Student of the Game is a weekly column by Sam Pouncey (an over-worked and over-caffeinated medical student) examining various aspects of the world of sport. The goal of the column is fairly simple: to provide quality and original content that the reader will find both entertaining and informative. As always, hopefully you will enjoy this. Feedback and suggestions for future column topics are always welcome.
What do we want from the playoff committee? This seems like a fairly easy question, and an important one. Before we can begin to decide whether the committee got it right or not, we have to answer this question. Today, we’ll answer that question looking at the different arguments against it and comparing to its predecessor, the dreaded Bowl Championship Series.
The Two C’s: Consistency and Clarity
There have been plenty of people railing against the committee in the last few weeks on the basis of their guidelines being unclear and the committee breaking precedent. Let us examine those claims for a moment.
Anyone who claims that the guidelines aren’t clear obviously has not read the committee’s protocol which I will attach here. It is quite long, but here’s the crux of the document: “Establish a committee that will be instructed to place emphasis on winning conference championships, strength of schedule, and head-to-head competition when comparing teams with similar record and pedigree.” That last part is underlined and put in bold, because that’s the line all the “conference-championships-trump-all” arguers conveniently leave out of their argument. The criteria is clear, pundits just ignore the parts that are less appealing to them and claim lack of clarity.
The example that people cite as the committee breaking precedent is comparing 2014 to this year. If you’ll remember, in 2014 there were six undefeated or one-loss conference champions (co-champions in the Big XII). Ohio State made it, and TCU and Baylor were left out. These same “lack of clarity” goofs are claiming that this set the standard that winning a conference championship game was the most important thing. Wrong. It established that they are important “when comparing teams with similar record and pedigree.” In 2014, there were six deserving teams and the four conference championship games provided the four winners with another opportunity to perform against a quality opponent on a neutral field. It didn’t matter that they were conference championship games, it mattered that it was another opportunity for these teams to distinguish themselves against two other teams with the same record and comparable resumes before the game. That’s not what happened this year.
Comparing 2016 to 2014 is a straw man argument propped up by people who either hate the committee, like to complain, are Penn State fans (understandable), or just don’t know what they are talking about. Here’s a little secret: 11-1 and 11-2 aren’t similar records. 11-1 is a .917 winning percentage, while 11-2 is a modest .846. If you still think those are comparable, the next time you or your kid (if you are out of school) brings home a “B” in a class because he/she/you got averaged an 85% go to your or your child’s teacher and tell the teacher that he/she/you deserve an “A” because “85% is similar to 92%”. While you’re at it, get the teacher’s response in writing and forward it to me because I want to read it.
Preserve the Integrity of the Regular Season and Conference Championships
People hate the playoff committee because it is “watering down the regular season and diminishing games.” Seriously? Playoff expansion does that regardless of the system that chooses the field. Here’s the truth: in a 12- or 13-game season every game does matter, but some games matter more than others. Anyone would happily say, “Of course I know that.” However, those are the same people saying that the playoffs are diminishing the regular season and the conference championship games. Once again, that’s a playoff thing not a committee thing.
This leaves college football fans with a really tough choice. Keep the playoff small potentially leaving out deserving teams and preserve the sentiment that “every game matters”, or expand the playoff to include all the conference champions and a few at-larges to cover your bases and “water down” the regular season. I don’t know what the right answer to that is, and honestly not even sure which of those two arguments I lean toward. The main point is that you can’t have it both ways. The more the playoff expands the less individual regular season games will matter.
Be Better than the BCS
The biggest complaints about the BCS were that it was too rigid, was influenced too heavily by preseason rankings and that “computers don’t watch football.” The committee has addressed all of these in some form or fashion, but has that led to improvement, regression or no change?
The first two points can really be addressed with one word: fluidity. One big issue people had, especially with the A.P. and Coaches’ polls, were that they were too stagnant. Teams who won tended to stay where they were and teams who lost fell back. That’s still true to an extent, but people wanted the idea that winning more impressively or against a better opponent might give a team the opportunity to leapfrog another team that wins, but does so with fewer “style points”. We especially wanted that when the only reason the two teams were ranked that way to begin with was because that’s how a group of writers and coaches decided the two teams should be ranked before the season started.
In 2014, the college football fans got what they asked for when Ohio State won the Big Ten championship game in convincing fashion and bypassed two teams who didn’t play that weekend. This goes back to the earlier point of conference championship games and their relevance. Once again though, the point isn’t that it’s a conference championship game. The point is that it’s another game against a quality opponent. That still matters, but it also isn’t the only thing that matters.
As for the computers, you asked to substitute an objective system based on the games and their outcomes for the eye test? Bad call. The thing that no one seems ready to admit is that the BCS got it right. When there was controversy, it boiled down to the same thing that happened this year and in 2014 with the committee, which is that there were more deserving teams than there were spots available. There were legitimate arguments in a few seasons (2004 and 2011 stand out), but there was never a case where it was undoubtedly wrong. That’s going to be a problem regardless of who picks the playoff field. The last few teams out are always going to feel slighted and they are always going to complain about the system.
What we Really Want
Anyone you ask is going to say that they want to committee to get it right. That seems fairly obvious, but deciding what is “right” is such a difficult question that it is not that simple. The one legitimate point that the people complaining about clarity have is that trying to decide who the best teams are isn’t nearly as easy as it seems. Does that mean best average? Highest peak? Lowest floor? Best at the end of the season? Biggest pocketbook? Most marketable? That’s the best argument for the protocol being unclear, but it’s also not the argument people are making.
The precedent that the committee has set so far is that the record seems to be the trump card and everything else comes into play when teams have the same record (or at least the same number of losses). The committee has eventually gotten things right in all three season, even if there were some mistakes made in the previous rankings. Until the playoff expands to six or eight (sorry folks who want to “preserve the regular season” you’re going to lose this battle) there is going to be contention every single year.
Pink (or P!nk if you prefer) once wrote a song titled, “Whataya Want From Me”. In my mind’s eye, the committee plays this to open and adjourn every meeting. Here’s what we really want from Kirby Hocutt and company. We want them to get it right…that is unless our team is the 5th best team. Then we want you to find an argument to indulge our fandom, accuracy be damned.