There are plenty of things that are confusing about the way the College Football Playoff works.
One of these things is not that complicated, yet Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby (a man whom I believe to be wholly intelligent in his own right) cannot seem to get his mind around it.
"Obviously I acknowledge the difficulty of the task, but I'm not sure what I advise my members right now, because we've been telling them that nonconference schedules matter, and one of the four has an exceedingly weak nonconference schedule," he said, referring to No. 4 Washington, which notched wins over Rutgers, Idaho and FCS Portland State. "And we've been telling them the 13th data point matters, and we added a conference championship game because of that. We've always heard that conference championships matter and division championships matter, and now it's confusing."
He added, "I'll have some questions to ask when the time is right."
Bowlsby goes on to acknowledge that he understands his league didn’t have a dog in this year’s Playoff fight, and he’s right. His question is a look at the future, but here’s the thing that I think Bowlsby and others miss when they tie themselves in knots, trying to figure out how to figure out future Playoff scenarios.
First, a look at how the committee goes about its business.
Here’s how the selection committee parses teams that it thinks are of similar quality, per their own document (emphasis mine):
The committee will select the teams using a process that distinguishes among otherwise comparable teams by considering:
* Conference championships won
* Strength of schedule
* Head-to-head competition
* Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory), and ...
* Other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.
Those words, “otherwise comparable teams” are where the conversation can either start or end, depending on whom we’re talking about.
So what happened in 2014?
Ohio State, Baylor, and TCU were certainly comparable in the triple-threat match for the final spot in the first Playoff. Want to know the uber complicated reason why? They each had one loss. Thanks to that and the committee’s evaluations of their quality, the criteria then kicked in about the different ways we can sift through similar teams.
You have to do enough to put yourself in the debate. From there, an extra data point (a 13th game for OSU, judged against only 12 for TCU and Baylor) came into play. That unlucky No. 13 served as a quality win as well as a conference championship for the Buckeyes and was the biggest on a list of determining factors that boosted them into the dance. Committee chairman Jeff Long said, "Ohio State's performance in a 13th game gave them a quality win over a highly ranked team."
Long on Big 12: "We were presented with co champions. In the other situations, we had definitive champions for that conference."— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) December 7, 2014
Committee chairman Jeff Long: “I think with the championship game Ohio State demonstrated that they were a total team.”— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) December 7, 2014
So why was there little debate in 2015?
Last season, that data point didn’t even come into play, and that was fine. The only truly comparable teams were Oklahoma (which finished 11-1), and Iowa (12-1), who lost in its 13th-data-point chance. And even if you put both teams on the table next to each other (which the committee did) the Sooners had the conference title ace in the hole.
Last year, one-loss Ohio State didn’t make its conference title game because it lost to a one-loss Michigan State, which did make the Playoff.
But it’s 2016, and I thought you said —
Hold on there, sparky. Ohio State’s lack of conference title game berth mattered last season, in part because Michigan State won the conference with one loss, but didn’t this season. Again, even Bowslby will cop to the fact that Big 12 shouldn’t be in here, so let’s talk about the actual comparables: Ohio State, Washington, and Penn State.
Washington, with one loss and a Pac-12 title: you’re in the party, no problem (even if you’re No. 4, due to that weak schedule).
So, let’s entertain the Nittany Lions, because they beat the Buckeyes head-to-head and won the Big Ten. Everybody in blue and white wants to yell about it, but Penn State has two losses. Even if we want to pretend like that doesn’t matter and stack just the wins up mano y mano:
- While the Nittany Lions finish at No. 5 with a win over No. 3 (Ohio State) and No. 8 (Wisconsin), their quality loss is an ass-whooping at the hands of No. 6 (Michigan), and they also got beat by Pitt, which is No. 23 in the final committee standings.
- Ohio State (which for the umpteenth time has only one loss) has a close, quality loss to the Nittany Lions and wins over Nos. 6, 7 (Oklahoma), and 8. If we want to talk about trump cards, Penn State could have a few with a 13th data point, a conference title, and a head-to-head win. But those don’t kick in when the most basic criteria in the Playoff hierarchy isn’t met. Having two losses doesn’t even let you enter in a legitimate conversation about which resume is better, because your win-loss cover letter has a major typo on it.
Your schedule doesn’t get you into the Playoff unless you win enough.
Your conference/division title doesn’t make for a Playoff resume unless you win enough (at which point other things can work in your favor too). Your 13 data points don’t get you into the Playoff unless you win. Those things can get you ranked ahead of Michigan despite losing to Michigan head-to-head, but that’s about it.
To recap: win your games, and then we’ll talk. It’s that simple.