For the first time in 4 years, the Committee selected the wrong playoff field, though their error wasn't egregious. After Wisconsin fell at the hands of the Buckeyes, I said that I would put Ohio State at #4, but I expected the Committee to choose Alabama. Both choices were easily defensible (to me, at least), but I thought that Ohio State's overall resume was stronger than the Tide's, with wins over the #6 (Wisconsin), #9 (Penn State), and #16 (Michigan State) teams, along with a championship in a pretty tough league, cleansing the sins of an atrocious loss to unranked, 8-4 Iowa. Yes, 2017 Ohio State greatly resembled the memorably snubbed 2016 Penn State, but 2017 Alabama was hardly 2016 Ohio State; in fact, as I wrote a few weeks ago, they more closely resembled 2015 Ohio State, with only one loss, to a pretty good team, but no great wins or even a conference championship on which to hang their hats. I thought the lesson of 2016 was that a great resume could trump the lack of a conference title, but it turns out the lesson was even simpler: don't lose twice (and don't be a Group of 5 team). However...
The Committee - Liars One and All
That's not what the Committee was telling us all along. Going into championship week, the playoff rankings looked like this:
- Ohio State
After releasing these rankings, Committee chairman Kirby Hocutt stated, "There's very little separation between teams 5 through 8." The implication was clear: Clemson/Miami and Auburn/Georgia were pairing off in championship games, with the winner of each in the playoff and the loser almost certainly out; and Oklahoma was win-and-in (maybe even lose-and-still-in), leaving one more spot to fill. Wisconsin was win-and-in, and Alabama was idle, hoping for a Wisconsin loss in order to slide into the top 4, but if there was truly "very little separation" between teams 5 and 8, Ohio State should have had the opportunity to play their way ahead of Alabama with a win over Wisconsin and a conference championship. Note that Wisconsin was specifically NOT included in the "very little separation" range indicated by Hocutt, implying that before championship week, the Committee believed that Wisconsin was clearly superior to Alabama.
You know what happened next. Ohio State beat Wisconsin and won the Big Ten Championship, and then they finished ranked #5, behind Alabama. On Selection Sunday, Kirby Hocutt followed up his earlier comments by stating that Committee's support for Alabama over Ohio State was "widespread," "strong," and "unequivocal." So much for "very little separation"; if a win over a top-4 team and a conference championship isn't enough to close the gap between the two teams, I cannot imagine a possible scenario that would, other than the higher-ranked team losing (and normally you don't need "very little separation" for a team to drop after a loss). But maybe my thinking is too "small picture." Let's look at what else happened on championship weekend:
- Georgia blew out Auburn, diminishing the quality of Alabama's loss.
- Oklahoma blew out TCU (again), strengthening the quality of Ohio State's loss.
- Boise State beat Fresno State, knocking one of Alabama's ranked wins out of the top 25.
- Florida State beat Louisiana-Monroe, giving Alabama one more bowl eligible opponent.
So there are three possibilities for what happened on championship weekend:
- A win over a top 4 opponent and a conference championship, coupled with crippling blows to Alabama's resume and a small boost to Ohio State's, were not enough to make up for "very little separation" between the two teams,
- The Committee was really, really impressed with Florida State's bowl eligibility, or
- The Committee is full of crap and lied about the level of separation between Ohio State and Alabama on November 28th.
As I said above, putting Alabama in ahead of Ohio State is a defensible choice. All the Committee had to say was that losing twice is unacceptable, or losing by 31 is unacceptable (not losing by 27, though, right, Georgia?). But instead, the Committee insisted on making the rankings first and coming up with compelling reasons why second. Even reasons that make no sense, like this gem from the Committee on Selection Sunday:
"The selection committee just favored the whole body of work. As we saw Alabama play week in and week out, the selection committee believed Alabama was the better football team."
Body of work? I thought we put that to rest after Ohio State pulled out 3 ranked wins higher than either of Alabama's (#17 LSU, #23 Mississippi State) and won the Big Ten championship. Interesting point about how you "saw Alabama play" though...
The "Eye Test"
I have always hated the "eye test," by which people can supposedly just watch teams play and suddenly be struck by inspiration regarding which one is better, independent of any further analysis. All too often, it's really just the "I" test, as in "'I' think Team A is better than Team B, and 'I' don't care to give any reasons justifying why." You probably heard plenty of this from Booger McFarland and the other brain geniuses at ESPN on Selection Sunday. Well, the Committee had plenty of opportunities to feast their eyes upon Alabama once November arrived and the cupcake train ended, so what exactly did they see?
- November 5: An ugly win over LSU that saw the Tigers outgain the Tide.
- November 12: An ugly win over Mississippi State that saw the Tide trail into the 4th quarter and tied into the final minute.
- November 19: A paycheck game against an FCS opponent (which Ohio State has not played this year, or this decade).
- November 26: A double digit loss to Auburn.
Really eye-popping results there. This isn't to say Alabama hadn't often looked impressive during the regular season. They beat Vanderbilt 59-0, Ole Miss 66-3, Arkansas 41-9, and Tennessee 45-7. Problem is, all of those teams sucked. Vanderbilt and Tennessee finished 6th and 7th in one of the worst divisions in the Power 5 (the SEC East) with one conference win between them (Vanderbilt beating Tennessee). Arkansas went 4-8 with one conference win, and Ole Miss led the pack at 6-6.
Hey, guess who else blew out a lot of crappy conference teams this year? Ohio State! They beat Rutgers 56-0, Maryland 62-14, Nebraska 56-14, Illinois 52-14, and Michigan State 48-3. Wait...Michigan State finished the regular season 9-3 and ranked #16. Surely Alabama handled some ranked team by more than a couple of scores...no? Huh. Better rethink that "eye test" then.
Going into the Big Ten championship game, I thought that a big blowout win over Wisconsin (remember 59-0?) would put Ohio State in the playoff, while a close win would keep them out. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought "why would it matter?" The Buckeyes already dismantled the Spartans in a win as impressive as any win by any playoff contender. Why should the Committee care if they did it again?
Take Off the Tinfoil Hats
Yes, I think the Buckeyes should have been in the playoff. No, I don't think that selecting Alabama was indefensible (even if the reasons given were). And no, I don't think UCF deserved to be within a whiff of the semifinals. Almost as annoying as the "eye test" crowd we already discussed are the "the fix is in" crowd who insisted that the Committee selected Alabama because [the bowls/ESPN/the money gods] told them to. Yes, Alabama draws lots of eyes. More than Ohio State? Not likely. And certainly not when matched up against Georgia. ESPN is heading for another SEC vs. SEC title game ratings nightmare like back in 2012, even if tickets are going for more than $2,000 a pop thanks to both teams' proximity to the title game location (Atlanta).
As for UCF, a Group of 5 team isn't going to crack the playoff absent extraordinary circumstances. The Knights had a nice campaign, but beating Maryland and ducking Georgia Tech out of conference aren't going to move the needle nearly far enough to pass Alabama, Ohio State, USC, or even the likes of Penn State, Auburn, or Miami. Someday a Group of 5 team will make the playoff, but it'll take a combination of a team like 2016 Houston, with a big marquee win like Oklahoma to cling to, with a field like this year's, lacking an obvious choice for #4.
And stop with the self-awarded National Championship. You're embarrassing yourselves.
Speaking of embarrassing, how about the bowl performances from the Pac-12? East coast bias was in full effect this bowl season, as the Conference of Champions went 1-7, including giant eggs laid by USC, Washington, and Washington State against Big Ten opponents in the conference's marquee matchups. The ACC and SEC didn't do too well either, though two playoff wins took the SEC back to nearly .500, where they'll stay after going 1-1 in the championship next week. But our boys, the B1G, completed a darn near perfect bowl season, with only You-Know-Who choosing to Harbaugh an easy win away.
What does all this mean? Not much. SEC homers will complain that having two teams in the playoffs pulled the rest of their teams up a bowl slot, resulting in unfavorable matchups. But the B1G also put 3 teams into the New Year's Six, and they went 3-0 and didn't lose to a Group of 5 team. Big picture, bowls are only one piece of the conference supremacy puzzle. And conference supremacy doesn't mean much, either. Conferences don't win games; teams do. The SEC didn't get two teams into the playoff because the Committee thought the SEC was so great, or the Big Ten was terrible. Alabama and Georgia just managed to be the only teams standing with fewer than 2 losses when the dust cleared.
The New Resume Comparison - Alabama vs. Ohio State
But just for fun, in the light of such bowl performances, let's take a look at how Alabama's and Ohio State's resumes have changed since Selection Sunday:
Ohio State's opponents:
Indiana, UNLV, Rutgers, Maryland, Nebraska, and Illinois did not play
Army beat Navy, then beat San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl
Penn State beat Washington in the Fiesta Bowl
Iowa beat Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl
Michigan State beat Washington State in the Holiday Bowl
Michigan lost to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl
Wisconsin beat Miami in the Orange Bowl
Oklahoma lost to Georgia in the Rose Bowl
Ohio State beat USC in the Cotton Bowl
So Ohio State notched another great win, its three top opponents all notched more quality wins, including 2 in the New Year's Six, while their top loss took a hit to Georgia.
Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mercer did not play
Florida State beat Southern Miss in the Independence Bowl
Fresno State beat Houston in the Hawai'i Bowl
Colorado State lost to Marshall in the New Mexico Bowl
Texas A&M lost to Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl
LSU lost to Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl
Mississippi State beat Louisville in the Taxslayer Bowl
Auburn lost to UCF in the Peach Bowl
Alabama beat Clemson in the Sugar Bowl
Obviously Alabama beating Clemson is a huge deal, but Alabama's opponents didn't score a single quality win in bowl season, other than Louisville (woo), with Alabama's top win (LSU) and only loss (Auburn) suffering upset losses.
What does this prove? Not a whole lot, other than to gently suggest to the "Alabama's win proved that the Committee was right" crowd that the picture isn't quite as cut-and-dry as they'd like to think.
Ex Ante (Or, Hindsight Is 2018)
Not that the Committee needs bowl results to vindicate their decisions. Every year (maybe less so in 2015) the Committee's selections have stirred up controversy. And every year, fans and analysts try to use playoff results to judge playoff selection. 2014 Ohio State won the playoff so they must have belonged. 2016 Ohio State and Washington got waxed so maybe Penn State was the better option. 2017 Alabama stomped Clemson so the Committee made the right choice. This is hindsight bias at its finest. The Committee doesn't have the luxury of a crystal ball showing them how teams will perform going forward; and it's not their job to pick the four teams they think have the best chance to win the playoff. Their mandate is to select the best four teams based on the performances the teams have provided. You could have a (Power 5) team that takes care of business, wins all of its games, then enters the playoff and does a total face plant (2014 Florida State). Doesn't mean the team shouldn't have been there. You could have a team hit a stumbling block, enter the field as #4 and a step behind the rest, and run the table and win (2014 Ohio State, probably 2017 Alabama). Doesn't mean that they were the correct selection, particularly if a team snubbed by the Committee also has an impressive bowl performance (2014 TCU, 2017 Ohio State). You never know how any team will perform on any given day in the future; you can only reward teams for what they have accomplished already. And speaking of not knowing how teams will perform...
Leading up to the Big Ten Championship game, the great debate in Buckeye Nation, apart from whether Ohio State would jump Alabama with a win over Wisconsin, was whether Buckeye fans wanted Ohio State to leap into the top 4. 31-0 was fresh on people's minds, not to mention the Iowa City Massacre, and did we really want this team, with terrible [JT/linebackers/secondary/special teams/playcalling/Urban in general] to face Clemson and get slaughtered again?
Then you saw the Cotton Bowl. Then you saw the performance Clemson gave in the Sugar Bowl semifinal. Anyone still want to claim that Clemson probably would have run Ohio State out of the building? Maybe; we'll never know what a game between those two specific teams would have looked like. But that's entirely the point. You can't win the playoff if you're not in the playoff, and though sometimes you get smacked down (Clemson) or pantsed by an inferior opponent (Florida) or just get solidly beat (LSU), sometimes YOU get to be the Florida, or the Iowa, ruining some other team's season. All it takes is the other team not bringing its A-game, or your defensive line getting to the QB on darn near every play, or JT playing downright unconscious, all of which we have seen this very season in Ohio State games against top opponents, and suddenly it's the Buckeyes lifting the championship trophy once again.
Do you feel satisfied with a Cotton Bowl win? Doesn't at least part of you wish you could see the Buckeyes playing Georgia this Monday?
Expansion Solves Nothing
Of course, that debate would have been moot if the playoff field had comprised 8 teams instead of 4. Every year, the fans that aren't terrified of their team making the playoff, but nevertheless find themselves on the outside looking in, demand that the playoff field expand to 8 teams. What does the Committee know, anyway (the fix is in!); wouldn't we be better off if we decided the championship on the field instead of in a board room? The expansion proposal most often bandied around these days is to give auto-bids to the five Power 5 champions, another auto-bid for the top Group of 5 champion, and two at-large bids. This is somehow supposed to create less controversy. There are several problems with this approach:
- Complacency. If each Power 5 champion makes the playoff regardless of how they perform on the field, there is zero incentive to schedule aggressively in an attempt to set a a team apart from the pack. But it gets worse: you know that lovely NFL tradition of a team resting its starters after they've wrapped up a playoff spot? Imagine a Power 5 team clinching its division a week early, then taking Rivalry Week off to rest up for the conference championship and a possible playoff berth. The sound you just heard was me vomiting violently.
- Diminishing the regular season. For all the bluster that's been spent on how Ohio State or Alabama deserved to make the playoff, just consider these teams' championship cases would look if we were under the old 2-team playoff, aka the BCS. There would've been a fierce battle for the top two spots among Clemson, Oklahoma, and Georgia, but Alabama and Ohio State would have been laughed out of the discussion. Like it or not, Ohio State's loss to Iowa was nearly absolved thanks to the 4-team playoff, and had Alabama taken care of business against Auburn and Georgia, Ohio State would have been in the playoff at #4 with 2 losses, including a 31 point loss to an unranked team. Part of what makes college football special is that every loss is devastating, and every playoff expansion makes losses a little more tolerable, until we reach NFL-style loss apathy.
- No less controversy. Oh, so the #5 and #6 teams have been complaining about being left out? That really burns your biscuits, 2014 TCU and Baylor, and 2016 Penn State, and 2017 Ohio State? Well, let's look at the top nine rankings from each playoff season, plus each highest ranked Group of 5 team, with the playoff field under the above 8 team proposal bolded.
1. Alabama 1. Clemson
2. Oregon 2. Alabama
3. Florida State 3. Michigan State
4. Ohio State 4. Oklahoma
5. Baylor 5. Iowa
6. TCU 6. Stanford
7. Mississippi State 7. Ohio State
8. Michigan State 8. Notre Dame
9. Mississippi 9. Florida State
20. Boise State 18. Houston
1. Alabama 1. Clemson
2. Clemson 2. Oklahoma
3. Ohio State 3. Georgia
4. Washington 4. Alabama
5. Penn State 5. Ohio State
6. Michigan 6. Wisconsin
7. Oklahoma 7. Auburn
8. Wisconsin 8. USC
9. USC 9. Penn State
15. Western Michigan 12. UCF
In 2014, I don't think Michigan State would have been too thrilled to be left out in favor of Mississippi State. 2015 would have been pretty cut and dry, other than the outcry over three Big Ten teams making the field (though there wasn't any controversy over the 4 teams that made that year's real-life playoff field). As for 2016, remember the USC team that everyone was salivating over, the one that inexplicably ended up ranked #3 after beating Penn State by 3 in the Rose Bowl? Out, in favor of putting another three Big Ten teams in the playoff. And in 2017, Auburn would find themselves left out at #7 in favor of USC, and so would've a Penn State team that lost two games by a combined 4 points. And just look at that murderer's row of Group of 5 teams. Anyone want to claim that any of them would have hung with the #1 team any of those 4 years? The only one with a prayer was this year's UCF team, but otherwise, they would just be wasting a spot and adding another playoff snoozer (like so many crappy conference champions do in March Madness).
Two teams was too few. Eight teams is too many. Four teams is just right.
Best 4 vs. Most Deserving
But which four teams are just right? The "best" four, or the "most deserving"? What does this distinction even mean? The Committee, of course, claims to select the four "best" teams, but, as we discussed above, nothing they say matters except the final rankings. Usually, when people talk about the "best" teams, they mean the teams they would expect to give the best performance in a hypothetical future playoff game. In other words, who would be the Vegas favorites against other playoff contenders? Unfortunately, this presents the same problem as the "eye test" discussed above: judgments are made independently of the team's body of work. Remember that USC team from 2016? The one that ended up ranked #3? There's a reason they didn't make the playoff: they had three losses, including losing by 46 to Alabama. Remember 2015 Ohio State, the one that sent the best draft class ever to the NFL? They didn't make the playoff either, because they lost the one big game they played.
Of course, "most deserving" presents problems as well. Was 2016 Penn State "deserving" because they had a conference championship and Ohio State didn't? Could the same be said for 2017 Ohio State vis-a-vis Alabama? Did Western Michigan and UCF "deserve" to make the playoff after doing the best they could with the schedule they were presented?
The truth is somewhere in the middle. The playoff field should be, not the 4 "best teams," but the 4 teams that had the best seasons, taking into account who they played, who they beat, how many losses they had, and whether they won a championship along the way. In other words, pretty much the way the Committee picks the teams now (gobbledygook aside). Is the process subjective? Definitely. But what's the alternative? What's the objective way to select 4 teams out of a field of 130 teams playing schedules too widely disparate to easily compare and too short to adequately analyze? One way to make the process more "objective" would be to add computer rankings or some other analytic, but fans start to froth at the mouth when anything smacking of the BCS is proposed. After all, those "objective" computers left #1 USC out of the title game in 2004 and put Alabama in the 2012 BCS championship in a rematch with LSU. And what did the fans demand in response? That the computers be thrown out and replaced with, well, a committee of people who knew what they were talking about and had time to carefully consider the decisions they were making (not the SIDs filling out the coaches' poll because the coach doesn't have time or motivation to).
For all the controversy surrounding the Playoff Committee, they got the playoff field right 3 years in a row, and they almost nailed it again this year. Almost.