Is beating Rutgers more impressive than losing to Pitt by three? If you say yes, you’ll be bringing Clemson into the debate as well, so watch your step.
There’s only one fair way to do this: if you win your conference, you’re in the playoff. It would be more convenient if we’d ended up with four major conferences instead of five, but this is where we ended up. We may need a play-in game between the fourth and fifth best conference champions, at least until the Big XII folds. Maybe there’s a situation every so often where the “best” team doesn’t win the conference, but Ohio State had an opportunity to prove that they were better than Penn State on the field, and they failed to do so. Conference championships are decided on the field by the players and coaches, not in a meeting room by men in suits. Any “playoff” that doesn’t have that as its predominant criteria is compromised from the get-go. It may not matter this year or next year, but every time they change the rules on the fly it makes the playoff a little less meaningful. If you don’t think that can take a toll over time, how many world boxing champions can you name?