On a magical day in June, college football announced that it would implement a four-team playoff beginning in the 2014 season. Fans rejoiced, administrators patted themselves on the back and schools drooled over the dollars that the ensuing TV contract would provide.
Now that the first college football season since the announcement has nearly been completed, Sports Illustrated made the brilliant decision to convene a mock college football playoff selection committee based on this season. Stewart Mandel and Pete Thamel have been rightly praised for the idea and its execution.
What's been missing is any evaluation of the actual process this mock committee used. Because, if the mock committee is a representation of what the real committee will be, why are we bothering to get rid of the BCS standings? The idea behind having a selection committee was that it would take a more well-rounded view of the process rather than focusing on the legend that is the "eye test."
The first thing that struck me was that there was no real explanation of what data the committee considered. With the NCAA Basketball Tournament selection committee, it's widely known that the RPI is highly used, among other factors like record on the road, at neutral sites, vs. the top 50 and in the final 10 games. Did the mock committee have any of this available, and to what extent did they use it? None of that was revealed in the article.
When the playoff was initially announced, it was on the heels of an All-SEC BCS Championship Game. Big-time players in the discussion repeatedly said that any selection committee would be instructed to view conference champions favorably, basically in an effort to reduce the likelihood that a non-division champion (Alabama, 2011) would be able to reach the national championship over a conference champion from another league.
So, what did the mock committee do? Award two of the four spots to non-division champions in Oregon and Florida. Effectively, Stanford was punished for scheduling Notre Dame, and Georgia was punished for playing in the SEC Championship Game. Isn't this what a selection committee was supposed to balance? Not being a slave to the polls and the "eye test."
"They will use their expertise and good old fashioned common sense," current BCS chairman Bill Hancock said. "None of this is set in stone, but I know they will use records, strength of schedule, head-to-head, results against common opponents, all those common sense things that we'd all expect the group to look at."
Hmmm. Strength of schedule and head-to-head and common sense. If Stanford played Arkansas State instead of Notre Dame—and won and was 11-1 with a win over Oregon—would it be in the playoff? The answer is obviously yes. So, why should Oregon be in instead because it beat Arkansas State instead of going on the road to the No. 1 team in the country? The two teams are in the same division and played the same conference schedule. Stanford came out on top. That should mean something.
Similarly, Georgia won the SEC Eastern Division. If there was no SEC Championship Game, the Bulldogs would be in the playoff. As a committee member, how do you justify removing them for losing to the No. 2 team in the nation (the members were instructed to assume the higher ranked team won all future games). And in its place, insert a team that finished behind them in their own division in Florida.
Undoubtedly, these are hard decisions. There is no doubt Florida has an incredibly impressive resume. However, the Gators and Georgia have six common opponents within their own division, and the Bulldogs came out on top. How does the committee ignore that? Do they assume Georgia wouldn't have beaten Texas A&M or Florida State also? You can't do that. It's the whole "eye test" thing that assumes Notre Dame can't beat Oklahoma or USC, or Alabama will never lose or any other result in history where the "eye test" was once again incredibly wrong.
The Oregon over Stanford decision is decidedly more of a problem. Like the SEC situation, Stanford beat Oregon and won the division. Unlike it, Oregon presumably earned a spot in the mock playoff because of dreaded style points. Style points are all the rage, and they apparently affected the mock committee.
Had they used the RPI like the basketball committee, here's what they would have seen. Oregon has the 65th SOS in the country. Stanford is 17th. Oregon went 1-1 vs. the RPI top 25. Stanford went 4-1. Also, Stanford beat Oregon. At Oregon.
So, what exactly is the argument for Oregon over Stanford? But it scores so many points. Except for when it doesn't, against a team with a stout front seven, like Stanford, or Notre Dame or (SEC Championship Game winner).
"How do you encourage people to play [tough games]?" said [Big Ten Commissioner Jim] Delany.
Based on the mock committee, perhaps he should ask Stanford.
Before the season, excitement about a new playoff was paramount. And obviously, making four teams earn it on the field is fairer than the current setup. However, if the playoff teams are to be selected in more-or-less the same manner as now, is that really progress?
If you were the AD at Stanford, would you stop playing Notre Dame if it's going to cost you? If you were the Georgia AD, would you politely decline the SEC Championship Game if you make the playoff without showing up? If it were me, I say yes to both.