Four, for now: Mock selection exercise shows why current size of playoff field makes sense
GRAPEVINE, Texas—At 11:57 a.m. on Thursday, in the Bluebonnet Boardroom of the city-state known as the Gaylord Texan Hotel, Wisconsin made the College Football Playoff. It did so, literally and fittingly, via badgering.
An extensive, meticulous, mildly exasperating vetting process vaulted the 2011 Big Ten champs (11–2) into the bracket. The decision came at the expense of Oregon (11–2), which claimed a spot in balloting that set the original top four, only to lose it in a 12-point swing across two re-votes prompted by insistent selection committee members. A wobbly Pac-12, two fluky Badgers' losses and some strong-willed arguments—suddenly, the cursor deleted the name on the fourth line of the overall rankings and replaced it with another.
Wisconsin, on. Ducks? Off.
A controversial pick for the fourth playoff team, which ultimately left an entire conference in the lurch? Who could imagine such a thing?
No, the second round of mock playoff selection exercises, arranged by the people who run college football's championship mechanism, hewed to real life as much as possible. (Notwithstanding a guy who gets shaky on Chicago's Navy Pier Ferris wheel standing in for a retired Air Force superintendent.) This was the first mock exercise staged with the context of an actual selection process on the books, and the alignment of the results was striking.
It wasn't about the consternation over the fourth team. It was about no one debating teams No. 1 through No. 3 at all so far. And if the selection committee's deliberations involve two or three teams for one spot on a regular basis, four might be the most reasonable playoff number after all.
"We think four works very well," selection committee chairman Jeff Long said after the event, over which the Arkansas athletic director and several playoff officials presided. "As you guys have seen in the mock, the farther you get away from four, the harder it is. We think four is perfect for college football. We don't spend any time thinking beyond four."
They leave that to just about everyone else, of course, and to state definitively that a four-team playoff will stand the test of time ignores just about every reality there is in college football. Movement toward an eight-team field may be inexorable. No one can foresee the leverage that conference lobbying or future realignment or television money will have on potential expansion of the playoff bracket.
But the best teams in the country—or, at minimum, the teams with the best résumés to earn a playoff bid—generally tend to be self-evident.
This was the case in 2014. Florida State (13–0), Alabama (12–1) and Oregon (12–1) were effectively in before the selection committee began its last round of voting in December. In examining the field of teams in '11, the year chosen by organizers for this mock selection process, the dynamic was largely the same. There was virtually no discussion about the playoff-worthiness of undefeated LSU or one-loss Oklahoma State—as much as this ironically pained Cowboys fans who recalled too well their 11–1 team's gutting BCS-era snub. (This feeling was best summed up in a tweet in my mentions column: "This is like being posthumously exonerated for a crime you didn't commit.")
Regarding 11–1 Alabama, the voting revealed a consensus resoluteness in the room: Though the Crimson Tide lost to LSU in the 2011 regular season and therefore didn't win their division, let alone the SEC, they never dropped from the top three in multiple rounds of ballots. For the purposes of this process, we did not take into account that Alabama drilled LSU in the national championship. Nobody took much of an issue with the Tide's credentials anyway, besides semantic ones that didn't affect their inclusion.
It was not terribly difficult to arrive at these conclusions. The playoff folks held two other mock selection events earlier in the week for two other groups, and though the slotting varied, the identity of the top three teams didn't: LSU, Oklahoma State and Alabama, above all.
So, in 2011, that left one spot, just as a similar dynamic would in '14. (An admittedly cursory look suggests '12 may have produced four clear-cut playoff teams, and '13 might have given us three.) In the discussion about the No. 4 team for '11, our mock selection committee noted that both Wisconsin and Oregon captured conference championships. We also pointed out that the Badgers avenged an early heartbreaker of a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. We noted that the Pac-10 of '11 put several coaches on the unemployment line and that the Ducks' final statement, a 49–31 league championship victory over six-win UCLA, barely qualified as a statement at all. We examined the teams side-by-side all the way down to tempo-free statistics like points per possession and points per play.
Was Oregon undermined by the NCAA, basically, which assessed penalties that prevented a 10-win USC team from being the Ducks' league title game foe? This notion bubbled up after our voting, but as esteemed faux chairman Ralph Russo of the Associated Press noted, "We can only evaluate what happened."
These were our arguments. They're by no means infallible. They're also, in a way, completely moot.
On an annual basis, having essentially one spot to discuss and a couple of next-tier candidates to pick apart—with virtually no disagreement over the other three—indicates a dearth of exceptional teams to include in an eight-team bracket.
Everyone wants access. But what everyone wants has precious little to do with what everyone deserves.
It may be that the 2015 season undermines this line of thought in a few months; presumptions are the only thing snapping as frequently as knee ligaments this fall. Perhaps a jumble of teams with no discerning qualities will represent an argument for extending the bracket. Perhaps three teams will simply be less disheveled than the rest. We will see. The fun part about drawing conclusions is watching college football dynamite them to cinders seconds later.
Otherwise the peek inside the selection process offered unsurprising conclusions, at least to those not wholly cynical about it. Wisconsin made the faux playoff despite Times-Picayune columnist Ron Higgins, our group's stand-in for Barry Alvarez, recusing himself completely on votes involving the Badgers. No undue influence there, for better or for worse. The value of a conference championship was precisely what the committee says it is: a tiebreaker only if two programs are deemed otherwise indistinguishable, and the committee generally felt Alabama distinguished itself quite well in 2011. "They're important," Long said of the league titles, "but they're important when teams are comparable at the end."
None of this was as telling as the result itself, which matched neatly and maybe even tellingly with the real-life vote that preceded it last December. Oregon and Stanford and the Pac-12 could howl just like Baylor and TCU and the Big 12 did when Ohio State popped up in the first playoff bracket. And all that noise would be merely a distraction from the important part: the silence in discussing the teams at the top of the list.
It's right there in the official College Football Playoff committee protocol: the words "select the best teams," underlined for emphasis. Last winter, and then again in a hotel ballroom on Thursday, three of those teams emerged clearly. It didn't make much sense to look for five more.