clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

College Football Playoffs Will Still Provide Plenty To Be Mad About

So college football is getting itself a shiny new playoff. We don't know who will be on a playoff selection committee, but we can begin to look at the questions the committee will face from year to year.

BOISE, ID - DECEMBER 03: Head Coach Chris Petersen of the Boise State Broncos reacts to a call during the game against the New Mexico Lobos at Bronco Stadium on December 3, 2011 in Boise, Idaho.  (Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images)
BOISE, ID - DECEMBER 03: Head Coach Chris Petersen of the Boise State Broncos reacts to a call during the game against the New Mexico Lobos at Bronco Stadium on December 3, 2011 in Boise, Idaho. (Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Barring relatively unforeseen interference from college presidents, the top subdivision of college football will be getting itself a four-team playoff beginning in the 2014 season. We know that conference commissioners have recommended a playoff selection committee … and that's basically all we know. There are certainly more questions than answers on the table at this point. Who will be on this selection committee? How will we prevent bias on said committee? Will the finals be played in a bowl or elsewhere? What exactly will we be calling this? And when exactly will the Football Bowl Subdivision be getting a new name since it, like the Football Championship Subdivision, will also have a championship? Can we just move back to 1-A and 1-AA please?

We have to wait for answers to most of these questions. But while we wait, we can at least begin to take a look at some of the decisions a selection committee will face. We will do so, of course, by doing what we always do: going back in time. It is not enough to simply reflect on last season; we always gravitate toward that, and it gives us a far too near-sighted view on the situation. So let's go back to the beginning of the BCS era.

Pretend for a moment that college football's change-fearing higher-ups actually implemented this system -- a four-team playoff with a selection committee -- in time for the 1998 season, when the BCS came into being.


The first year for a playoff is the perfect year for clearly enunciating all the limitations a four-team playoff presents. I have always said people's biggest problem with the BCS wasn't that it was corrupt or chose the wrong teams -- it's that the BCS could never figure out how to fit three teams on the same field. Well, in 1998, people may have raged against a playoff for its inability to figure out how to fit five or six teams into a four-team bracket.

(Any rankings below are referring to the end-of-season BCS standings. I figure SOME version of this formula might still get used as a reference point if nothing else. The NCAA basketball selection committee gets a look at RPI, after all, and I assume the Football Outsiders F/+ rankings won't be an option, though I eagerly sit by the phone just in case.)

Definitely In
1. Tennessee (12-0)

A Case To Make
2. Florida State (11-1)
3. Kansas State (11-1)
4. Ohio State (10-1)
5. UCLA (10-1)
6. Texas A&M (11-2)
7. Arizona (11-1)
9. Wisconsin (10-1)
10. Tulane (11-0)

If you like late-season dramatics, it got no better than 1998. Ohio State was seen as, far and away, the best team in the country through two months, but it inexplicably lost at home, 28-24, to Nick Saban's Michigan State Spartans on Nov. 7. Kansas State went undefeated, then lost to Texas A&M in an incredible Big 12 title game on Dec. 5. (That's right, Art Briles, Texas A&M did indeed win a Big 12 Championship.) On the same day, undefeated UCLA fell to Miami in a hurricane-postponed shootout in south Florida. Thanks to all of these late moves, Florida State, a team without an offense because of a late-season injury to Chris Weinke, squeaked into the title game.

On Dec. 6, a playoff selection committee surveys the carnage and decides … what, exactly? Undefeated Tennessee is an obvious selection, but the other three slots could go to any of eight teams. Do they choose the three teams that suffered late upsets? Do they select a team (FSU) that is missing such a key piece (Weinke)? What about one of the other one-loss teams (Arizona, Wisconsin) or the Texas A&M team that knocked off Kansas State and suffered losses to only Florida State (with Weinke) and Texas in Austin?

And what about undefeated Tulane? If you win every game on your schedule, shouldn't you get a shot at the national title? Isn't that kind of what a playoff is all about?

Most Likely Selection
Tennessee, Florida State, Kansas State, Ohio State

I figure the most likely scenario is simple selection of the top four. UCLA is mad, Tulane head coach Tommy Bowden is wondering why we implemented a playoff in the first place, and we get two incredible semifinal matchups.


Definitely In
1. Florida State (11-0)
2. Virginia Tech (11-0)

A Case To Make
3. Nebraska (11-1)
4. Alabama (10-2)
5. Tennessee (9-2)
6. Kansas State (10-1)

This season might have been pretty simple. You've got two undefeated teams and two one-loss teams, one of which (Nebraska) is a conference champion. The tricky part, however, 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 awfully attractive. But then again, what about the two-loss Tennessee squad that whipped Alabama, 21-7, in Tuscaloosa?

Most Likely Selection
Florida State, Virginia Tech, Nebraska, Alabama

Again, the BCS Top Four probably gets the nod, though No. 5 and No. 6 each feel pretty screwed over. Tennessee: "I thought head-to-head was supposed to matter!" Kansas State: "We only lost once, and it was on the road versus the No. 3 team!"


Definitely In
1. Oklahoma (11-0)
2. Florida State (10-1)
3. Miami (10-1)

A Case To Make
4. Washington (10-1)
5. Virginia Tech (10-1)
6. Oregon State (10-1)

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 in October. There is almost no way that FSU and Miami don't each make the semifinals along with obvious No. 1 Oklahoma. The question, however, is which of the three remaining one-loss team gets the nod: a Washington team that lost only at 9-2 Oregon by a touchdown? A Virginia Tech team that lost only at Miami? An Oregon State team that lost only at Washington by just three points?

Most Likely Selection
Oklahoma, Florida State, Miami, Washington

In the end, head-to-head probably makes the calls here. Miami eliminates Virginia Tech, Washington eliminates Oregon State, (Miami doesn't eliminate Florida State), and once again, the top four BCS teams get in.


Definitely In
1. Miami (11-0)

A Case To Make
2. Nebraska (11-1)
3. Colorado (10-2)
4. Oregon (10-1)
5. Florida (9-2)
6. Tennessee (10-2)
7. Texas (10-2)
8. Illinois (10-1)
10. Maryland (10-1)

For all intents and purposes, 2001 was another 1998-level disaster on the field. Heisman winner Eric Crouch and Nebraska were a clear title contender until they got demolished by Colorado, then the Buffs eliminated one-loss Texas as well. Tennessee was in perfect position to step in but lost to LSU in the SEC championship. (Once again, Nick Saban ruins a team's BCs ambitions.) In the end, the BCS was left to make order out of a series of flawed contenders: a Nebraska team that lost by 26 points to Colorado, a Colorado team that had two losses (one to Fresno State at home), and a flawed Oregon team that lost at home to Stanford and had beaten just one BCS conference team with a record better than 7-4 (Washington State). In most years, I stick with my "people hate the BCS because it can't fit three teams on the field" theory. In 2011, it was "people hate the BCS because it couldn't just pick one team." People were outraged by Nebraska's selection (conference title! Colorado!), but I'd have been just as outraged had a Colorado team with two losses been selected. Every game matters, not just the head-to-head ones.

With a playoff in place, the decision might not be much easier. Miami's obviously in, but do you just go with Nebraska, Colorado and Oregon? If Colorado's getting a look over one-loss teams like Illinois and Maryland, then what about two-loss teams like Florida (losses to Auburn and Tennessee by a combined five points) or Tennessee (wins over four teams with nine or more regular season wins)? And shouldn't we at least give consideration to Illinois and Maryland?

Most Likely Selection
Miami, Nebraska, Colorado, Oregon

There would be grumbling in the Southeast, but while this is messier than anticipated, it is still probably solution with which few probably have serious qualms.


Definitely In
1. Miami (12-0)
2. Ohio State (13-0)
3. Georgia (12-1)

A Case To Make
4. USC (10-2)
5. Iowa (11-1)
6. Washington State (10-2)
7. Oklahoma (11-2)

The 2002 season was one where a two-team "playoff" worked almost perfectly. We had two undefeated teams that clearly stood out all year, and they each avoided landmines (Miami versus Florida State and Pitt, Ohio State versus Purdue and Illinois) to get to the promised land. Honestly, having to select two more teams just makes things messy. SEC champion Georgia is obviously in with wins at Alabama and Auburn and a pasting of Arkansas in the SEC title game, but after that, who do you choose? Do you pick a two-loss USC team (with close losses at excellent Kansas State and Washington State teams) over a one-loss Iowa team that had fallen to Iowa State? And what about Washington State, which had beaten USC and lost at Ohio State (and at home to Washington) and was technically the Pac-10 champion?

Most Likely Selection
Miami, Ohio State, Georgia, Iowa

Because of some people's preferences for conference champions, this is a really interesting decision. Washington State has the same record as USC and wins the conference title on a tie-breaker, so they would have absolutely received serious consideration. But in the end, we'll say the committee probably goes with the one-loss team that didn't get a shot at Ohio State and also went undefeated in the Big Ten.


Definitely In
1. Oklahoma (12-1)
2. LSU (12-1)
3. USC (11-1)

A Case To Make
4. Michigan (10-2)
5. Ohio State (10-2)
6. Texas (10-2)
7. Florida State (10-2)
8. Tennessee (10-2)
9. Miami (10-2)
10. Kansas State (10-3)
11. Miami-Ohio (12-1)

This was one of the BCS's most controversial seasons, and for obvious reasons: it had to select just two of three flawed, one-loss teams. That Oklahoma got in after getting whipped by Kansas State in the Big 12 title game (is it any wonder why many in the Big 12 don't want a conference title game anymore?) rankled many, but I didn't hate the selection. LSU had lost by 12 points at home to an eight-win Florida squad and USC had lost on the road to an eight-win California team. The margin of Oklahoma's loss was obviously off-putting, but they had built quite a bit of distance over LSU and USC before the loss, and I didn't mind the removal of recency bias from the equation. 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? A two-loss Big Ten champion (Michigan) with wins over three nine-wins-or-better teams? A two-loss Florida State team with wins over four eight-wins-or-better teams? A two-loss Miami team that beat Florida State? A two-loss Tennessee team that beat Miami?

Most Likely Selection
Oklahoma, LSU, USC, Michigan

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.


Definitely In
1. USC (11-0)
2. Oklahoma (12-0)
3. Auburn (12-0)

A Case To Make
4. Texas (10-1)
5. California (10-1)
6. Utah (11-0)

This season has been used many, many times as the season that would have fit most perfectly with a four-team playoff. Four undefeated teams? Perfect! But what we perhaps forget now is that Utah wasn't No. 4 in either 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 team that lost only to Oklahoma (by 12 points in Dallas) or a Cal team that lost only to USC (by six points in L.A.)? This is one of the only years in which the makeup of the committee could drastically skew us toward one pick or another.

Most Likely Selection
USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, Utah

I may be naive or just hopeful (or both) with this one, but I think an undefeated, Top 6 team that ranks fifth in the AP poll gets in here. But a selection of either California or (especially) Texas would not have been in any way surprising.


Definitely In
1. USC (11-0)
2. Texas (12-0)
3. Penn State (10-1)

A Case To Make
4. Ohio State (9-2)
5. Oregon (10-1)
6. Notre Dame (10-2)
7. Georgia (10-2)
8. Miami (9-2)
9. Auburn (9-2)
10. Virginia Tech (10-2)
11. West Virginia (10-1)

Like 2002, 2005 was the perfect year for a two-team selection. Opening the field up to four teams once again makes things rather messy. We have to assume that a one-loss, Big Ten champion in 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? The most interesting aspect of this year's debate 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 came via Bush Push against USC. Like it or not, a smoking hot, Top 6 Notre Dame team is going to get serious consideration from a football selection committee.

Head-to-head results could have knocked out either No. 4, No. 5 or No. 6 here. That being the case, does a 10-2 Georgia team, fresh off a 20-point pasting of what had previously been a 10-1 LSU team, get a look?

Most Likely Selection
USC, Texas, Penn State, Oregon

This one would be very, very interesting. You could use head-to-head results to take out any of three teams, but that probably cancels everything out in that regard. So we'll say the committee goes with the one-loss team instead. The main problem with that is the thought of a committee of seasoned old college football folks passing over Ohio State.


Definitely In
1. Ohio State (12-0)

A Case To Make
2. Florida (11-1)
3. Michigan (11-1)
4. LSU (10-2)
5. USC (10-2)
6. Louisville (11-1)
7. Wisconsin (11-1)
8. Boise State (12-0)

Like 2001, this appears to be a year where only one team has truly established an entirely deserving resume. Beyond Heisman winner Troy Smith and Ohio State, you've got a lot of flawed contenders, from a Florida team that lost to Auburn and was still attempting to earn respect post-Ron Zook, to a Michigan team that had just lost to Ohio State (barely, and in Columbus), to a smoking hot LSU team that hadn't lost since its early-October trip to Florida, to one-loss Louisville and Wisconsin teams. And once again, we've got an undefeated mid-major down the list, wondering why they shouldn't automatically get a bid.

Most Likely Selection
Ohio State, Florida, Michigan, Louisville

Like 2005, this one is quite unclear. I struggle to see the committee picking LSU, which both had two losses and fell to Florida. But do they pass over LSU and USC for a non-name in Louisville? Again, this is a year where the makeup of the selection committee could matter significantly.


Definitely In
1. Ohio State (11-1)

A Case To Make
2. LSU (11-2)
3. Virginia Tech (11-2)
4. Oklahoma (11-2)
5. Georgia (10-2)
6. Missouri (11-2)
7. USC (10-2)
8. Kansas (11-1)
9. West Virginia (10-2)
10. Hawaii (12-0)

Ah, yes. The 2007 Season, the most glorious disaster flick of all-time. 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 team sneaked up the standings and 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. Hard to say.

Most Likely Selection
Ohio State, LSU, Oklahoma, Georgia

That Virginia Tech got so thoroughly whipped by LSU probably hurts it significantly, especially when compared to a hot SEC team (Georgia). Depending on how potential mid-major playoff entries like Utah and Boise State had fared in previous years (if included), Hawaii might have gotten solid consideration here, but its schedule was so weak, and it had struggled against its one major conference opponent (it beat 4-9 Washington by just seven points at home on the last weekend of the regular season). When in doubt, go SEC, right?


Definitely In
1. Oklahoma (12-1)
2. Florida (12-1)
3. Texas (11-1)

A Case To Make
4. Alabama (12-1)
5. USC (11-1)
6. Utah (12-0)
7. Texas Tech (11-1)
8. Penn State (11-1)
9. Boise State (12-0)

Another perfect "the BCS couldn't fit three teams onto the same field" season, 2008 would have produced three very easy selections with offense-heavy computer favorite Oklahoma, Tebow-laden Florida and the Texas team that beat Oklahoma. But after that, any of six teams had a case to make. There was Alabama, which ranked No. 1 to finish the regular season but lost to Florida in the SEC Championship. There was USC, which hadn't lost since September and had outscored its last five opponents, 184-36. There was undefeated Utah. There was Texas Tech, which beat Texas and lost to Oklahoma. There was one-loss Big Ten champion Penn State. And of course there was another undefeated mid-major in Boise State. In the real 2008, we had a huge Oklahoma-or-Texas debate. With a playoff, the debate is even larger.

Most Likely Selection
Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, USC

Boise State is eliminated because Utah is also undefeated and ranked higher. Texas Tech is eliminated because of the magnitude of its loss to Oklahoma (65-21). Alabama is eliminated because of its late loss to Florida. Penn State is eliminated because of its late loss at Iowa (and the fact that it was ranked so much lower). So that leaves USC or Utah, the dominant Trojans or the undefeated mid-major that had quite possibly already made one playoff appearance. I hope a committee would pick the undefeated team in this example, but with USC so hot and ranked above Utah in both the AP poll and BCS standings, I fear it gets the nod, once again giving rise to the incredibly justifiable "If you're not going to include an undefeated team, especially one in the Top 6, then what's the point of having a playoff at all?" rationale.


Definitely In
1. Alabama (13-0)
2. Texas (13-0)
3. Cincinnati (12-0)

A Case To Make
4. TCU (12-0)
5. Florida (12-1)
6. Boise State (13-0)

In comparison to 2008, 2009 is downright clean. You've got three undefeated BCS conference teams, you've got two undefeated mid-majors, and you've got a Florida team that was undefeated until the SEC championship game.

Most Likely Selection
Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU

Once again, Boise State gets screwed by the fact that there is another, more highly-ranked mid-major on the boards (along with three undefeated BCS teams). And the combination of TCU dominance and such a late Florida loss (to Alabama, no less) probably makes this one of the easiest selections of this whole exercise.


Definitely In
1. Auburn (13-0)
2. Oregon (12-0)
3. TCU (12-0)

A Case To Make
4. Stanford (11-1)
5. Wisconsin (11-1)
6. Ohio State (11-1)
9. Michigan State (11-1)
10. Boise State (11-1)
15. Nevada (12-1)

In 2010, you saw a very good case for a three-team playoff. The fourth team, however, is an enormous tossup. Stanford was fourth in the BCS standings but had lost by 21 points at Oregon. Wisconsin was fourth in the AP poll but had lost to an 11-1 Michigan State squad by 10 points. Ohio State's only loss was to Wisconsin. It seems like a mess until you remember just how high folks were on Wisconsin late in the season.

Most Likely Selection
Auburn, Oregon, TCU, Wisconsin

Again, this pick is probably made with relative ease (and good publicity). Stanford gets eliminated because of the big loss to Oregon, Ohio State is eliminated because it lost to Wisconsin, Michigan State is eliminated because it got whipped by an eight-win Iowa team, and Boise State and Nevada each had schedules too weak to take seriously (despite the fact that this was probably the best Boise State team ever).


Definitely In
1. LSU (13-0)

A Case To Make
2. Alabama (11-1)
3. Oklahoma State (11-1)
4. Stanford (11-1)
5. Oregon (11-2)
6. Arkansas (10-2)
7. Boise State (11-1)

Perhaps the most jarring and dismaying aspect of this whole 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 Alabama made the BCS championship, and we saw a push for a selection committee, in part, because people were scared of the thought of Stanford making it in over Pac-12 champion Oregon, which won at Stanford. Because of this discussion, we know who would have been selected in 2011.

Most Likely Selection
LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Oregon

Head-to-head results matter. Of course they do. But I struggle with the logic here. Yes, Oregon beat Stanford, head to head. But a) that was Stanford's only loss, b) Oregon lost to LSU (another head-to-head result that could have mattered in this process), and c) Oregon lost twice. The Ducks lost, late in the season (which matters to some), at home, to what was at the time the No. 18 team in the country (USC), a team that had indeed lost to Stanford not long before. That should matter, too. So should the other 10 (or 11) games that the teams played. 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 are another. They favored Stanford. (Well, the BCS computers did. Others didn't.)

Really, I wouldn't have complained much about Oregon's inclusion here -- they did, after all, beat Stanford easily, and they did rank higher in my own computer rankings -- but it drives me crazy that conventional wisdom has circled in on the "Oregon should have obviously been picked over Stanford" logic. There is nothing obvious about it.

What Do We Know?

A four-team playoff will solve many problems. For the years in which there were three teams equally deserving of a title shot (2000, 2003, 2004, 2008), this is an immediate upgrade from the two-team BCS championship. For the years in which No. 2 and No. 3 were virtually indistinguishable (1998, 2000, 2001, 2006, 2011), it is the same story. But as most of us have probably come to accept already, this is far from perfect.

Even with the most flawless, logical, reasoned selection committee of all-time, we are still going to see plenty of cases where Team No. 5 is almost indistinguishable from Team No. 4 (or No. 3), and for those looking for mid-major justice ... good luck. No matter how many times Utah, Boise State or TCU proved themselves when given the opportunity, they still would have been faulted greatly for a schedule that was mostly beyond their control, and aside from TCU in 2010 and probably 2009, they still could have found themselves on the outside of a playoff. (And it goes without saying that 1998 Tulane and 2007 Hawaii would have, too.) For some, that is no problem at all. For others, it will make them wonder why we are wasting our times with a playoff at all.

Still, this feels like a net gain for both college football and its fans. We should celebrate that, though we should also steel ourselves for the simple fact that a lot of us will still be annoyed by it after selections have taken place in mid-December.