College football is new to this selection committee and playoff thing. It can learn from the mistakes and shortcomings of basketball’s March Madness.
Tournament results do not rectify selection mistakes. The College Football Playoff Committee should have already learned this lesson with Ohio State, but if they have not, here is Syracuse to remind them. The Orangemen probably should not be in the tournament. Their resume was not compatible with being selected to the field of 64. The only way they were deserving of a berth is if the committee discounted the time their head coach was suspended for breaking NCAA rules. Otherwise they shouldn’t be there.
Now, some people may disagree, and truth be told there is some room for argument. Most observers come down on the side of the Syracuse shouldn’t have been invited side, but reasonable people disagree. Those who disagree may point to the Orangemen’s strength of schedule, their finish in the ACC or point out that some of their bad games came without their coach. What they cannot point to to support their argument is the run to the Final Four.
Of course Syracuse is good enough to go to the Final Four, but that has nothing to do with whether they are deserving of having that opportunity. In college basketball, like college football, there are more teams who are capable of winning in the tournament than there are teams who are invited. Being good enough isn’t the standard for being included in the field. Being deserving is.
This is an incredibly important point. Too often debates about “who’s in” take into account who the “best” team is. Why is that not the question? There are two reasons. First, who the best team is is necessarily a matter of speculation. It’s usually based on the eye test and opinion. That’s no way to choose who gets to play for the national championship. Second, it devalues on the field results. It is how you explain away losses. “Well, we didn’t have our starting quarterback” or “That was early, look how good we are now”. It shifts the focus from what actually happened on the field to a fantasy realm where the team is actually better than what they showed. It makes the selection a popularity contest.
Speaking of popularity contests, is there anything more maddening than the way the NCAA committee explains away their arbitrary decisions to include some teams over others? Florida State always comes to mind when I hear the committee chairman march out some line of BS to justify the darts his committee just threw at the wall. One year it is the out of conference RPI that’s important; another year it’s the conference standings; Top 50 wins matter for this team; bad losses matter for this team. It’s arbitrary at best.
The college football committee has the same problem because they, like their basketball counterparts, are told to give their opinion. They give some factors that they are going to consider, but then they are going to do what they want (or put more charitably what they think is best). They are beholden to no one; there is no appeal. They just choose and we go on. Anyone who argues with them is a sore loser, and besides, why didn’t they go undefeated, huh, huh?
Syracuse is a 10 seed in this year’s tournament, and they were a bubble team on Selection Sunday. Usually the memory of their controversial choice is forgotten by the time the final four comes around. Usually everyone has forgotten about the teams in the NIT and the teams that got in. Vanderbilt got into the tournament and promptly lost. They were probably chosen over South Carolina, who lost in the second round of the NIT. No one cares about that now, nor should they, and the reason that matters is that we quickly forget the committee’s mistakes and caprice. We are enamored with the great spectacle that is the tournament itself. This year Syracuse forces us to remember because they are still there, even if they don’t deserve to be.
The college football committee won’t have that luxury. There aren’t 67 games to drown out the mistakes they make. There are only 3. Ohio State was a controversial pick two years ago, but they weren’t wholly undeserving. Last season could not have been any neater for the committee. The big test will come from them when there are more than 4 deserving teams, or less. How will they handle it then, what will they make up, who gets left out?
In many ways the playoff is much better than the BCS that preceded it. It gives fans three games with four teams, and it has been a great success. In one key area it is a terrible regression: lack of certainty. Proponents will howl that a four team playoff gives us certainty, but I argue it does not. The sacrosanct ideal that the champion is decided on the field is false if the teams who are allowed to play on the field are chosen by lot or popularity.
The BCS had a formula. The games were played, the numbers calculated and we had two teams ready to play. There was no wow factor in the final week; no one looked at the names on the jerseys to see who should get the nod. It was math, numbers and on the field results. That’s where the BCS’s strength lay. Now it has been abandoned.
The playoff should learn while they can and implement some objective formulas for choosing their playoff participants. Want to favor conference champions? Add it in the formula. Want teams to play better out of conference? Add it to the formula. There’s no reason to pretend that we can’t do better than a committee. We watch the basketball committee fail every year, and we get lost in the glamor and pageantry of the Final Four. We won’t have that same luxury when the college football committee makes the same mistakes.