Evaluating the College Football Playoff

by JDCam 12.04.14

The College Football Playoff is an initiative of pure genius. In its inaugural year there are no losers in this process. Fans of powerful also-rans of recent years see the potential for their team to finally get the recognition it deserves. It raises the stakes in an already brilliant slate of conference games week after week. It eliminates the constant complaining of numerous programs that their nuanced and delicately balanced season is dictated by a computerized formula. The compelling drama plays out on national television every Tuesday night with the College Football Playoff committee releasing its top 25 teams and the all-important top four. There are no losers in this process. Yet.

A closer examination of both the initial committee members and the guidelines the committee are required to follow is a fascinating process. The 12 person committee includes an athletic director from each of the power 5 conferences (ACC, BIG10, BIG12, PAC12 and SEC) as well as a former Air Force Academy Super-Intendant (Michael C. Gould), former NCAA Executive Vice President (Tom Jernstedt), a former US Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice), a former USA Today reporter (Steve Wieberg), former Big East Commissioner (Mike Tranghese) and a former coach of multiple collegiate programs (Tyrone Willingham).

Will the committee end up being more heavily criticized than the BCS system?

Will the committee end up being more heavily criticized than the BCS system?

The formation of the panel was always set to be controversial. The original goal was for the panel to consist of current Athletic Directors, former coaches and a third group of voters from other professions and endeavors. The appointment of Rice was the most debated, former Auburn coach Pat Dye pulled no punches when he declared that ‘All she knows about football is what somebody told her’. This comment, indicative of an unfathomable level of sexism and ignorance simply underlines just how critical is remains that the panel include personnel that have NO football background. This is a process of objective judgment based upon a clearly stated series of guidelines given to the committee. A football background, it could be argued, could cloud the judgment of panel members just as similarly as it could enhance it.

The selection protocol dictates that their goal is to ‘Establish a committee that will be instructed to place an emphasis on winning conference championships, strength of schedule and head-to-head competition when comparing teams with similar records and pedigree (treat final determination like a tie-breaker; apply specific guidelines).’

These specific guidelines include:

  • Championships won
  • Strength of Schedule
  • Head-to-head competition (if it occurred)
  • Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory)

With only a week left in the college football season before selection Sunday we have a pretty clear picture of which teams are competing for the all-important top four spots. Alabama and Oregon, currently No 1 and 2 in the rankings, seem locks as long as they take care of business in their conference title games against Missouri and Arizona respectively. Florida State, the only remaining unbeaten, continues to eke out wins against sub-par opposition but bizarrely have looked so vulnerable they are beginning to seem indestructible. Who would bet against them this weekend, even against an incredibly dangerous and underrated Georgia Tech team? The fourth spot remains up for grabs, with TCU, Baylor and Ohio St the most likely suitors.

Many believe Baylor, who hold the head to head tie-breaker, should be ahead of TCU.

Many believe Baylor, who hold the head to head tie-breaker, should be ahead of TCU.

Big 12 Claim – Frogs or Bears?

The committee’s evaluation of the BIG12 is mired with several complications. Assuming TCU and Baylor both win this weekend (against ISU and Kansas State) both teams will finish the season at 11-1. There is no BIG12 Championship game and the conference has indicated it will present TCU and Baylor as co-conference champions and let the committee sort out the mess.

Most current metrics rank the Horned Frog’s resume substantially tougher than the Bears. Through week 14 the Frogs had 4 wins against top 25 opposition to Baylor’s 2. Problematically one of those two top 25 wins for the Bears came in an insane 61-58 comeback win at home to the Frogs. Looking at teams comparative outcomes of common opponents is only useful if we compare the margin of victory. TCU squeaked by then No 4 Oklahoma by 4 points at home while Baylor crushed a declining No 15 Sooner team in Norman by 24 points. How do we truly compare these results? The Oklahoma team that TCU defeated was not the same one that the Bears dominated. The Oklahoma matchup is merely one example of the infinite number of factors that weigh into the decisions the committee has to make. TCU’s inclusion may ultimately have as much to do with an incredibly surprising season by Minnesota, whom the Frogs dismissed early in the season but which as the season has progressed has become an increasingly high quality win. One final problem is that the selection committee guidelines do not dictate how much weight each of their essential criteria must bear. Should we value head to head, comparative outcomes, or strength of schedule more?

TCU just leapfrogged Florida State for the No 3 position.

TCU just leapfrogged Florida State for the No 3 position.

The one aspect of this that seems to be stumping and frustrating fans more than any other is a new lens through which the committee seems to be looking at teams through – the eye test. How else could we explain TCU jumping and unbeaten Florida State to No 3 and seemingly pulling further ahead of Baylor after the Bears 48-46 squeaker over Texas Tech? The committee seems to be declaring that TCU is simply a better team than Baylor. Whether correct or incorrect (this weekend will go a long way to determining the answer) this is a refreshing a novel way to look at an incredibly fluid top 25. The idea that a team can still be judged as superior to another with a similar record who bested them is difficult to conceive but a beautiful leap into open-mindedness for a system that under its previous guise was criticized for being too narrow and unaccommodating. This will be a difficult adjustment, but one we must make.

JT Barrett was making a legitimate Heisman case before his season-ending injury.

JT Barrett was making a legitimate Heisman case before his season-ending injury.

Barrett’s injury and the Ohio State question

Sandwiched between the two North Texas schools is current No 5 Ohio State. Their season looked lost when standout QB Braxton Miller went down pre-season with a season ending injury and they lost at home to a since pitiful Virginia Tech team. Cue J.T Barrett who had an incredible freshman season and emerged as a legitimate Heisman contender until a gruesome ankle injury against Michigan ended his season. OSU are now left with third string QB Cardale Jones to compete against a Wisconsin team that may have had playoff designs of their own if it weren’t for an awful loss at Northwestern. There has been much conjecture in the media about OSU’s ranking being adversely affected by how the committee perceive they may play in the absence of Barrett, who has single handedly inspired the team to its current position. This seems like a ridiculous conversation to have! Surely Ohio State has to be judged on what they have accomplished this season…to this point. Their season defining win in East Lansing against a fancied Michigan State team catapulted them from also-rans to a legitimate playoff contender. Perhaps another Heisman candidate, Melvin Gordon (who hammered the final nail in the Bo Pellini coffin with his 408 yard bamboozling of Nebraska) will decide OSU’s fate for them. The only clear understanding currently is just what a headache the selection committee will have if Ohio State, TCU and Baylor all win this weekend. Just to think, (particularly for those already insisting that the 4 team system is more exclusionary than its BCS predecessor and others already clamoring for an 8 or 12 team system) this is only the first year of this incredibly complex and potentially controversial new four team system. ESPN’s contract for the current format is only in place for the next 12 years.


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