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Picking College Football Playoff teams: Why objective isn't always better

The NFL routinely rewards undeserving champions and gives playoff spots to inferior teams. College football's Playoff structure has a number of flaws, but the use of human judgment as opposed to impersonal rules isn't one of them.

An 8-7-1 NFL team hosted a 12-4 team in the playoffs ... while a 10-6 team missed the postseason.
An 8-7-1 NFL team hosted a 12-4 team in the playoffs ... while a 10-6 team missed the postseason.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In American pro sports, teams get their golden tickets to the postseason by virtue of set, objective criteria: records, followed by tie-breakers. The champion for a given season is then determined by the team that wins the playoff.

For fans who stick to American pro sports, this can seem like the only way to crown a winner and any deviation from this method seems strange. But for sports fans who are familiar with international soccer leagues, there is no built-in assumption that regular seasons must be followed by playoffs. In much of the world, the regular-season champion is the champion.

Major college football is the one major American team sport that deviates from the U.S. pro sports model. And even though it's adding the College Football Playoff, it has too many participants and too little centralized management to have objective criteria for four Playoff spots, so a human element is a necessary element of picking teams.

The role of subjective opinion in college basketball isn't a major issue, because of the large number of teams in March Madness. But college football's small postseason structure causes the analogies to crooked figure skating judges to come fast and furious.

Part of the criticism of the role of subjective judgments in selecting Playoff teams is the assumption that the American pro sports model is better. Objective is better than subjective. Set rules are better than human assessment. All conference champions should get to enter. Regular seasons are the preludes for decisive playoffs. Tournaments are better than awarding titles on the basis of the entire sample size.

But Chris Brown noted the problems with the NFL approach in the aftermath of the final BCS Championship Game:

A playoff does not even attempt to crown either the best or most deserving team. The very purpose of a playoff or tournament is the exact opposite: No matter a team's talent or apparent destiny, everything can be undone on a single day by a single bounce of the ball. (Admittedly, that's actually the allure of a playoff, hence why they call it March Madness.) Yet we've become so accustomed to playoffs that it's difficult for us to think of any other way of selecting a champion. (Playoff-think is such a dominant paradigm that Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight proposed mitigating some of the arbitrary tendencies of the NFL playoffs by giving points to teams that had better seasons than their opponents before the games even start.)

The NFL structure might be more objective and less prone to the effects of human bias, but that can have negatives as well as positives. The recent history of the NFL Playoffs illustrates Brown's point.

The playoffs this year have worked out, because the elite teams have advanced. There will be no questions as to whether the Super Bowl winner will be a deserving champion, as it's fairly clear that Denver and Seattle were the best teams in their respective conferences. If they aren't the two best teams in the NFL, they're pretty darn close.

However, this prospect of the best teams playing in the Super Bowl is a relatively new development for the NFL:

  • The reigning Super Bowl champions, the Baltimore Ravens, tied for the worst record of any of the 12 playoff participants in 2012. And lest we think that Baltimore's record was depressed by a tough slate, the Ravens had the lowest SRS -- a rating that combines margin of victory and strength of schedule -- of any of the eight division-winners.
  • The Ravens replaced the New York Giants as the kings of the NFL, and the Giants are a wonderful example of how an objective playoff system like that of the NFL can produce underwhelming champions. The 2011 Giants went 9-7 in the regular season, which placed them eighth out of 16 teams in the NFC, before beating a sequence of more accomplished teams. This triumph came on the heels of the 2007 Giants beating a bevy of teams with better résumés, culminating in a Super Bowl win over an opponent with six fewer losses.
  • And then you have the 2008 Cardinals, a team that made the Super Bowl despite finishing 12th out of 16 teams in the NFC during the regular season and making the playoffs only because they won one of the worst divisions in NFL history.

While this year's playoffs have produced more deserving Super Bowl participants than recent tournaments did, imagine if the NFL had a subjective selection committee this season.

The Arizona Cardinals went 10-6, but missed out on the playoffs in favor of the 10-6 Philadelphia Eagles and the 8-7-1 Green Bay Packers. One can quibble about whether the Cardinals or Eagles had a better season, but there is no argument between the Cardinals and Packers. Arizona had a better record and scoring margin against a tougher schedule. If the NFL employed a selection committee to pick its 12 playoff spots, then the Cardinals would have received a spot. Instead, the NFL has an objective, hard-and-fast rule stating that every division champion gets a playoff spot, no matter the quality of the division or the team that wins it.

Sports fans and commentators generally accept the results of playoffs, because the championship is decided on the field. The problem with this approach is that it elevates the operation of rules above all else, and it treats the exercise of human judgment as being a negative.

Or, put another way, the field sometimes lies. The objective NFL system says that a 13-6 team can become the champion by defeating an 18-0 team on a neutral field one month after losing to that 18-0 team at the 13-6 team's home stadium. That happened in 2007. A subjective system could account for the results of the entire season and reach a result that few would dispute ends up crowning the most deserving champion: the team that was unbeaten for five months wears the tiara.

The College Football Playoff is going to have problems. Most importantly, a four-team playoff is still too small in a sport with dozens of contenders who have few common opponents as a result of the declining quality of non-conference schedules.* The use of neutral sites is going to create burdens on the fan bases of the teams that end up playing two playoff games. There are legitimate questions about the credentials of individuals on the selection committee. After all, subjective decisions are only as good as the people making them and the data upon which those people rely.

However, the fact that a committee exists in the first place is not necessarily a problem. The only way to reach that conclusion is to be completely accepting of and obedient to impersonal selection rules, regardless of the results generated by those rules.

* - The trick with a playoff is to make it big enough that it includes all legitimate contenders, but not so big that it can crown the 2007 Giants. At the end of any college football regular season, there are rarely, if ever, more than six to eight teams that can legitimately claim to be the best in the country. Likewise, if you make the playoff small enough, then the teams that make it into the tournament should each have a strong enough résumé to be subjectively named the country's best team. Thus, eight is the highest number that makes any sense. It seems likely that college football's playoff will expand to that level ... and then shoot past it in an effort to make more money, just as has been the case with the NFL and MLB.

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