Analyzing 10 years of committee decisions had playoff been in place
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops hasn't made a lot of sound arguments this offseason. He chose the "if it was good enough for me when I played, it's good enough for them" gambit when answering a question about paying players -- which only makes sense if he's now willing to reduce his $4.9 million salary to the inflation-adjusted version of what Hayden Fry made to coach him. Stoops also suggested last week that the SEC isn't as dominant as its national titles, NFL draft choices, television viewership and other raw data suggest because SEC teams 11-14 aren't as good as Big 12 teams seven through 10.
But if he played baseball, Stoops would be batting .333, because he made a great point on Saturday. Before a Sooner Caravan stop in Tulsa, Stoops was asked about the upcoming College Football Playoff, and he suggested a lack of faith in the ability of humans -- whether they're poll voters or selection committee members -- to properly evaluate records given the enormous disparity in schedule strength throughout the sport. Someone intimated that the selection committee would take into account and hopefully elevate those teams willing to play tougher schedules. Stoops scoffed. "Yeah," Stoops told John Hoover of the
Stoops then explained why he thought two-loss Oklahoma deserved inclusion in a BCS bowl over one-loss Northern Illinois last season. That argument might have more gusto if the Sooners hadn't gotten destroyed by two-loss Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, but that doesn't make Stoops' point any less valid. Oklahoma had more impressive best wins (Texas, Oklahoma State, Baylor vs. Kansas and Kent State) and lost to better opponents (Kansas State and Notre Dame vs. Iowa) than Northern Illinois did in 2012. His skepticism for the future is warranted. Throughout the history of the sport -- and especially during the BCS era -- the vast majority of college football observers have measured success using the method Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott calls "tracking one loss." What is that? It's the habit of grouping the teams with the fewest losses at the top of the poll, then making a second group containing the teams with the second-fewest losses, and so forth. I've been guilty of this as an AP Poll voter. So has everyone else who has voted in a poll.
Before the switch to a playoff, we all need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the 12-0 team is obviously the best team. Or that the three 11-1 teams are clearly the next best. This sounds simple enough, but try putting a two-loss team above a one-loss team on a poll ballot and watch the hate mail flow. This isn't the case in any other sport, but in college football, we're hardwired to look solely at the loss column when we should be looking at both columns. This tendency has to change.
The humans who make up the playoff selection committee probably will find themselves falling victim to the same urge. Hopefully, someone in the room will have the guts to speak up and force committee members to parse schedules carefully before choosing four teams. I still believe the committee is the best solution for setting the postseason field for this very reason. Poll voters typically make their choices in a vacuum. Computers don't consult anyone. Committee members get challenged and must defend their preferences. That often exposes flawed thinking and leads to more sound decision-making. So whether those committee members are current ADs and conference officials, retired coaches or a mix of the two, hopefully they'll think about what Stoops recently said.
The computers rankings used in the BCS standings usually considered both columns better than the humans did, but after margin of victory was removed from the formula in 2002, it limited the computers' accuracy. The humans tend to downgrade teams fairly universally after a loss. This was never more apparent than in 2007, when the final Saturday began with the possibility of a Missouri-West Virginia national title game because those were the two most acceptable one-loss teams. The eventual national champ (LSU) only became a possibility again after those two lost, making Ohio State the only remaining acceptable one-loss team and LSU the most acceptable two-loss team. LSU was always the best of that bunch, but it took one easy-to-see-from-a-mile-away result (Oklahoma over Missouri in the Big 12 title game) and one shocker (Pittsburgh over West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl) for the Tigers to even get a title shot.
So let's take a look at the past 10 years and try to pick the playoff participants using the win column and the loss column. As you'll see, it's quite difficult. (Remember, we're imagining it's December when these decisions take place. So we're determining 2008, for example, with no knowledge that Utah is going to lay an epic whipping on Alabama four weeks later.) I'll give you my choices. You likely will disagree. In a committee situation, we'd have to explain ourselves and then come to a consensus.
This doesn't mean the upcoming system is bad. It gives more deserving teams a shot at the title in most years. But in some years, it also leaves some teams out whose résumés aren't all that different from the third and fourth teams in. Despite what the flat-earth bowl lovers say, this system was not designed to eliminate controversy. And why would anyone want to eliminate controversy? Controversy is great for ratings.
SI's Stewart Mandel and Pete Thamel assembled a mock selection committee made up of actual athletic directors in December to determine who would've made a playoff if it had existed last season. They chose Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida and Oregon -- just as the BCS standings would have. But they didn't make their decision before giving Stanford and Texas A&M serious consideration. This would have been difficult for me. Stanford beat Oregon head-to-head in Eugene and played a more challenging schedule, but Stanford also lost to Washington. (This was before Stanford made the quarterback change that altered the trajectory of its season.) But should Stanford be punished for scheduling Notre Dame while Oregon played Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech out of conference? And if we're considering two-loss teams, shouldn't we consider Texas A&M, which beat one of our playoff teams on the road and narrowly lost to another? And what about Georgia, which beat Florida and nearly beat Alabama? That's what makes this process so difficult. Heck, we're not even considering Louisville, which, unbeknownst to us, is about to throttle one of our no-brainers (Florida) in the Sugar Bowl.
The BCS standings would have chosen LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State and Stanford. It probably would be tough to find anyone to argue with the first three of those teams. I take issue with Stanford, though. If Oregon plays anyone other than LSU, Alabama or Oklahoma State in its season opener, it probably finishes the season with the same record as Stanford. Unfortunately, Oregon chose LSU. The Tigers, as you can see, assembled one of the best résumés in college football history in 2011. So, essentially, an Oregon team that beat Stanford by
The top four in the BCS standings were Auburn, Oregon, TCU and Stanford, and like 2011, the fourth spot is up for grabs. You could make an argument that the third spot should be up for grabs, too, but TCU can thank Utah for being otherwise solid. This is one of those years where a selection committee that doesn't do its real work until December -- and therefore isn't as biased by preseason polls -- will help. TCU (Oregon State), Ohio State (Miami) and Stanford (Notre Dame) attempted to schedule quality out-of-conference games, but the opponents didn't hold up their end of the bargain during the season. The Big Ten was incredibly top-heavy this season. Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin beat up on one another but didn't really beat anyone else good. Meanwhile, Oklahoma wasn't anywhere near the national title conversation, but the Sooners' résumé stacks up pretty favorably with the other teams in the running for the fourth spot. In fact, I'm giving Oklahoma the nod for the final playoff berth based on its number of quality wins. If the Sooners play a directional school instead of Florida State, I'm not convinced.
What a mess. Alabama and Texas are easy choices, but the rest of the field is a nightmare to pick from. It's easy now to look back at Florida's demolition of Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl and place the Gators above the Bearcats, but we forget how down the SEC East was in 2009. Florida had exactly one quality win, while Cincinnati beat a host of above-average teams. TCU only beat one AQ-conference team that would win eight or more games, but it was a Clemson team that backed into the ACC Atlantic title. Meanwhile, what about Boise State? The Broncos played in a weak league, but they did open the season by beating the eventual Pac-10 champ. The biggest enigma is Ohio State, which beat Wisconsin, Penn State and the Iowa team that went on to win the Orange Bowl. But the Buckeyes lost at home to a USC team that proved fairly mediocre and a Purdue team that was decidedly mediocre. That latter stinker of a loss eliminates Ohio State. As for the rest, the committee is basically throwing darts at a board.
This year is another mess. Oklahoma certainly earned its spot with quality nonconference wins against TCU and Cincinnati -- the Sooners also scheduled Washington, but that game landed in the nadir of the Ty Willingham era -- and some tough Big 12 wins, but it's possible to argue convincingly for and against any of the other seven candidates. If taking a loss from a four-loss team doesn't disqualify a squad, then Florida, Penn State and USC each have a case. But USC lost to Oregon State, which was beaten in out-of-conference games by Utah and Penn State. Alabama beat the Ole Miss team that beat Florida, but Florida's fresh-in-the-mind, head-to-head win against the Crimson Tide gives the Gators a boost. (Alabama tried to schedule a tough out-of-conference game this season, but Clemson Clemsoned early and got Tommy Bowden fired.) Remember, we have no idea that Utah spanks Alabama when they play, so how much credence do we give the Utes, who beat Oregon State and a bunch of Mountain West foes? And what of Texas and Texas Tech, who finished in a three-way tie with Oklahoma in the Big 12 South? We also aren't looking at records in a vacuum, so the way teams won matters as well. Except Ole Miss and Alabama, the Gators buzzsawed their opponents. Utah had a few close calls, but the Utes did win every game. So who gets the nod? Oklahoma is a lock. Florida gets one spot. I originally thought Texas and Alabama would be locks, but with the numbers in front of me, neither is. USC, which also won most of its games in dominant fashion, gets one spot thanks primarily to the strength of its win against Ohio State. That leaves Utah, Alabama, Texas, Texas Tech and Penn State battling for one spot. I'd like to think I'd be enlightened and take the Utes, who had the better résumé, but I'd probably get swept up in the competitiveness of the SEC title game and select Alabama.
This was the year no team wanted to distinguish itself. LSU brought Virginia Tech to Baton Rouge, and that win probably is what vaulted the Tigers over the other two-loss teams when voters chose who would play in the BCS title game. In the playoff, Ohio State and LSU would earn spots. But who else would? USC, Georgia and West Virginia took losses from teams that finished 6-6 or worse. Virginia Tech played LSU and got destroyed, but the Hokies did avenge their regular-season loss to Boston College in the ACC title game. Oklahoma beat Missouri twice, but the Sooners also lost to Colorado. There are no easy decisions for those final two spots.
This is the opposite of 2007. A ton of teams distinguished themselves. Though all but Ohio State and Boise State took losses, most of those losses came to other very good teams. That's where USC runs into problems. While the Trojans have great nonconference wins against Arkansas, Nebraska and Notre Dame, their losses are the worst of the bunch. Meanwhile, the SEC -- which began its run of BCS titles this season -- had a top-heavy year in which the top teams beat up on one another. This is where no committee can help. We know now that Florida pounds Ohio State when they meet, but looking at the résumés -- Ohio State had a sterling one and Florida hung by the skin of its teeth for most of the season -- it's impossible to make that prediction. Boise State also presents a quandary. The Broncos beat Oregon State and a pretty good Hawaii team, but we don't know then that Boise State is BOISE STATE because that magical Fiesta Bowl hasn't happened yet.
This year is more difficult to judge because it was the last one before the NCAA approved the 12th regular-season game on a permanent basis. I could have lowered the quality-win threshold to seven wins, but it's easier to stay consistent. Not many teams racked up quality wins, making it tough to judge who should get into the playoff beneath Texas and USC.
The first three spots are easy to select from this group. USC was a juggernaut. Oklahoma and Auburn were undefeated. So who gets the fourth invite? Is it Cal, which narrowly lost to USC? Is it Texas, which politicked its way into the Rose Bowl ahead of Cal that year? Or is it Utah, which would have entered the playoffs with Urban Meyer already employed by Florida?
Oklahoma's Big 12 title game loss to Kansas State isn't as big of a deal as it was in the BCS era, but if LSU, Oklahoma and USC all make the playoff, it leaves a glut of 10-2 teams fighting for the final berth. The differences between Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, Florida State, Tennessee and Miami are not glaring, so the choice is really just an educated guess.