College Football Playoff Discussion

The college football playoffs are set, and definitive statements made. Aftermath?

After the math, it turns out everything came down to the number of losses. Major schools with 0 or 1 losses are in. Major schools with 2 or more losses are out.

There are no egregious omissions here. The controversy comes down to whether you reward conference champions and whether you penalize schools that avoid risk in non-conference games. The playoff committee answered those questions definitively: no and no.

No, Penn State, the Big Ten champion, is not ranked ahead of Ohio State. Perhaps a more convincing head-to-head victory would have made a difference. The Nittany Lions beat the Buckeyes on October 22, but only due to a freak play in a contest that the Buckeyes dominated. Washington, the Pac 12 champ, is ranked behind Ohio State as well.

No, Penn State, which lost a close game at 8-4 Pittsburgh (who also defeated Clemson) in September and defeated AAC champion Temple (10-3) a week later, is not given the benefit of the doubt over Washington, which faced a much easier schedule than most major schools – avoiding road non-conference games. Their September challenges? The Sun Belt’s Idaho Vandals, outscored 115-20 in their two-game road trip in the state of Washington. Portland State, a 3-8 FCS team, and Big Ten cellar-dweller Rutgers, which lost to the three top-ten teams in their division by a combined score of 175-0 (accumulating a total of 86 yards on 12-of-51 passing in those games, yet somehow throwing 24-40-168 against Washington).

This is not a claim that any of the four top Big Ten schools were flawless, or robbed, or otherwise dissed. Ohio State faded late and fate rewarded them with a couple of season-ending victories that more than made up for the unlucky loss at Penn State. Penn State finished as strong as any team in the country, but if you had claimed that, at 5-2 and coming off that crazy win over the Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions would emerge as conference champion six weeks later, you would have been deluged with offers to purchase real estate near Brooklyn. Michigan’s offense looked anemic in road games. Wisconsin couldn’t close out games.

It’s not an indictment of Washington, either. Non-conference schedules are set years in advance. The Huskies are addicted to that annual FCS candy, but in 2018, they will also take on BYU and will even venture to the southeast for a neutral-site game against Auburn.

Still, the scheduling criticism rings loud and clear. If Penn State had avoided the fan-pleasing challenge of visiting long-time rival Pittsburgh and instead had treated the home fans to an exhibition victory over a spirited, but hopelessly overmatched FCS school, the Nittany Lions would be focused on Clemson’s Tigers right now and not on a Rose Bowl consolation prize against USC – another school that embraced September risk (a devastating drubbing at the hands of Alabama) and finished strong.

At least no one outside of Kalamazoo is claiming that Western Michigan was robbed. The Broncos were 13-0 and did what they could out-of-conference, beating a pair of Big Ten teams on the road that happened to be down this year, but anyone who watched the MAC Championship on Friday and claims that this is a team that deserves a playoff match-up against Alabama probably isn’t watching with an unbiased eye. Under the college football system we have, where schedule strength is incredibly varied, it’s just too much of a stretch to assume this record would hold up in a major conference.

In recent years, the Big Ten has done what it can to improve its schedule. Like the Pac 12, they’ve gone to a nine-game conference schedule. But they’ve also encouraged non-conference challenges, setting up games with the Pac 12 and taking the additional step of banning future non-conference games against FCS opponents. Should scheduling be more flexible? Next year, Washington will venture Piscataway-ward with a road game at Rutgers.

What if the Big Ten/Pac 12 challenge were late in the season and opponents were set a couple of weeks earlier to enhance schedule strength? What if every major conference team had to schedule two non-conference games against other majors? Measures like this would give people confidence that playoff teams were more tested. Given the inequities of recruiting and the need to have almost 100 athletes under scholarship, parity like we have in professional leagues is impossible. But major college football remains the only national sport we have in the United States that doesn’t have a playoff structure designed to address these problems.

If the current structure remains unchanged, today’s committee decisions will result in weaker non-conference games down the road. No one will return Kathy Beauregard’s phone calls this winter*. Arrangements, like Michigan’s home-and-homes with Notre Dame, Oklahoma, UCLA, Texas, Virginia Tech and, yes, even Washington over the next decade will become the exception to the norm.

(* – Beauregard is Western Michigan’s athletic director)

I think the fans lost today, in that it will be harder to schedule non-conference challenges. Though it would be reasonable to say the fans also gained from having four of the major conferences represented rather than three. Inclusion is also a factor here.

All told, I just hope we’re one step closer to a real playoff system in college football.

College Football Playoffs, Version 2016

The scenario everyone foresaw is here.

The NCAA was thoroughly warned and yet here we are anyway. The problem with setting up a four-team playoff and keeping the conference championship games is the likelihood that either the blowout loser of a championship game will have locked up an invitation before the game started or a team will deserve an invitation despite not even reaching its conference championship. Add in the danger of having a top-heavy conference warrant two or possibly even three invitations and you’re guaranteed to make everyone angry more sooner than later.

The NCAA was lucky, frankly, not to have fallen deeply into either trap in the first two seasons under the new system.

The problem is very simple. Four teams out of 128 in football is too few. We don’t need 64 or 68 in the playoffs, like basketball, where everyone accepts that going undefeated is a once-in-a-generation thing and the tournament itself is an important spectacle. With only 12 games in the regular season, there just isn’t enough time to separate four elite teams from the rest of a fairly deserving crowd.

This four-team event is a compromise – and one that not only preserves the flaws in the system; it emphasizes them.

I think we’re long past the point where anyone has any illusion that major college football players on scholarship are students. The difference between a maximum of 16 games (12 plus the potential Hawai’i clause plus a conference championship plus two playoff games) and a maximum of 18 games doesn’t seem like that much, especially when you consider you can begin a playoff before Christmas.

An 11-team playoff seems ideal to me. The five major conference champions receive byes. That’s the bonus for winning a major conference and it gives those games renewed importance. If Florida upsets Alabama, Florida deserves the bye and Alabama still gets in. And six at-larges play each other in the first round. Add in a rule that an undefeated (and only an undefeated, because the schedule differences are enormous) Group of Five school may receive consideration for an at-large invitation and the committee can come up with a compelling tournament.

Here’s mine…

1. Alabama versus (8. Florida State versus 9. Wisconsin)
2. Clemson versus (7. Michigan versus 10. USC)
3. Penn State versus (6. Ohio State versus 11. Colorado)
4. Washington versus 5. Oklahoma

You still have legitimate beefs from WMU and from the SEC, which suffered from having one world-beating team and a tremendous amount of not-quite-great evenly-matched talent knocking each other around. But it’s quite a compelling tournament. I’d keep the Broncos out because of that schedule. I can’t imagine them finishing without at least three losses in a major conference.

I’m sure there are bowl purists around who wouldn’t appreciate the further evisceration of the unique characteristics of a Rose is a Rose is a Rose or an Orange and a Sugar and a Cotton are cool, too. Even though these are usually more a “thanks for being good, but not great” reward than anything else these days. I felt that way myself around the turn of the millennium. Now, I can’t for the life of me remember who gets what assignment and why. Just that there are semifinals and finals and a bunch of other games. The later you play the better your team, except that there’s seemingly always a MAC team playing on a Tuesday somewhere.

However… we’re still dealing with a four-team playoff. So here’s how I see it:

First, my accumulated accomplishment per game metric:

1. Alabama 71.7
2. Ohio State 69.0
3. Clemson 67.9
4. Penn State 62.5
5. Washington 61.5
6. Colorado 60.6
7. USC 60.3
8. Michigan 58.2
9. Wisconsin 56.9
10. Florida State 56.8

14. Oklahoma 53.4

70. Western Michigan 37.2

SEC

Somewhat controversially, I think Alabama (13-0) deserves an invitation.

Big 12

Somewhat controversially, I don’t think Oklahoma (10-2) even belongs in the conversation. Why? Well, they’ve done everything right. Nine straight wins sweeping the Big 12. Challenging non-conference games (unlike seemingly everyone else in the Big 12). But a really bad year for the conference as a whole, and, well, the Sooners lost their two quality non-conference games.

The Big 12 thinks it can fix this problem with a conference championship game pitting the top two teams in the standings. Reason? Attention at a critical time. But what would have happened this year under such a system? Oklahoma and Oklahoma State would have played last week, each team having sewed up a berth in the championship. So last week’s game would have been dreadfully bland. The starting quarterbacks would have played one series, the playbooks expunged of anything Barry Sanders or Billy Sims wouldn’t recognize.

Of course, that wouldn’t happen every year. But it would be a rematch every year, and that doesn’t give a game a championship feel – especially with no divisions to conquer. It’s a bad idea.

The Big 12 is in a poor position here, I recognize this. They’ve lost four quality schools in recent years. One can argue that’s their own fault for letting Texas get away with too much over the years, but there’s still some depth and some greatness here. Expanding to 12 may be a good idea – especially since getting West Virginia a rival in Cincinnati is valuable and Houston, while not exactly bringing in television revenue, would add significant sports credibility. If not, then better non-conference scheduling has to happen.

ACC

Clemson (12-1) won a thriller at Florida State (9-3) in October, and, given Louisville’s late collapse, that ended up being the game of the year in the ACC. Clemson is a deserving champion with a solid win in the ACC championship and a high-quality win at SEC power Auburn in its resume. There simply isn’t any compelling reason not to invite the Tigers.

PAC 12

Based on everything that’s happened since September, USC (9-3) is the best team in the Pac 12. The Trojans even beat both division champions. They played a top-notch schedule. But look at September. An evisceration against Alabama, a really poor effort at Stanford, then a bit of bad luck in a loss at Utah. The quality wins are the wins against Colorado and Washington. This is an at-large resume in a bigger tournament. You just can’t rank USC ahead of Washington (12-1). So what about the Huskies? The win over Colorado (10-3) Saturday solidifies Washington as the only PAC 12 team that deserves attention under the four-team system. So do you take the Huskies over a second Big Ten team? I think it comes down to this non-conference resume: Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State. If your out-of-conference schedule is that weak, you have no room for error, and the loss at home to USC was a convincing loss. Under the circumstances, that takes away the “automatic” from Washington.

Big Ten

First, I’ll deal with the bad luck. Michigan (10-2) has no case. I’ll spare the rant about the officiating at Ohio State. It’s a compelling rant, but in the end, if you want to take the game out of the hands of the guys in stripes, don’t keep turning the ball over. Best defense in the country? Probably. Quality wins over top ten teams? Absolutely. Wins over both division champions? Check. Ok, you’re in the same at-large boat as USC. But third in their division and an absolute stinker of a November performance at Iowa. Out of the conversation.

Wisconsin (10-3) also has no case. Even with a quality non-conference, neutral-site win over LSU to open the season, those three losses to the other three conference candidates are the deal-breakers.

Penn State (11-2) has won nine straight games, including wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Ohio State win was at home and more than a little lucky. The two losses were on the road, both in September and both to quality teams. The loss to Michigan was a blowout. Clemson also lost a close one to Pittsburgh. Is this a top-four resume? Hard to say for certain. But the Nittany Lions played a top-notch schedule (even the win against Temple ended up being a decent achievement) and came out champions of the conference with the most depth at the top.

What about Ohio State (11-1)? Due to tie-breaking procedures, the only one-loss team in the Big Ten didn’t get to play for the championship. There’s the huge non-conference win at Oklahoma. The one loss was due to a freak play at Penn State. On the down side, their wins over Wisconsin and Michigan required overtime. They were a two-point conversion away from losing at Michigan State two weeks ago and were outplayed most of the game last week against Michigan. On results alone, the Buckeyes are in. But can you take a team that didn’t win its division and hasn’t been convincing against a quality opponent in a few weeks?

Summary

In the end, we have five candidates for four positions. I think Alabama is an easy #1 and Clemson is an easy #2. The next two spots are tougher. Penn State’s head-to-head edge over Ohio State is mitigated because they played at home and Ohio State dominated most of that game. I don’t like the system in that a team that didn’t play for its conference championship probably shouldn’t be in a four-team tournament, but all three of these remaining teams are flawed. I think Ohio State takes #3 because of strength of schedule. That leaves Penn State and Washington, and I give the edge to Penn State because of its nine-game current winning streak and, again, strength of schedule. But I wish there was room for more teams.