The College Football Playoff Is Already AmazingCooper Neill/Getty Images
Last night, the penultimate version of the College Football Playoff rankings were released, and now we’re all more confused than ever. TCU shot up to no. 3, Florida State is the FBS’s only undefeated team yet sits at no. 4, and although Baylor beat TCU, it is headed into the weekend behind Ohio State at no. 6. We’re headed into conference championship weekend with a solid seven teams that have legitimate hopes at a playoff spot, and the Big 12 is making up rules on the fly for a conference championship tie. It’s mayhem.
There will be takes on the playoff flying all over the place today, and right on through the weekend, so I’d like to add my own: The College Football Playoff is amazing. This year, next year, every year. I’m in. I’ve been meaning to write about this for a solid month, and now the end of the season has gotten so chaotic that it forced my hand.
Let’s do it with six questions.
1. Do you miss the old system?
I used to be the same way. I missed the old system before it was even gone. “If you’ve got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season,” Barack Obama said in 2008, “and many of them have one loss or two losses, there’s no clear decisive winner. We should be creating a playoff system … I don’t know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this.”
Aside from fearing and loathing change as a general rule, quotes like that are what worried me most. The people pushing hardest for a playoff didn’t seem to understand what made this sport so great. The best part of college football isn’t the end, it’s the anarchy along the way. Adding fairness and coherence to find a “clear, decisive” winner could jeopardize all of that.
There were other concerns, too. A few weeks ago, Charlie Pierce wrote about Mississippi State and Alabama in the shadow of the playoff and highlighted a few popular criticisms of the new system. Here are a few counterpoints.
The bowls don’t mean anything anymore. But 90 percent of the bowls never meant anything. Beyond providing kids with custom sweat suits and the occasional handheld PlayStation — and providing college football fans an excuse to travel and spend money in late December — the bowls have always been the college football equivalent to those exhibition games that European soccer teams play in the U.S. every summer. Not a bad thing, but not exactly essential. People who complain about the downfall of bowls should be forced to watch the Military Bowl and then report back. Nothing devalues bowl games more than actual bowl games.
The College Football Playoff is all a transparent cash grab from the people running college football. OK, but all the other bowls are really, really, really a transparent cash grab. Let me go ahead and let Ginuwine answer this.
Players should be getting a piece of these massive profits. Definitely. Absolutely. Players should be paid a much bigger stipend with bonuses for postseason play, and while we’re here, the NCAA should definitely let the biggest stars sign endorsement deals to capitalize on their fame. But it’s not as if sticking with the old system would make this problem any less obnoxious. If anything, the professionalized postseason and increased exposure will put more pressure on the NCAA to make a change.
A system supposedly dedicated to fairness and clarity will inevitably get pretty unfair and confusing and everyone will be just as pissed off. YUP, and that’s actually fine.
Fans complaining loudly and constantly is the most sacred pastime that college football has. There’s complaining about polls, announcers, officials, rival coaches, your own coach, #SECBIAS, and everything in between. This sport is never perfect, and it’s not always fair. You can either learn to enjoy the absurdity or spend all year in a state of outrage. It’s a lot like life, particularly because watching other people take it way too seriously is half the fun.
2. How does this system work? What criteria are the playoff committee using?
Nobody knows. Don’t bother trying to understand it.
The playoff committee has released new rankings every week since the end of October, and the criteria they’re using has only gotten more confusing. Why has the committee always treated Oregon’s Arizona loss like it didn’t really count? Why does it seem like Ohio State’s loss has counted double? Do they realize Florida State has won every game? Are we actually rewarding conference winners, or the best four teams? Are we judging body of work, or head-to-head results? Do common opponents matter as much as some fans think they do? Will it matter if a team’s star quarterback (J.T. Barrett) is out for the season? We genuinely have no idea. And neither does the playoff committee!
From a practical standpoint, this works out great. The vague criteria just means you can talk yourself into any good team’s playoff chances.
So, sure, Auburn–Ole Miss had clear title implications on November 1, but so did UCLA blowing its playoff chances against Stanford last week. A top-five matchup between Alabama and Mississippi State was massive by any standard, but Florida ruining Georgia’s playoff hopes was just as huge, and so was Texas A&M dashing Auburn’s season the week after. Because of the playoff, every game Oregon played after it lost to Arizona still had title implications, because it was clearly still in it. Same with Michigan State, and later, Ohio State. Or you had Florida State surviving Louisville a month ago, then Miami, Boston College, and Florida in the weeks that followed. Or … You get the point.
Some of those games would have title implications in the old system, but others would just be background noise. Two title spots meant only four or five teams in any given week with a legitimate chance to make it to the end. This was already enough to make the regular season worth watching. But now there are four playoff spots on the line, and any given week there are eight or nine teams with title implications baked into their weekend. The playoff took everything that made Saturdays addictive on the field and literally doubled it.
3. Will the playoff always be this chaotic?
Of course it will. In the past, college football had a habit of sorting itself by the final week. There was rarely much controversy about who deserved to play in the BCS National Championship. Last year, for instance, Auburn and Florida State were the obvious choices. The year before, it was Alabama and undefeated Notre Dame. This year, if the field holds serve this weekend, FSU and Alabama would be the clear choices.
With four teams, it’s a mess. It will be a mess every year, because there will always be a handful of one- or two-loss teams with a real case to make. We have no idea how the committee will handle this, and the next week should shed some light on the process. But don’t kid yourself: Every year will be a whole new adventure in making-it-up-as-we-go.
Speaking of which …
Every game matters … 10 teams … Nine games … One. True. Champion.
[Fast-forward three months]
Should No. 5 TCU and No. 7 Baylor both win Saturday and each finish the season 11-1, [Big 12 commissioner Bob] Bowlsby said the league would inform the 12-member selection committee it has co-champions, in spite of Baylor’s 61-58 win over TCU on Oct. 11. […] Only if TCU and Baylor are both left out of the top four would the league acknowledge Baylor’s head-to-head win over TCU.
Translated: To help TCU’s playoff chances, the Big 12 is prepared to screw Baylor out of a conference title and instantly transform the commercial above into a treasured piece of college football history. The only thing that will make this more amazing is if the committee actually takes the conference seriously.
Speaking of which …
4. Should TCU be ranked ahead of Baylor next week?
No way. It doesn’t matter that Baylor needed help from a shady pass interference call to beat TCU. The Horned Frogs also blew a 21-point lead in the final 11 minutes.
The single biggest failure of the BCS was in 2000, when the formula ignored Miami beating Florida State and sent FSU to a title game that ended with the Noles scoring two points against Oklahoma. That decision was dumb then, but we now know that Miami’s roster turned into one of the best college football teams of all time. And it beat the no. 1 and no. 2 teams in the country that year. And it didn’t go to the title game. It’s one of the more blatant travesties in college football history, and avoiding scenarios like that is the biggest reason the committee is full of humans instead of computers.
Baylor isn’t that Miami team — nobody is — but, just on principle, if both Big 12 teams win this weekend, Baylor has to make the playoff. Call it the Al Blades rule.
Note: The dream scenario is Florida State losing to Georgia Tech and Ohio State losing to Wisconsin, forcing the committee to send both TCU and Baylor to the playoff. I want this to happen for Baylor because Art Briles is great and so is Bryce Petty and we may even get a Ken Starr cameo. I want this to happen for TCU because any football team that drops 80 points in a conference game deserves to make the playoff, and we can never have enough powerhouse programs wearing purple. Everyone should be rooting for this scenario.
5. Will Florida State ever actually lose?
It takes a lot to out-villain Alabama, but this year’s Florida State team has done it. People have always joked about Nick Saban being pure evil, but it may not be a joke with FSU. On the field, the Seminoles have been cheating death for weeks now, and at some point it has to cost them. Jameis Winston is like Andrew Luck’s talent crossed with Marcus Vick’s judgment, the offensive line is a mess, and the defense has had trouble against the run. And Georgia Tech is actually pretty good. This can happen.
5. Will Florida State ever actually lose?
No. Florida State will definitely be losing at some point Saturday, and everyone will tune in, hoping for the nationwide bacchanalia that will ensue whenever this stupid team actually loses. But then Winston will pull off a couple of huge plays, the defense will step up, and FSU will get everyone pissed off all over again.
We should probably accept that this is going to keep happening until Florida State wins the national championship. This isn’t even some cute attempt at a jinx. It just seems fated that this team will keep finding a way to win. The only saving grace is that Jimbo Fisher remains more or less clueless, and once Winston leaves, FSU is a lock to turn into post–Vince Young Texas — a program full of outrageously talented, entitled underachievers. When it happened at Texas, it was a little bit sad. When it happens at Florida State, it will not be sad.
6. Should the playoff expand to eight teams?
No, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Eight teams would make the regular season less dramatic and the playoff too watered down and random. Even six teams would be overkill.
But four is perfect. Four guarantees that a couple of deserving teams will get screwed in the end, and in the meantime, that only makes things more dramatic. Four is why I’ve spent the last eight Saturdays obsessing over college football.
With the NFL, it’s entirely possible to skip the middle two months of the season and miss almost nothing beyond teams jockeying for home-field advantage in the games that really matter. That huge Patriots-Broncos game a few weeks ago? Already forgotten. Packers-Eagles? Won’t matter in six weeks. Packers-Patriots? Would be fantastic as a Super Bowl, but one of those teams will probably get upset before the end of January. With the amount of parity in the NFL, there’s always the threat of some 10-6 or 9-7 team sneaking into the playoffs and running the table. That’s what happened with the Giants (twice), the Ravens, and even the Packers a few years ago. Super Bowls matter, obviously, but with occasional exceptions like last year’s Seahawks, they almost never give us the “clear, decisive” best team from any given season.
College football is different. Even the playoff limits the entrants to only a handful of the best teams, allowing the chance for an upset, but guaranteeing that whoever wins in the end will have a pretty airtight case as the best team in the country from any given year. Look back over the last 15 years, and it’s hard to find many title winners who weren’t clearly the best. The few times it happened (Oklahoma in 2000, LSU in 2003), a playoff would have settled everything once and for all.
In other words, college football’s currently working with a system that guarantees weekly delirium and rewards the best team in the end. Who can possibly complain?
You know, besides everyone.
It’s still college football.