We do this every March. A committee meets together to pick and seed the top 68 college basketball teams in America to play in what most would consider to be the best annual tournament in all of sports. Every year, 2 or 3 teams have a legitimate and reasonable argument that they got snubbed over a team that they feel may be less deserving. It isn’t perfect, but how could it be?
Speaking of not perfect…let’s talk about the system we currently have in place to select which teams get to advance to the college football playoffs. Distinguishing between the 68th and the 67th best team, as they do in basketball, is always going to be controversial. It will never be as important or as criticized of a decision, however, as it is in football where they have to leave home very good teams as they can only pick 4.
So how did we get to this point? While if you are a bitter Penn State, Michigan, or even an Oklahoma fan it might be hard to admit-but we are doing a better job deciding who the best college football team is than we used to. A much better job.
From 1998 through 2013 we suffered through the BCS where we had some fancy set of computer modules deciding who the top 2 teams in the country were to play in a “National Championship Game”. If that didn’t make you throw up in your mouth let’s not forget what we were doing before the BCS. Before the BCS, we just played all of the games and hoped that after all of the bowl games, that the Associated Press and the Coach’s poll had the same team in the #1 slot in their season ending weekly poll.
So here we are, currently using a committee whose sole job is to select and seed the top 4 teams in the country. This is different than picking the teams with the 4 best seasons and it is very different than picking exclusively from teams that won their conference. There are 5 power conferences and only 4 playoff slots so the math doesn’t work.
I hear you Penn State fans the loudest. You won enough conference games to make the championship game and played well enough in that game to win it. You feel like you deserve a spot but who do you pull out? The obvious answer is Ohio State. You beat them head to head in addition to winning the Big 10. The committee’s job, however, is to pick the best 4 teams. Another way to put it would be to select the 4 teams most likely to be able to win the whole thing.
Penn State beat Ohio State by the narrowest of margins in the most hostile of venues on the freakiest of plays. How many football fans outside the state of Pennsylvania, honestly think that had those 2 teams played in a neutral setting that Penn State would have beaten Ohio State that night? What is more important, is how many people think Penn State would beat Ohio State on a neutral field today? Probably not a lot. That is what the committee’s job was to decide and they made the right choice. Again, they aren’t asked to pick the 4 teams that had the best seasons within their conference but to pick the best 4 teams. No one wanted Ohio State in the tournament the first year either-and then they won the whole thing.
Do you want to take Washington out because of the Huskie’s weak schedule? Was yours that much better? They also won their championship and had one less loss as well. Michigan had some big wins (including Penn State) and gave Ohio State everything they could handle in the Shoe. Had they won that game they would have been in the Big 10 Championship. Should they be in? Oklahoma played a very challenging non conference schedule and won their conference, should they be in?
So why even bother playing the conference championship games if it doesn’t guarantee you a spot? In the NFL, whichever team wins their division gets a guaranteed spot in the playoffs and a home playoff game. It is different in the NFL though. If the San Diego Chargers, for example, go 6-0 in their division but lose the rest of their games to finish 6-10 they will not qualify for the playoffs. The rest of the season still needs to matter. It also still needs to mater who else you play during those non conference matches. If teams were rewarded for winning their conference only, they will stop playing challenging non conference games. We don’t want to encourage that do we?
The committee did their job and picked the best 4 teams. The system still seems flawed, however. Would adding more teams to the playoff solve the problem? How many teams do we need? 6? 8? What do we do with a team like Western Michigan who goes undefeated deserve a spot in that expanded playoff scenario? Should a power 5 conference champion get an automatic spot? If they get an automatic spot should they be guaranteed one of the top 5 slots? What if another conference evolves into a consistent power conference?
There probably isn’t a perfect solution. Hats off to the committee for getting it right, at least under the current format. Probably.