Five Things We Learned From the First College Football Playoff Selections
In the season long beauty contest that is College Football 2014, the first season being played to impress an audience of what amounts to twelve judges, Saturday night was the finale. It was the swimsuit competition, if you will.
And make no mistake, the six teams vying for the four spots in the inaugural College Football Playoff didn't just bring out the sultry swimsuits. They brought out the string thong bikinis.
According to R.J. Bell of pregame.com, the top six college football teams were projected to win by a net 70 points this past weekend week (based on Vegas spreads). They won by 191 points.
In college football, they call that style points. To translate that into beauty contest parlance, this was no swimsuit competition. Saturday was a striptease.
We entered the day on Friday night with the rankings as follows:
1. Alabama 11-1 2. Oregon 11-1 3. TCU 10-1 4. Florida State 12-0 5. Ohio State 11-1 6. Baylor 10-1
In the end, all six of these teams won, and most of them won convincingly (hence, the striptease analogy). In chronological order, which in the end may have mattered, what with human nature in 2014 having a built in recency bias:
FRIDAY NIGHT 2 Oregon def. 7 Arizona, 51-13
SATURDAY NOON 3 TCU def. Iowa State, 55-3
SATURDAY AFTERNOON 1 Alabama def. 16 Missouri, 42-13
SATURDAY NIGHT 6 Baylor def. 9 Kansas State, 38-27 4 Florida State def. 11 Georgia Tech, 37-35 5 Ohio State def. 13 Wisconsin, 59-0
Those results yielded this four team playoff, with these semifinal matchups on January 1 (championship game to be played on January 12 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington):
SUGAR BOWL 1 Alabama (12-1) vs 4 Ohio State (12-1)
ROSE BOWL 2 Oregon (12-1) vs 3 Florida State (13-0)
The final rankings of the top eight teams looked like this:
5 Baylor 11-1 6 TCU 11-1 7 Mississippi State 10-2 8 Michigan State 10-2
So the debate that dominated any conversation about this playoff over the last two weeks -- should TCU be ranked ahead of a Baylor team that it lost to head-to-head? -- wound up being a completely moot point. While everyone down here in Texas was caught up in which of the two Big 12 upstarts was better, what should have been the focus was "How tenuous id the Big 12's overall position?", because in the end, while the rest of the Power Five conferences were staging conference title games in prime time, TCU was playing a glorified scrimmage against a 2-9 Iowa State team that kicked off while the committee was still eating breakfast.
Saturday was a time for de facto closing arguments before the playoff jury delivered its verdict, and while the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 had a chance to argue with some gusto and hype, TCU was only afforded the chance to tread water. For the Horned Frogs, it wasn't a "stuttering lawyer from My Cousin Vinny" situation, because TCU did play well. It just wasn't Rusty Hardin in front of Congress, that's all.
I mean, how impressive can you be when you're already favored by 35?
Simultaneously, the perfect storm of nightmare for the Big 12 unfolded later that night. Urban Meyer is ruthless, and his ruthlessness was exactly what the doctor ordered for Ohio State on Saturday night as they romped number 13 Wisconsin on both sides of the ball for all sixty minutes in a 59-0 drubbing. The big question surrounding Ohio State was regarding their offense and how it would perform in the absence of quarterback J.T. Barrett, who broke his ankle against Michigan the previous week. As it turned out, Meyer reminded all of us why he is thought of so highly as an offensive innovator. It's not about who's playing quarterback for the Buckeyes. As long as Meyer's the head coach, it's merely about how they play. Hell, this entire season should've been a reminder of that as Barrett himself was the backup to incumbent starter Braxton Miller who was shelved before the season with a shoulder injury.
In the end, that argument were all having about whether Baylor was better than TCU, or TCU was better than Baylor...well, the committee resolved it. They told us which one they thought was better. Unfortunately, for the Big 12, they also told us that there were four other teams better than both of them.
The thing about this playoff system is that with four teams and five power conferences, at least one conference will always get snubbed, so there will always be arguments as to why so-and-so deserved to go ahead of this team or that team. I think this committee arrived at the four teams that America most wanted to see, but they shirked logic in doing so.
Seriously, how does a team win 55-3 and fall from 3 to 6 in a matter of 24 hours? The same team, by the way, that had risen to 3 the week before and put themselves ahead of an undefeated Florida State team that failed to cover the spread for the tenth time this season. (If things like "game control" and "eyeball test" matter, then how a team does against the spread is relevant. The spread is an educated measure of expectations.)
So what did we learn in Year 1 of the brave, new world we are in? I would say the following:
1. You need to effort to play somebody outside your conference. Here are the best out of conference opponents of the top six teams:
1. Alabama: vs West Virginia (neutral site) 2. Oregon: vs Michigan State 3. Florida State: vs Notre Dame, vs Florida, vs Oklahoma State (neutral site) 4. Ohio State: vs Virginia Tech, vs Cincinnati 5. Baylor: at Buffalo 6. TCU: vs Minnesota
I put Baylor in bold because, while some of the top six teams' out of conference schedules wound up looking weaker in the end than they looked before the season, Baylor is the one team who unapologetically scheduled cupcakes outside of the Big 12. That strategy is fine if your goal is to go undefeated, but the message is clear -- if you don't go undefeated, your lack of testicular fortitude will be punished.
2. The committee didn't feel like dealing with the Big 12's garbage. For weeks, the Baylor-TCU dynamic lent itself to endless debate over the merit of head-to-head results (TCU was ahead of Baylor all season until the final rankings, despite Baylor beating them 61-58 in Waco in October). At the same time, the Big 12's muddled dynamic with no conference title game and no conference champion declared (despite a marketing campaign centered around the phrase "One True Champion," the ultimate false advertising) lent itself to ridicule and confusion. In the end, Ohio State's romp of Wisconsin gave the committee an "out," to send both Baylor and TCU (and symbolically, the Big 12) into a figurative corner to go figure things out, decide how they would declare their champion, and perhaps get back to holding a conference title game like the other four power conferences.
(By the way, was there a better troll job done by the committee than their putting Baylor over TCU in the final rankings? I practically expected Jeff Long to proudly declare that they "heard the cries of the Baylor faithful" and that they were right, head to head is important. "So important that we put you at five and TCU at six!" Great heel move by the committee.)
3. The "eye test" counts, but counts even more when the committee is hanging out together. The committee has professed all season to have been watching the games with great attention to detail. Presumably, they've been doing a lot of that on their own and then bringing their opinions to the weekly meetings before the rankings have been unveiled every Tuesday. Well, this past Saturday, Jeff Long was on ESPN's College Gameday show and said that the committee would be watching the conference title games together all day Saturday. Anyone whose ever spent a day watching football with their buddies knows that the atmosphere when you have a group of people exchanging opinions as they binge watch football lends itself to heavy influence and group think. My point is that you could see where the group watching Ohio State's dismantling of Wisconsin together, from wire to wire, would lead to the committee moving them up and shelving the Big Ten. The "eye test" was going to be more intense on Saturday than any other day because a) it's the final Saturday (recency bias) and b) we know all the committee members were watching all the games from end to end. (I still have a hard time believing that some of these committee members watch more than four or five hours of football a week.)
4. An undefeated Power Five team gets the benefit of the doubt... ....especially when it's the defending national champions. Florida State was behind TCU heading into Saturday, fourth overall, and despite another close game where they failed to cover the spread (3-10 ATS this season), the Seminoles were never even mentioned as a bubble possibility on Saturday. In the end, Florida State may have been most helped by starting the season as high as they did in the rankings. It's a totally fair question to ask if an ACC lesser light (say, Duke) went undefeated, would they get the same benefit of the doubt? Also, Florida State is going to lose to Oregon by three touchdowns, at least. Easy money.
5. No way they're going to eight teams any time soon. So now comes the part where fans, schools, and media make the plea for the playoff to expand from four teams to eight teams. That cry will be especially loud and acute here in Texas considering the "pay no mind" treatment the Big 12 just received. Logically, going to eight teams (with five power conference champions and three at-large teams) is the best way to quell some of the illogical rationale behind the rankings. Basically, under the eight team proposal, every team would have a path to the playoff under which they control their own destiny. Win your conference, and you're in. The debate would left to "Who are teams 6, 7, and 8?" (Hell, this year, there would have been practically zero debate. The "2 or fewer loss power conference teams" list ends at eight teams!)
And this is exactly why it won't happen. College football's method of deciding who is the best team has always had a massive amount of subjectivity baked into it, and as much as many people despise that, it's plays a huge role in college football's "front burner" place on the sports conversation stove. There is no way this committee and governing body is going to make a move to lessen their relevance, at least not any time soon. There are too many egos involved. Trust me, while we poke fun at the ludicrousness of TCU falling three spots in one week after winning by 52, Jeff Long soaked in every second of his having to explain it to a national television audience.
So scream for eight teams, just don't expect it. And if you're the Big 12, best to look within. Your getting snubbed from the playoff is not a "playoff problem" as much as it is a "you problem."