Under the BCS system, which for so long determined the college football champion, computers and analysts had to answer one deceptively complex question: Who are the best two teams in the country?
Simple as it seems, that question would be practically impossible to resolve this year. It’s not because selecting the top team is particularly difficult — defending national champion Alabama has never even hinted it deserves to lose its spot atop the rankings.
Indeed, the problem is that deciding on just one team to follow the Tide forces a comparison between teams that have hardly even played any common opponents (let alone each other). Rather than choosing a single one of these squads based on the hottest new metric, it makes much more sense to settle the question in the fairest way possible: by pitting them against each other and seeing who emerges.
Enter the College Football Playoff.
This year, choosing four challengers is much easier than selecting two. Alabama is the only undefeated team from a major conference, and just three major programs — Clemson, Washington and Ohio State — have escaped their seasons with only one loss. This would have been a mess for the BCS, but the College Football Playoff sorts things out cleanly. It’s fair to say that, at least for this year, the teams who have earned a shot at the national championship will all get one.
That’s not to say the Playoff has removed all controversy from the decision. Fans of two-loss teams like Michigan and Penn State have already cried foul, and there’s at least some basis for their displeasure. Penn State has a particularly compelling case, having beaten playoff-bound Ohio State and captured the Big Ten title over the Buckeyes. Michigan lost two nail-biters and brings in a quality out-of-conference win over Colorado.
When viewed as part of the greater picture, however, the decision to exclude this teams didn’t have to be that complicated. While the Playoff was intended to fix inequity when more than two teams deserved a shot at a national title, it wasn’t about handing out extra do-overs. When Penn State and Michigan both lost for the first time (the Nittany Lions to Pittsburgh and the Wolverines to Iowa), it should have been fairly clear given the performance of others around the country that their mulligans had been used up. The second loss each team sustained drove the nail in their coffins.
College football has simply always demanded near-perfection from championship teams, and the Playoff era is no different. While admittedly your team can do slightly worse these days and still potentially win a title, the CFP is still fundamentally different from the more lenient postseason systems of other sports. The playoff has improved the BCS in that it makes it more difficult for a top-performing team to be denied a chance to win it all. It’s unreasonable for a team to expect, however, that the hurdles in the way of a championship have been significantly lowered.
If anyone can be a bit outraged about not being chosen in the Playoff, I think it’s Western Michigan.
The Broncos went undefeated in a fairly respectable conference (the MAC) and didn’t even come close to cracking the top four. While this may create an undesirable situation like that of 2006 Boise State in which a team finishes the season undefeated but not a champion, it probably won’t put too much of the college football world up in arms. The emphasis on strength of schedule in recent years has not worked in the favor of teams outside the Power 5, and I think it would take an almost-unprecedented effort from one of these programs if it wanted to crack the Playoff.
Ultimately, all of this left the committee with a simple decision as to who gets to compete in this year’s Playoff. While certain people will undoubtedly remain convinced their squads deserved a shot, I think it’s worth asking how the system could have worked out much better this year. And in a realm that seems continuously mired in controversy, it’s nice to be able to say that for now, all is right in the college football world.
Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu if you want to purchase a vial of Andrew’s tears from when he was forced to delete “Stanford” out of the column he had prepared months ago. Proceeds will go towards a fund to purchase a passing game.