Stanford's Case for the College Football Playoff: A Fight for a Sport's Soul

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Stanford's Case for the College Football Playoff: A Fight for a Sport's Soul
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Good luck, Jeff Long.

Starting next year, the Arkansas athletic director and the other 12 members comprising the College Football Playoff committee will determine the nation’s four most worthy teams.

An entire sport’s soul hangs in the balance.

How the 13-person committee treats teams like this year’s Stanford will determine how programs will schedule for the foreseeable future.

The day Long officially became the committee chair, he claimed to know the stakes.

“We have important judgments to make during that process,” Long said in an Oct. 16 ESPN.com story. “We realize we represent all of college football.”

Realizing how much power the committee holds represents a great start.

Figuring out how to utilize said power for the betterment of the sport becomes the second, more pivotal step.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Specifically, what will the committee ask of potential at-large, nonconference-winning candidates?

Take, for instance, the 2013 Alabama team.

National media members have seemingly unanimously gone on record as saying if the College Football Playoff existed today, the Crimson Tide should have a place in it.

Alabama’s resume is obvious. It spent virtually the entire regular season as the No. 1 team and ranked third in the final BCS standings.

However, upon closer examination, Alabama’s tangible case lacks the necessary strength to justify qualifying for the playoff as a team that failed to win its conference.

The Crimson Tide finished the season 0-1 against the BCS Top 10, albeit on the final play and on the road at No. 2 Auburn. Alabama won its other two games against BCS Top 25 teams.

So the Crimson Tide finished 2-1 against Top 25 teams. Its next-best win came on a neutral site against Virginia Tech, which ranks 37th in the BCS standings.

Alabama’s two games against SEC East teams came against the worst two—Kentucky and Tennessee. So even the SEC toughness let the Crimson Tide down this season in terms of building a compelling case as an at-large team.

This is not an anti-Alabama argument. It’s an anti-resume argument.

Replace the name “Alabama” with any other name and it would likely be left out of a four-team playoff.

Alabama receives the benefit of the doubt because of what it has accomplished recently and because it passes the eye test—it appears to be one of the best teams in the nation.

The same eye test played a significant role in the BCS. For the new playoff to truly make a positive impact on the sport, the “eye test” argument needs to vanish from the lexicon.

Compare Alabama’s credentials to those of Stanford.

The Cardinal finished the season fifth in the BCS standings and won the Pac-12 with what the Sagarin Ratings judged as the fifth-toughest schedule in the nation.

Stanford beat Oregon, its lone opponent in the final Top 10 of the BCS standings. It also finished 4-1 against teams in the BCS Top 25 and scored wins over Notre Dame, No. 26, and Washington, No. 28.

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However, the grueling schedule left the Cardinal with two losses. In the eyes of many, the “2” in the loss column—including one inexplicable defeat at Utah—serves as reason to eliminate Stanford from contention.

Consider for a moment, though, what message that sends to programs across the country.

Currently, three of the five power conferences continue to play eight-game league schedules. Only the Big 12 and Pac-12 increased to nine conference games.

The Big Ten announced this year its plans to move to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016.

Just this year, SEC coaches voted 13-1 against expanding to a nine-game schedule according to ESPN. Coincidentally, Alabama coach Nick Saban cast the lone vote in favor of another conference contest.

Both of Stanford’s losses, it should be pointed out, came to Pac-12 South opponents. If the Cardinal played three games against the other division instead of four, the USC loss on the road could have been replaced by a home game against Idaho.

Would that scheduling switch have made Stanford a better team? If the answer is no, then why should the committee value one loss more than the strength of the Cardinal’s victories?

If the loss column means substantially more than racking up an impressive string of wins, why would SEC coaches ever vote to add a conference game? After all, adding another SEC team likely means losing a home contest against a Sun Belt team.

The SEC, for the record, went 38-4 against American Athletic Conference, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Conference USA, Independents and FCS opponents in 2013. Three of those losses came from Kentucky and Arkansas, who combined to go 0-16 in SEC play. Many of the 42 games included six- and seven-figure paydays for opponents to make death marches into SEC shrines.

These are exactly the types of games the College Football Playoff committee can eliminate by sending the message that, to receive at-large bids, teams must boast outstanding resumes.

For too long—and not just in the BCS era—college football has relied too heavily on the eye test.

The College Football Playoff has an opportunity to help transcend the sport into reaching its vastly greater potential.

To do so, it must stand up to criticism that highly-ranked teams with average resumes deserve a place in the playoff.

A failure to do so would simply encourage schedules so weak Kansas State coach Bill Snyder—the King of Cupcakery—would cringe.

If the committee truly values strength of schedule and conference championships, as it plans, teams will fall in line and challenge themselves with a daunting slate of games.

Thus, the soul of an entire sport hangs in the balance, waiting for the 13-member jury to determine whether teams should step up the competition or continue paying for victories.

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