A college football playoff hits newsstands in 2014-15. Excited? So are we. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, Sam McKewon and Dirk Chatelain traded emails about the biggest sports development of the summer. They started with a question: What would you suggest the selection committee consider in measuring the nation’s top teams?
Now that a college football playoff is a reality, the easiest — and worst — thing to do is presume it’ll fly smoothly on the wings of the communal celebration. It won’t. Much like the Bowl Championship Series severely overfunctioned and created more problems than it presumably solved — which was, simply, to prevent split national championships — the new four-team playoff could turn into a real mess. By including the bowls in the process, it’s already more convoluted than it needs to be. And I fear, once a selection committee is put together, you’ll have the same old set of competing interests and conflicting loyalties. When you’re quibbling over the 69th team in the NCAA Tournament, that’s fine. When it’s the paper-thin difference between teams No. 4 and No. 5, it’s not.
So if I were going to start anywhere — the old, thoroughly average high school debater I used to be — it’d be here: Topicality. Define the criteria that determines “best.” And to me, that begins with the rigor of the exam. The degree of difficulty. The strength of schedule. Use math. Use well-written standards that, unlike most criminal law, is not so easily bent to multiple truths. But, before you decide how well the gymnast executed a routine, find out how hard the routine really is.
Trouble is, you’ll have a hard time getting two people to agree on the selection criteria, let alone 15. I don’t think difference of opinion is a bad thing. I don’t think consensus should be the goal of the committee — this isn’t “12 Angry Men.” If you have disagreement on who should be No. 4, fine. Settle it with votes. And make those votes public.
I agree that strength of schedule needs to be more important. You know, one of the consequences of realignment is it created a larger imbalance between the major conferences. Twenty years ago, we just assumed an undefeated team from a major conference was more deserving than a one-loss team from a major conference. And one-loss teams were better than two-loss teams. Now, because there’s such of a gulf between the SEC and, say, the ACC, it’s very hard to rank contenders, especially when there’s such a dearth of competitive non-conference games.
So measuring strength of schedule in college football is very difficult. My hope is that a human committee will publicly emphasize strength of schedule and, as a result, the top programs (even those in the big, bad SEC) will feel more pressure to ditch the September cupcakes. I’m skeptical, though. (It’s one reason I thought the playoff should’ve been limited to conference champs. If that were the case, you’d basically remove the penalty for scheduling — and potentially losing — nonconference games.)
One of the big problems of the BCS system was that a team like Utah, Boise State, etc., could go undefeated and STILL not get a national title shot. Moving to a 4-team playoff makes that scenario less likely, but still possible.
The selection committee will speak as one, I’m sure; the process doesn’t work if it looks like every decision came down to a narrow split vote. That’s just how committees like this work.
And I’ll say this for the criteria: If it’s the criteria, it’s the criteria. That’s why getting it right is important. The process should not be organic, or left up to the vagaries of whichever way the media wind blows. That’s why any committee I create would have 12 members, with eight of them (four ex-coaches, four ex-players, with alternates, of course) signing three-year contracts to the process. It must have continuity and some sense of collectivism. Something the coaches can schedule to and play to — or *not* schedule to and play to.
A long-standing complaint of coaches — and Bob Stoops has been a prominent one — is not knowing what the old BCS voters/formula really wanted from a team. If you were to ask Stoops, I suspect he’d hold winning at home in high regard. Protect your house. And his teams have, better than anyone. Then they’ll stub their toe on the road. How does that look, compared to LSU in 2007, losing to its rival on the day after Thanksgiving?
Give the coaches clear guidelines to shoot for, then pick to those guidelines. People will carp for a few days no matter what the criteria is, but you know what? Then they’ll know. And they can do with it what they will. Yes, conference champions are preferable. But that all flows from the degree of difficulty to me. It matters which conference you win. And how you win it. And if your degree of difficulty is low, ace the routine. Win games by 30, 40, 50. Play to the playoff. You’ll see teams run up the score now. Teams run up the score all the time in college basketball and college baseball. You ever seen a college basketball team let the shot clock expire for four straight possessions for fear of hurting the opponents’ feelings? Or college baseball lineups strike out on purpose? Me neither.
I guess I’d hate to see an undefeated Utah 2008, TCU 2010 left out. I’m not shedding a tear for Cincinnati 2009.
But there’s no perfect blueprint for measuring college football teams. It’s subjective. Always has been, always will be. Don’t try to eliminate subjectivity. Don’t bind yourself to a specific set of criteria. Put 12 smart people in a room (ex-coaches, ex-players, administrators, small-college coaches, etc.) and tell them to come out with a top four. The biggest potential improvement from the polls and computers isn’t spelling out the path to selection, it’s putting more credible people in charge (people who, you know, actually watch the games) and making the process more transparent.
If you wish to respond to any of that, please do. If not, let me move the conversation forward with this question: Who has the most to gain and most to lose from Tuesday’s news?
Just because the criteria isn’t “perfect” doesn’t mean it then must be “perfectly subjective.” The middle ground is a ruleset. Or at least core values.
Moving on. Biggest winners: Sports reporters. We got what we wanted and we’ll still moan about what we didn’t get. Second place: Preseason magazines devoting pages to playoff projections. Phil Steele goes 12 pages with every formula known to mankind. Third prize: Vegas. Fourth: The players, who get their weeklong vacay at the bowl site, plus a bonus business trip if they win. ADs are winners, in a sense. They have a new money pitch to donors. Want a playoff berth? Build us an end zone facility with a player nacho station!
Biggest losers: The coaches. The playoff creates another tier of success to meet, and while the bonuses for making it will be sick, just think: A coach could win 100 games in ten years and never go to the playoff. In fact, I predict it will happen. And the coaches who make it have the most hellish December of their lives, prepping for three teams and working around finals, Christmas schedules, kids’ families. Yuck-o.
The fans are in the middle and here’s why: College football is a culture, and at the center of it is the coach. Every time one of these generals gets a hair out of place, the fan base gets bent out of shape. This playoff idea is going to implant an expectation inside people’s minds of what success is, and not making the cut will tick people off. Under any system you use, Iowa’s probably never made the playoff. Maybe in 1985, but that’s it. That’s kind of stunning. How about zero for Texas A&M in the last 20 years? Those streaks will be used. You’ll hear those words very soon.
Interesting that you mentioned those week-long vacations at bowl sites. The major bowls (Fiesta, Rose, Sugar, etc.) haven’t been the same since 1998 when the BCS started, essentially relegating them to warm-up acts for the national title game. But I wonder if they lose their identity even MORE by being part of the playoff.
Think about it. Why do bowls give coaches and players the warm fuzzies? Because bowl officials treat them like kings. They shower them with gifts, parade them all over town. Teams show up a week in advance just to take it all in. Well, how much of that is going to happen when there’s potentially another game the next week? My hunch is teams will treat it like a regular road game. Show up 24-48 hours before kickoff and focus on football. Forget the pomp. Forget the free iPads. For that reason, the major bowls (even the Rose Bowl) might’ve been better off existing outside the playoff structure, even if it meant accepting inferior teams.
Regarding the coaches and fans, and tiers of success, I think we first argued this point on the way from the Wyoming game. You speculated, I believe, that administrators and coaches were resistant to the playoff because it would ratchet up the pressure. I disagreed then and I disagree now. Yes, the money and exposure is bigger, so the stakes are higher. But I don’t see much difference between falling short of the BCS title game and falling short of the playoff. If anything, the new system opens the door for two more teams. In the BCS era, there were two teams in the top tier of success and eight more in BCS bowl games. That’s 10 total. Now, with the semifinals rotating among six bowls instead of four, you could make an argument that 12 teams will qualify for “major” bowls, even if only four make the playoff.
As for schools like Iowa and Texas A&M, c’mon, they’ve never really chased national championships anyway. They’re content with top-25 finishes and above-average bowl games. So are their fans (which is why Kirk Ferentz makes more money than General Electric). Will there be heat on Alabama and Oklahoma to make the playoffs? Of course. But their fans weren’t exactly satisfied with Fiesta Bowls and Sugar Bowls before. Remember, Oklahoma fans were ticked at Big-Game Bob for losing BCS bowl games to Boise State and West Virginia.
Let me add two more “winners” to the list. No. 1, the regular season. All the huffing and puffing about a playoff tarnishing “the sanctity of the regular season” was always illogical. And we’re about to see why. On Halloween 2010, the top five teams in the BCS rankings were the only undefeated teams left: Oregon, Auburn, TCU, Boise State, Utah. Because of their schedules, those five were essentially the only teams with a shot of winning the national championship. Five teams on Oct. 31. Nobody else mattered. Compare that to a four-team playoff, where entering Thanksgiving weekend, you could legitimately see 10 teams still in contention. And yet, the bar is still high enough where you have to be really, really good to make it.
The second winner is the SEC. The league enjoys such a perception advantage right now that it benefits significantly by avoiding the “conference champions” clause. If the SEC and Pac-12, for instance, have teams on the bubble, the SEC will get the bid based upon reputation. The league also wins by avoiding home-site semifinals. Granted, it would’ve been extremely difficult for Ohio State or Texas or Oregon to win a semifinal at Bryant-Denny Stadium. But those SEC coaches would rather take lie-detector tests on National Signing Day than spend New Year’s in Ann Arbor.
My hunch is teams will not treat the semifinal game like that at all. They’ll do as they’ve always done. Coaches aren’t going to rob the kids of that experience. And those semifinal games will be big enough that fans will follow to the site itself. Will they go to the national title game? Maybe not — but they won’t have to, either. That’ll be like the Super Bowl. A corporate event. Which is fine.
As for the coaches… what was the complaint about Roy Williams for about 12 years there at Kansas? That he didn’t make a Final Four. What’d they say about Gene Keady? Norm Stewart? John Chaney? And, now hold it. If the bowls just became less important — if they’re diminished — how do the coaches somehow get more credit for making the games? I don’t think the bowls change in nature — they’ll be the same things they always are — but they do change in perception. But if the bowls change in nature — if teams put less emphasis on them — they’ll certainly change in perception.
I agree the regular season will improve, but I never felt like the regular season had much of a relationship to the postseason from a fan’s perspective. I think TV rights holders worry about it. Especially ESPN, which structures a zillion hours of programming around the regular season.
Yes, the SEC avoids playing a game in Big Ten country. Considering the SEC’s advantage was and is more about lax recruiting rules rather than where a game’s played, I don’t think it matters much in the wash.
I’ll leave it here: You talk about having a “high bar” to get in. That, to me, suggests a degree-of-difficulty template. Again: A perfectly-executed high jump at six-feet, 11-inches, may look prettier than the bar wobbling on a seven-foot, four-inch attempt, but if the bar stays up, guess who wins the competition? That’s why I’m saying: Define “tough.” Give the coaches an outline. Heck, give them input on what the criteria should be. But give them criteria.
Even better, make them win their conference to qualify for the playoff. Ahhh, that’s another argument for another day. Judging by my calendar, we have 918 more days to talk playoffs. Hope you all enjoyed the debate. Thanks for reading.