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.