[This is an updated version of a story from 2013.]
The College Football Playoff committee's first season was ... fine.
The weekly rankings, and the reactions to them, were maddening and mostly pointless. And every time committee chairman Jeff Long was asked to justify a placement, he risked contradicting himself (because it's really hard to justify anything before the season ends) or exposing a committee ideal that raised even more questions.
Still, the committee's first four-team selection was fine. All four choices, and their rankings, were justifiable. If they'd have placed No. 5 Baylor or No. 6 TCU in the Playoff instead, that would have been justifiable, too. Six teams had strong cases, and the committee did its best to choose four.
And now we've spent the last eight months over-analyzing it. What does it mean that Ohio State was chosen? Is the Big 12 at a disadvantage because of its lack of a title game despite history suggesting the total opposite? Is any team with a weak non-conference schedule screwed? Everybody should schedule BYU! The Big 12 must add two teams and a conference championship game!
We look at the committee as a if it's court of law that is based on precedent. And in a lot of ways, it will be. Once we've seen it choose a two-loss conference champion over a one-loss team, we'll know how much it values conference titles. Once we've seen it deal with a 13-0 Mountain West champion, we'll know how seriously it takes mid-majors.
So how long will we have to wait for such precedent? Let's take another stroll through the BCS era. How many obvious choices would there have been, had a four-team Playoff been in place? And how often will the committee's selection be as difficult as 2014's?
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 3 (12-0 SEC champion Tennessee, 11-1 ACC champion Florida State, 10-1 Big Ten champion Ohio State)
Contenders: 7 (10-1 Pac-10 champion UCLA, 11-1 Kansas State, 11-2 Big 12 champion Texas A&M, 11-1 Arizona, 10-1 Wisconsin, 11-0 mid-major Tulane)
If you like dramatics, it got no better than 1998. It started when Ohio State, who was seen as the best through two months, lost at home to Nick Saban's Michigan State on Nov. 7.
Before the final weekend, we probably would have had a committee ranking like this:
1. Tennessee (11-0)
2. Kansas State (11-0)
3. UCLA (11-0)
4. Ohio State (10-1)
5. Florida State (10-1)
Then Kansas State lost to Texas A&M in an incredible Big 12 title game and UCLA fell to Miami in a hurricane-postponed shootout. Florida State, a team without an offense because of an injury to Chris Weinke, was suddenly in contention.
The following choice would have helped us determine what the committee values.
In College Football Reference's SRS ratings, Kansas State was easily the highest-rated team above, because of dominance on the field: 48-7 over Texas, 52-20 over Oklahoma State, etc. But the Wildcats slipped against an A&M that had only lost away from College Station, to Florida State and Texas. Does the committee take the champ or the team that was better the whole season?
I figure it actually takes UCLA. The Bruins' conference title (secured without a championship game) gives them an artificial bump over KSU. Tulane, winning by an average score of 45-24 but defeating no team better than 7-5 in the regular season, doesn't even get a sniff.
Likely selection: No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 4 UCLA, No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 3 Ohio State.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 3 (11-0 ACC champion Florida State, 11-0 Big East champion Virginia Tech, 11-1 Big 12 champion Nebraska).
Contenders: 3 (10-2 SEC champion Alabama, 10-1 Kansas State, 9-2 Tennessee, 9-2 Big Ten champion Wisconsin.)
This might have been pretty simple. You've got two undefeated teams and two one-loss teams, one (Nebraska) a conference champion.
The tricky part is that 10-1 Kansas State got romped by 11-1 Nebraska, and that might have caused the committee to look around. In this instance, two-loss SEC champion Alabama begins to look attractive. But what about the two-loss Tennessee squad that whipped Alabama, 21-7, in Tuscaloosa?
This would have given us a "What does the committee think about two-loss conference champions?" precedent. Kansas State was an awesome one-loss team, but Alabama's conference title romp over Florida might have given the Crimson Tide a boost.
The Tide were far from dominant (average score: Bama 29, Opp 20). Plus, they played a weak non-conference slate (Houston, Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss), and the SEC wasn't the SEC!! in 1999. Does that give KSU, with its own woeful non-conference schedule (Temple, UTEP, Utah State), the nod?
Meanwhile, Tennessee's screaming, "I thought head-to-head was supposed to matter!"
Likely selection: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Alabama, No. 2 Virginia Tech vs. No. 3 Nebraska.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 4 (12-0 Big 12 champion Oklahoma, 10-1 ACC champion Florida State, 10-1 Big East champion Miami, 10-1 Pac-10 champion Washington
Contenders: 2 (10-1 Virginia Tech, 10-1 Oregon State).
This season saw one of the first major BCS controversies, thanks to Florida State's title game selection over a Miami team that had defeated it in Coral Gables.
There is no way FSU and Miami don't each make the Playoff semifinals along with obvious No. 1 Oklahoma. The question is which of the three remaining one-loss team gets the nod: a Washington that lost only at 9-2 Oregon by a touchdown? A Virginia Tech that lost only at Miami? An Oregon State that lost only at Washington, by three points?
Virginia Tech and Oregon State would have had cases in other seasons, but Washington, with its win over Miami, gets the nod.
Likely selection: No. 1 Oklahoma vs. No. 4 Washington, No. 2 Miami vs. No. 3 Florida State
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 2 (11-0 Big East champion Miami, 10-1 Pac-10 champion Oregon)
Contenders: 7 (10-2 Big 12 champion Colorado, 11-1 Nebraska, 10-1 Big Ten champion Illinois, 10-1 ACC champion Maryland, 9-2 Florida, 10-2 Tennessee, 10-2 Texas)
For all intents and purposes, 2001 was another 1998-level disaster. Heisman winner Eric Crouch's Nebraska was a clear contender until it got demolished by Colorado, then the Buffs eliminated one-loss Texas. Tennessee was in perfect position but lost to three-loss LSU in the SEC championship. (Once again, Saban ruins BCS ambitions.)
The BCS was left to make order out of flawed contenders: a Nebraska that lost by 26 to Colorado, a Colorado that had two losses (one to Fresno State at home), and a flawed Oregon that lost at home to Stanford and had beaten just one power-conference team with a record better than 7-4.
For most years, I stuck with my "people hate the BCS because it can't fit three teams on one field" theory. (In 2011, it was "people hate the BCS because it couldn't just pick one team.") People were outraged by Nebraska's BCS selection, but I'd have been just as outraged had a Colorado with two losses been selected. Every game matters, not just the head-to-head ones.
With a Playoff, the decision might not be easier. Miami's in, but do you just go with Nebraska, Colorado and Oregon? Does a one-loss champion like Illinois or Maryland get consideration over two-loss Colorado? What about two-loss Tennessee (with wins over four teams with nine or more regular season wins) or two-loss Florida (with losses to Auburn and Tennessee by a combined five points)?
When in doubt, go with conventional wisdom.
Likely selection: No. 1 Miami vs. No. 4 Nebraska, No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Colorado.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 3 (12-0 Big East champion Miami, 13-0 Big Ten co-champion Ohio State, 12-1 SEC champion Georgia.
Contenders: 4 (11-1 Big Ten co-champion Iowa, 10-2 Pac-10 champion Washington State, 10-2 USC, 11-2 Big 12 champion Oklahoma
The 2002 season was one when a two-team "playoff" worked. We had two undefeated teams that stood out all year.
Honestly, having to select two more teams just makes things messy. SEC champion Georgia is in with wins at Alabama and Auburn and a pasting of Arkansas, but after that?
One reaction to 2014's Playoff is that conference titles really could mean bonus points. But that makes 2002's fourth selection tricky. Like Ohio State, Iowa went 8-0 in the Big Ten and claimed the conference title, but the Hawkeyes' lone loss came to a 7-6 Iowa State. Meanwhile, USC lost only at Kansas State and Washington State by a combined 10 points and looked spectacular late, but technically Wazzu, with only losses to Ohio State and Washington, was the conference champion.
Though USC may have been the best team, we'll say the Trojans and Cougars cancel each other out, giving Iowa the edge.
Likely selection: No. 1 Miami vs. No. 4 Iowa, No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Georgia.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 3 (12-1 SEC champion LSU, 11-1 Pac-10 champion USC, 12-1 Oklahoma).
Contenders: 8 (10-2 Big Ten champion Michigan, 10-2 ACC champion Florida State, 10-2 Ohio State, 10-2 Texas, 10-2 Tennessee, 10-2 Big East champion Miami, 10-3 Big 12 champion Kansas State, 12-1 mid-major Miami (Ohio))
This was one of the BCS's most controversial seasons. It had to select two of three flawed teams.
That Oklahoma got in after getting whipped by Kansas State in the Big 12 title rankled many, but I didn't hate the selection. LSU had lost by 12 points at home to an eight-win Florida and USC had lost on the road to an eight-win California. The margin of Oklahoma's loss was off-putting, but they had built distance over LSU and USC before the loss.
Still, it was destined to be a shaky call, and when a hobbled Jason White couldn't maneuver OU past LSU in New Orleans, the first of two straight "Hindsight is 20/20" years had taken full effect.
With a Playoff, the top three selections are obvious. But who gets the fourth spot, among a sea of two-loss contenders? Big Ten champion Michigan, with wins over three nine-wins-or-better teams? ACC champion Florida State, with wins over four eight-wins-or-better teams? Big East champion Miami, which beat Florida State? Tennessee, which beat Miami?
Anytime you open the door to a two-loss team, many candidates begin to have attractive resumes. But a Big Ten champion that ranks No. 4 is probably going to get the nod.
Likely selection: No. 1 LSU vs. No. 4 Michigan, No. 2 USC vs. No. 3 Oklahoma.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 3 (11-0 Pac-10 champion USC, 12-0 Big 12 champion Oklahoma, 12-0 SEC champion Auburn).
Contenders: 3 (10-1 Texas, 10-1 California, 11-0 mid-major Utah).
This season has been used many times as the season that would have fit a four-team Playoff. Four undefeated teams? Perfect!
But what we forget is that Utah wasn't No. 4 in the BCS standings or the AP poll. California topped them in both, and Texas got the nod in the BCS. Does the committee go with Urban Meyer's Utes, or, since no mid-major has yet been included, do they favor a Texas that lost only to Oklahoma (by 12 points in Dallas) or a Cal that lost only to USC (by six points in Los Angeles)? This is one of the only years in which the makeup and intent of the committee could skew us toward one or another.
This is a make-or-break for mid-majors. Not only was Utah undefeated, the Utes had three wins over major-conference teams: Texas A&M (41-21), Arizona (23-6), and North Carolina (46-16). Two were bowl teams. Plus, no Mountain West foe came closer than 14 points. If this team doesn't get picked, would a mid-major ever get picked?
I may be naive or just hopeful, but I think Utah gets the nod. Barely.
Likely selection: No. 1 USC vs. No. 4 Utah, No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Auburn
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 3 (11-0 Pac-10 champion USC, 12-0 Big 12 champion Texas, 10-1 Big Ten champion Penn State).
Contenders: 5 (10-2 SEC champion Georgia, 10-1 Oregon, 9-2 Ohio State, 10-2 Notre Dame, 10-1 Big East champion West Virginia).
2005 was another perfect year for a two-team selection. Opening the field up to four again makes things messy.
One-loss Big Ten champion Penn State gets in, but who gets the fourth spot? Ohio State, which lost only to No. 2 Texas and No. 3 Penn State? Oregon, which lost only to USC? And what about Georgia, coming off a 20-point pasting of 10-1 LSU?
The most interesting aspect comes, obviously, with the presence of Notre Dame. Charlie Weis' first Irish team slipped up early against Michigan State, but since Sept. 17 its only loss had come via Bush Push against USC. Like it or not, a smoking hot, two-loss Notre Dame is going to get serious consideration.
We'll say the committee goes with the SEC champion, especially since giving Oregon the No. 4 would simply result in a rematch with USC.
The main problem is the thought of a committee of old college football folks passing over Ohio State and Notre Dame. Ask any Baylor or TCU fan, who'll tell you that might be hard for the committee.
Likely selection: No. 1 USC vs. No. 4 Georgia, No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 Penn State.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 3 (12-0 Big Ten champion Ohio State, 11-1 SEC champion Florida, 11-1 Michigan).
Contenders: 5 (11-1 Big East champion Louisville, 10-2 Pac-10 champion USC, 10-2 LSU, 11-1 Wisconsin, 12-0 mid-major Boise State)
Like 2001, this appears to be a year where only one team has established an entirely deserving resume. Beyond Heisman winner Troy Smith and Ohio State, you've got a lot of flawed contenders, from a Florida that lost to Auburn, to a Michigan team that had just lost at Ohio State, to a hot LSU that hadn't lost since its early-October trip to Florida, to one-loss Louisville and Wisconsin teams. Again, we've got an undefeated mid-major, wondering why they shouldn't automatically get a bid.
I struggle to see the committee picking LSU, which had two losses and fell to Florida. But do they pass over LSU and USC for a non-name in Louisville?
For basically the fifth or sixth consecutive season, you've got a big mess at No. 4. Louisville, the 11-1 Big East champion, was not a mid-major but was still somewhat viewed as such, thanks to the ACC's picking apart of the Big East. Would the Cardinals get the nod over 10-2 USC or 10-2 LSU? And would the committee even give one second of consideration to 12-0 Boise State? (The answer to that might depend on whether Utah gets blown out by USC the year prior.)
Likely selection: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 4 Louisville, No. 2 Florida vs. No. 3 Michigan.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 2 (11-1 Big Ten champion Ohio State, 11-2 SEC champion LSU).
Contenders: 8 (11-2 Big 12 champion Oklahoma, 11-2 ACC champion Virginia Tech, 10-2 Pac-10 champion USC, 10-2 Big East champion West Virginia, 10-2 Georgia, 11-2 Missouri, 11-1 Kansas, 12-0 mid-major Hawaii).
Ah, yes. The 2007 Season, the most glorious disaster flick of all. After countless upsets, countless No. 2 teams, and the defeat of each of the top two teams (Missouri and West Virginia) in the final weekend, a two-loss LSU lucked into a chance to play (and beat) Ohio State in the BCS Championship.
What happens with a four-team Playoff? Does Virginia Tech get in despite losing, 48-7, to LSU in September? Does Oklahoma get credit for the fact that one of its losses took place with Sam Bradford concussed? Does Georgia get bonus points for catching fire late? Does Missouri get credited or punished for going 11-0 versus teams not named Oklahoma? Does Kansas get credit for losing just once (albeit to Missouri)? And what of undefeated Hawaii?
This season either had more candidates deserving of a Playoff spot, or it had the fewest ever. I lean latter.
That Virginia Tech got so thoroughly whipped by LSU hurts the Hokies, and WVU's late loss to a mediocre Pitt probably bumps the Mountaineers one spot too far. Hawaii was far from dominant against a weak schedule and doesn't get much consideration. I say that leaves the next two conference champions on the list.
Likely selection: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 4 USC, No. 2 LSU vs. No. 3 Oklahoma.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 3 (12-1 Big 12 champion Oklahoma, 12-1 SEC champion Florida, 11-1 Texas).
Contenders: 6 (11-1 Pac-10 champion USC, 12-0 mid-major Utah, 11-1 Big Ten champion Penn State, 12-1 Alabama, 11-1 Texas Tech, 12-0 mid-major Boise State).
2008 would have produced three easy selections, with offense-heavy computer favorite Oklahoma, Tim Tebow's Florida and the Texas that beat Oklahoma.
After that, there is once again a messy pile. Alabama ranked No. 1 to finish the regular season but lost to Florida in the SEC Championship. USC hadn't lost since September and had outscored its last five opponents, 184-36. Utah beat Michigan and Oregon State, plus eventual 11-win TCU and 10-win BYU. Texas Tech beat Texas and lost only to Oklahoma. Penn State was a conference champion with only a one-point loss to nine-win Iowa. And Boise State was still undefeated.
In the real 2008, we had a huge Oklahoma-or-Texas debate. With a Playoff, the debate is even larger.
Boise State is eliminated because Utah is also undefeated and has better wins. Texas Tech is eliminated because of the magnitude of its loss to Oklahoma (65-21).
If you like computers (and we know the committee does not), USC gets the easy nod. And if Utah had a good reputation after its 2004 Playoff appearance, maybe that carries weight.
I wonder if the committee goes with Penn State. The Nittany Lions beat the team that beat USC (nine-win Oregon State), beat Ohio State on the road, and finished the season by whipping a 9-2 Michigan State. Meanwhile, USC had only one road win over a team with a winning record (7-5 Arizona).
Nah. USC crushed Ohio State and passed the eyeball test (and we know that matters).
Likely selection: No. 1 Oklahoma vs. No. 4 USC, No. 2 Florida vs. No. 3 Texas.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 3 (13-0 SEC champion Alabama, 13-0 Big 12 champion Texas, 12-0 Big East champion Cincinnati).
Contenders: 3 (12-0 mid-major TCU, 12-1 Florida, 13-0 mid-major Boise State).
In comparison, 2009 is downright clean. You've got three undefeated power-conference champions, you've got two undefeated mid-majors, and you've got a Florida that was undefeated until the SEC Championship.
Again, Boise State gets screwed by the fact that there is another mid-major with a better résumé. The Broncos had the famous falcon-punch win over 10-win Oregon (and would go on to beat TCU in the Fiesta Bowl) but had beaten just one team with a pulse since September: 8-4 Nevada. Meanwhile, TCU had won at Virginia and Clemson and crushed 10-2 BYU and 9-3 Utah.
TCU's early win -- especially the win at eventual ACC title game participant Clemson -- is probably enough to give the Frogs the nod over a Florida that had just gotten thumped by Alabama. But again, that might be naive on my part.
Likely selection: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 TCU, No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 Cincinnati.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 3 (13-0 SEC champion Auburn, 12-0 Pac-10 champion Oregon, 11-1 Big Ten co-champion Wisconsin).
Contenders: 3 (12-0 mid-major TCU, 11-1 Big Ten co-champion Michigan State, 11-1 Stanford, 11-1 Big Ten co-champion Ohio State).
The committee's view on mid-majors, whatever that actually is, completely colors 2010. TCU outscored 12 regular-season opponents by an average of 43-11, and the victims list includes two power-conference teams (Baylor and Oregon State) and five mid-major bowl teams (SMU, BYU, Air Force, Utah, San Diego State). If this résumé doesn't get you in, a mid-major simply isn't getting in.
And if TCU doesn't get in, who does? Assuming Wisconsin -- viewed by many as the hottest team in the country -- is in, what about Michigan State (which beat Wisconsin)? Ohio State (which lost only at Wisconsin)? Stanford (which lost only at Oregon)? Technically, Michigan State would have won the Big Ten tie-breaker. Does that carry weight?
Because I'm struggling to grasp the alternative, we'll say the committee goes with TCU. And that's good because the Horned Frogs were awesome. Don't pretend they wouldn't have had an excellent shot against Auburn.
Likely selection: No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 TCU, No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Wisconsin.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 3 (13-0 SEC champion LSU, 11-1 Big 12 champion Oklahoma State, 11-1 Alabama).
Contenders: 3 (11-2 Pac-12 champion Oregon, 11-1 Stanford, 10-2 Arkansas).
Perhaps the most jarring aspect of this offseason Playoff debate is the impact that a single season -- 2011 -- had on the process. As we have seen through this exercise, different factors and obstacles arise in different seasons. But we saw a push for a "conference champions" qualification because 2011 Alabama made the BCS Championship, and we saw a push for a selection committee, in part, because people were scared of the thought of 2011 Stanford making it in over Pac-12 champion Oregon, which won at Stanford.
Because of this discussion, we probably know who would have been selected in 2011.
In terms of standings and tie-breakers, head-to-head results matter. And yes, Oregon beat Stanford head-to-head and took the Pac-12 title. But a) that was Stanford's only loss, b) Oregon lost head-to-head to LSU, and c) Oregon lost head-to-head at home to USC, a team that lost to Stanford. That should matter, too. So should the other 10 or 11 games each team played. Considering how random a team's performance can be in a given week, you have to look at the entire picture.
Head-to-head is one factor, but overall record is another, the AP Poll (Stanford was fourth, Oregon was fifth) is another, and computer rankings should be another. The BCS computers (which carry no weight in this universe) favored Stanford.
LSU, Alabama, and Oklahoma State are in, but this is the season in which we learn all we need to about conference titles and head-to-head results.
Likely selection: No. 1 LSU vs. No. 4 Oregon (again), No. 2 Oklahoma State vs. No. 3 Alabama.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 2 (12-0 Notre Dame, 12-1 SEC champion Alabama).
Contenders: 4 (11-1 Big 12 champion Kansas State, 11-2 Pac-12 champion Stanford, 11-1 Oregon, 11-1 Florida, 10-2 Texas A&M).
In 2012, the shoe is on the other foot. Stanford beats Oregon and wins the Pac-12 with two losses, while 11-1 Oregon is wondering why the big picture doesn't matter more than head-to-head. But this selection is a little more difficult because of Florida.
Florida's only loss came by eight points on a neutral site against an 11-2 Georgia that nearly beat Alabama to win the SEC. Kansas State's only loss came by 28 points against a 7-5 Baylor. Stanford lost twice -- to Notre Dame (head-to-head!) and to 7-5 Washington. KSU and Stanford probably get the nod because winning a ring (in a weaker conference) magically makes you more deserving, but this year shows us the flaws of giving a team a conference title boost.
(That Florida eventually got whipped by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl makes this selection seem easier than it would have been.)
Likely selection: No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 Stanford, No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Kansas State.
Relatively obvious Playoff teams: 2 (13-0 ACC champion Florida State, 12-1 SEC champion Auburn).
Contenders: 4 (11-1 Alabama, 12-1 Big Ten champion Michigan State, 11-1 Big 12 champion Baylor, 11-2 Pac-12 champion Stanford).
This is another year where the conference title qualification could matter. Alabama was undefeated and regarded as the best team before the Tide's regular season ended via Kick Six loss to Auburn.
Does a fluky road loss knock them out of contention in favor of one-loss conference champions like Michigan State and Baylor? Or does the underwhelming nature of those champions' losses -- Michigan State to four-loss Notre Dame, Baylor by 32 points at Oklahoma State -- give the Tide the edge? (Stanford's three-point loss to 5-7 Utah likely eliminates the Cardinal.)
Likely selection: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Alabama, No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 3 Michigan State.
What have we learned?
This really does have a Supreme Court feel. Once we learn a few more precedents, we'll have a picture of what decision the committee is likely to make. (And lord help them if they go against precedent. The wrath of the victimized fan base will be epic.)
In 2014, it appeared three teams had safe Playoff spots -- 11-1 SEC champion Alabama, 12-1 Pac-12 champion Oregon, and 13-0 ACC champion Florida State -- and the fourth spot came down to a battle between three more teams. That's incredibly common in this simulation. In 11 of 16 years, there were three obvious teams; in four more, there were only two.
The second-tier teams in 2014, all of which had just one loss and at least a share of a conference title, were probably more qualified than most, however. Pretty frequently, the committee will be choosing between one-loss non-champions and two-loss champions.
With so many obvious choices, the committee is as much about symbolism as anything else. That explains the attempt at legitimate! and unassailable! names. I do hope that in the future, the input of more mid-major representatives or those with different viewpoints (beyond "I'm a former coach/athletic director!") are taken into account, but that likely won't change the actual decisions much.
But hey, we're just working out the kinks for when the Playoff stretches to eight teams and the real work begins, right?
Photos: Steve Dykes, Getty; Harry How, Getty; Eliot J. Schechter, Allsport