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Playoff System Inherently Flawed, Again

Many years ago my dad gave me a piece of wisdom that I never forgot, even if he ignored it a thousand times later in life: if you leave an outcome close enough for the refs to decide, you have to live with what they decide. As Ohio State fans bemoan the decision of the College Football Playoff Committee this morning, that wisdom seems to apply. Odds are that if Ohio State had lost by a touchdown or two to Iowa, they would be in the playoff. By failing to even make that game respectable, they left the decision in the hands of the committee, which means they have to live with the outcome.

By the criteria under which the committee ostensibly decides these things, the conference championship won by Ohio State should have been a deciding factor unless the committee determined that Alabama was clearly a superior team. This is where we get into the inherent flaws of the system. We have two teams from different conferences and no common opponents. Alabama played one game against a top 10 team and was beaten soundly. Ohio State played three games against top 10 teams and won two of them, but was beaten by an unranked team by 31 points. What this comes down to is the “eye test,” which puts the process pretty much on the level of figure skating.

This is not sour grapes from an Ohio State fan. Last year the committee disregarded Penn State’s conference title and win against Ohio State and put the Buckeyes in the playoff based on the same subjective criteria, and I called them on it. Saying that Alabama looks like a better team than Ohio State means… what, exactly? They have more good players? They racked up better stats? Their conference was better? The reality is that nobody knows whether Alabama is better than Ohio State. What we do know is that Ohio State is the best team in their conference and that Alabama is not the best team in theirs. That is what was decided on the field, which should take precedence over what is decided in a meeting.

Any other criteria is subjective. Alabama gets dinged for a weak schedule, but Florida State looked like a marquee matchup in September. The fact that Alabama drew bottom feeders Vanderbilt and Tennessee from the SEC East is random chance, not something they should be dinged for. Ohio State gets dinged for losing to Oklahoma, but would you rather they had scheduled another MAC team? If Iowa pulled their starters in the third quarter and won by 20 instead of 30, would that make Ohio State a stronger candidate?

Teams are toughening up their schedules to impress the committee, partly by adding conference games in some cases. That means fewer undefeated teams and fewer interconference games. Next year Alabama plays Louisville, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, and the Citadel as its non-conference games. Which of those games do you want to use as a basis for deciding whether The Tide is a playoff team? In other words, like this year, we will be totally reliant on Alabama’s conference games. That’s fine, but it means that, like this year, we have to make some assumptions about whether the SEC is better than other conferences.

Let’s test that theory. This year, the most impressive nonconference wins by SEC teams were Alabama over Florida State, South Carolina over North Carolina State, Georgia over Georgia Tech, LSU over Syracuse, and Vanderbilt over Kansas State. Of those teams, only North Carolina State (#24) ended up ranked. In every other game involving an SEC team and a team from a Power Five conference, the SEC team lost. Clemson clobbered South Carolina. Florida lost to Michigan and Florida State. Missouri lost to Purdue. Mississippi lost to Cal. Texas A&M lost to UCLA. Auburn lost to Clemson. Arkansas lost to TCU. LSU lost to Troy. That’s a school, not the guy who took your girlfriend in high school.

In order to assess someone’s “body of work,” you have to assess the “body of work” of the teams that “body of work” came against. Where is the signature win that cements Alabama as an elite team? If you wanted to take a one-loss team with a weak schedule that didn’t win its conference, you could make a case that Wisconsin, which beat a ranked team (Northwestern) and Michigan and Purdue, both of which beat SEC teams, had as good a case as Alabama. Somewhere Central Florida, which didn’t lose at all and posted a victory in its conference championship game as impressive as anything on Alabama’s resume, is saying, how about us.

But none of that matters. The committee has decided that Alabama is better than Ohio State. They may be right, and Ohio State can blame itself for leaving the decision up to the committee. But nothing that actually happened on the field supports that argument. For two consecutive years, the committee has disregarded what was accomplished on the field in favor of aesthetics. That’s bound to happen when comparing teams from different sections of the country without considering objective criteria like conference championships. Last year Ohio State rewarded that judgment by getting shut out in their playoff game. Perhaps if that happens to Alabama they will learn from their mistake — probably not, though.

One thing about committees is that they make decisions that perpetuate their own power. If the playoff committee simply chose four conference champions every year, they wouldn’t have our rapt attention throughout the season. The conference title games would serve as de facto quarterfinals. The only suspense would be which champion got knocked out. Most years that’s an obvious choice, although the Pac 12 could argue that the way its teams knocked each other out of the running is proof of its strength, not its weakness. If the choice gets too mundane, we might decide that the committee only needs to vote once or twice. We could also go back to computers deciding which conference champion is weakest. That would mean less time on TV for Kirby Hocutt, the committee chair, and less time in fancy hotel ballrooms with the entire nation sitting in rapt suspense. That sort of thing can get addictive, and it would only be human nature for the committee to introduce some suspense into the equation so that we all pay more attention.

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