The College Football Playoff committee avoided bold choices, and that works fine
The selection committee didn’t do a perfect job, nor did it do anything bold. Everything worked out in the end.
1. Maybe the road to TCU and Baylor getting snubbed from the first College Football Playoff started well before last week’s power poll. Maybe it started on June 10th, 2010, when the Pac-10 announced the addition of Colorado as a member institution. (The Buffs bailed out just a day before Nebraska followed suit and announced their move to the Big Ten on June 11th.)
Maybe it began even earlier, when Texas decided to spin the lesser planets of their solar system around however it pleased, handing out less money from conference contracts to smaller schools before completing the insult by starting its own network.
Whatever the starting point, the Big 12′s demise in the Playoff started long before TCU fell from No. 3 to No. 6 in the committee’s final rankings. It began with a fractious and fractured conference deciding to survive without a conference championship game, gambling on the schedule to do the work for them.
It might have worked if the committee hadn’t done what people inevitably do at the end of the season: give the present too much weight and overload a single weekend with too much rhetorical significance.
2. The committee overloaded championship weekend.
Remember that, per its own statements, the committee could do whatever it wanted. It could make up a phantom stat like “game control;” it could drop and pull teams into and out of the top four as it liked; it could issue a week-to-week poll without considering previous positioning of teams. They were clear about this from the start.
So to say they were inconsistent at any point is to ignore the basic fiat system they were working with anyway. It’s clear that having a championship game mattered, even if they didn’t say it would. It would matter in the end because these are people, and they’re susceptible to the appeal of more: one more game as evidence, even if it only takes the data set from 12 to 13. They have a weakness for recency, as in forgiving a team like Ohio State for losing a game to Virginia Tech back in the early stretches of the season, as long as that team went on an impressive late pillage through the rest of its schedule.
They made the same mistakes pollsters had been making for years, and struggled with the same issues pollsters never really worked out that well. They only made one better decision, and that was the refusal to be loyal to the previous week’s poll altogether.
3. Most importantly, people — especially when making decisions in groups — will default toward the easiest choice in order to reach consensus. The easiest case anyone presented, oddly enough, was Florida State. It won every regular season game and finished with a championship game win. That’s making things easy, even if you have to cringe while writing the Seminoles’ name in with pen on the final bracket.
The committee leaned towards easy cases in the other three choices, too. Alabama finished with one road loss, but won out and finished with a conference title. Oregon lost to Arizona at home, but then cinched up the only hole in any argument against it by destroying Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship. Ohio State’s loss to VT was disastrous, but the Buckeyes rebounded to make a formality out of the rest of their slate.
4. Ohio State also wisely won a conference title game. This is not a value judgment on the committee, but only pointing out the correlations between the teams who got in and their common attributes. All four ultimately made easy cases that leaned on being able to say they won more games, did so with greater recency, and got to display a shiny badge at the end of the season that says Conference Championship Game Winner.
You’re dealing with a room full of people who love shiny administrative badges given out by bureaucratic organizations. They’re not going to buy creative arguments. They’re not going to display bravery. They’re not going to make bold decisions based on advanced stats. They are going to make the easy choice 100 times out of 100 times, which is precisely what they did in choosing four Goliaths with conference titles and no more than one loss to play in the first playoff.
5. That said: there is a four-team tourney involving Florida State, Alabama, Ohio State, and Oregon, and it could be freaking incredible. Joey Bosa is going to get to try and tackle Derrick Henry as Urban Meyer and Nick Saban face off for the first time since the 2009 SEC Championship. Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will play in the Rose Bowl as a play-in game on the same field where Florida State won its 2013 title.
There is no permutation of this arrangement that doesn’t produce compelling matchups all around, with no obvious blowouts on the horizon. (No really: Ohio State presents some serious problems for Alabama, no matter what your persistent case of SEC Bias Influenza is telling you.)
6. The committee acted as a nearsighted, deeply unbold custodian that made a slew of mistakes in year one and fell prey to some of the weakest tendencies of groupthink. And yet despite every attempt to screw it up, they failed and made something pretty interesting.