Vague playoff criteria set to cause chaos after Championship Saturday

Vague College Football Playoff criteria will likely cause chaos following the results from Championship Saturday.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Florida State put forth one last come-from-behind performance on Saturday night in the ACC championship game, a final great escape in a season that has doubled as a David Copperfield act. With a 37-35 win over Georgia Tech to secure their third consecutive ACC title, the Seminoles seemingly clinched a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. “We’ll be in the playoff,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said when asked about not being the No. 1 team. “That’s what matters. That’s an opinion. Ours are facts.”

Fisher is absolutely correct. The Seminoles should be one of the four survivors. Except he later brought up a thorny little issue that the rest of the country will become quite familiar with by the time this weekend is over. Fisher admitted he had never looked at the guidelines for picking the four teams. “I don’t know what the criteria is,” he said. “I mean it -- I don’t know.”

Fisher and Florida State improved to 13-0, managing to avoid the fickle fate of the ticking time bomb that is the playoff selection committee’s decision. The dilemma facing college football is best summed up by the attitude of Baylor coach Art Briles, who said this when asked if the system is working: “Not if we’re not in it.”

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Briles’ simple quote encapsulates the complicated future ahead, as the College Football Playoff transitions from novel idea into an inevitable magnet for outrage. In the giddy excitement that came with getting rid of the two-team BCS in favor of the four-team playoff, many overlooked a potential fatal flaw. The vague criteria essentially allows the selection committee to make up the rules as it goes along.

That is not an exaggeration. Sure, there is protocol tucked away on the playoff’s tidy website. But pouring over what’s listed, it’s painstakingly clear that the college football overlords didn’t want to be overly specific. That’s a great idea in theory; it doesn’t box in the committee. But in execution things are really going to get funky.

Before diving into the minutiae, let’s start with the first problem facing the playoff. This one isn’t going away. There are five major leagues in college football, and only four teams will reach the postseason that matters. One does not need an engineering degree from Georgia Tech to figure out that four teams from five leagues adds up to a raging controversy, every time.

playoff inline photo

On Sunday a team with a legitimate case will be excluded from the playoff. Will it be No. 3 TCU, which toasted Iowa State 55-3 on Saturday to finish 11-1? Will it be No. 5 Ohio State, which dominated Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten title game behind its third-string quarterback? Will it be No. 6 Baylor, which turned in an equally impressive victory by thrashing No. 9 Kansas State 38-27 in Waco?

It can’t possibly be undefeated Florida State, can it? The Seminoles have won 29 games in a row, the 12th-longest winning streak in college football history. They were impressive in beating Georgia Tech on Saturday, even showing a bit of game control that isn’t evident from a simple glance at the final score.

Yet confusion reigns. In a perfect summation of the naiveté America has about the committee’s decision-making, Fisher said: “You tell me. Anyone know?”

Glad you asked, Jimbo. According to the playoff website, the committee will select the teams using a process that distinguishes among otherwise comparable teams by considering:

• Championships won
• Strength of schedule
• Head-to-head competition (if it occurred)
• Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incentivizing margin of victory)
• Other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance

Those are very few words given how much is at stake. With millions of dollars up for grabs and lives potentially forever changed by the gap between No. 4 and No. 5, shouldn’t the criteria have been better defined? We don’t know if conference co-champions will be regarded as highly as teams that won league title games. (Sorry, Big 12.) We don’t know which strength-of-schedule metric will be used. (Good news for Baylor, which scheduled the equivalent of the Texarkana jayvee out-of-conference.) The committee says head-to-head results matter, but its early voting patterns of ranking TCU above Baylor indicate otherwise.

And no incentive for margin of victory? Really? And how about game control, the metric committee chair Jeff Long brought up a few weeks ago? (Should Ohio State’s 59-0 victory over Wisconsin count the same as a typical 21-17 win?)

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A few weeks ago former NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen, who ran the NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection committee for years, spoke on the matter best: “No one knows the criteria. This isn’t an integrity issue. You can have the smartest people in the world, but if the roadmap isn’t there then it doesn’t matter.”

The roadmap is clear now -- and the destination is a messy scene packed with confused players, coaches and fans from the No. 5 and No. 6 schools. Somehow, the controversy looming over the playoff is bigger and more polarizing than the one that previously hovered over the computer polls, unqualified Harris Poll voters and constantly changing metrics that defined the clunky BCS era.

While no one knows where all of this is headed, one thing cannot be overstated: The first chapter of the future of college football will be written on Sunday.

Soon enough, Fisher and Briles will become familiar with the vague criteria of the new postseason. And whichever teams end up on the outside looking in will, as Briles said, have a lot of questions about why the system isn’t working.