Thursday, December 11, 2014

College Football Playoff Committee Gets Caught in Headlights, Ohio State Wins

Did the oversaturation of dumb sports network talking heads lead to the Big 12's exclusion from the 2014 college playoffs to Ohio State's benefit? Probably. There's a thesis statement in there, but I'm too lazy to rewrite it.


We're still on the subject of the playoff, but I'm jumping to Florida State for a moment. Florida State went undefeated this year and will (rightfully, IMO) be featured in the four-team playoff. The issue isn't their inclusion, but their seeding that interests me. Florida State is the number three seed and will face Oregon in the first round. That's fine and dandy, and everyone is happy.

Consider this scenario: there is no playoff, and America only gets a championship game. The Committee only gets to choose the top two teams in the nation to play each other. In this scenario, Oregon would not be ranked ahead of Florida State. Crazy? Absolutely. Factual? Darn tootin'. 

Alabama is a powerhouse, only lost one game, and beat up on Mizzou to win the SEC. So we collectively acknowledge the Tide's rightful place in the championship game. But who should Alabama play? The Committee collectively believes that Oregon is the better team. It won a better conference, had the better nonconference showing (most notably a win over Michigan State), and is just easier to love than the boys from Tallahassee. But you can't leave out an undefeated team[1]! And the Committee wouldn't leave them out. If it was tasked with simply picking two teams, the fear of backlash would force an Alabama-Florida State game. BECAUSE YOU CAN'T LEAVE AN UNDEFEATED TEAM OUT OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME. Yet once again, the nation largely agrees that it was appropriate to seed Oregon over Florida State, and Vegas is backing this decision by declaring Oregon a decent favorite. So the perceived best team is influence by the format of the playoff system.

BACK TO OUR THESIS (Blame the Media?)

The above logic, while lacking unassailability, should still leave you nodding your head. And if you believe that Florida State's ranking could be influenced by the playoff format, then we accept that the committee is subject to outside influence (everything is subject to outside influence). And this influence was TCU's downfall.

TCU fielded an excellent team this year, and finished the season 11-1. Its only loss was to another 11-1 team - Baylor. However, due to the circumstances of that game, a superior nonconference schedule, and other factors, the Playoff Committee unapologetically ranked TCU ahead of Baylor for the last month of the season. Which is fine. A worse team can beat a better team. It happens every week. It probably happened in this instance. Subscribing to a head-to-head preference system simply takes you down a transitive property rabbit hole. The Committee's obligation remains to rank the teams in order of best to worst, and it refused to subscribe to the head-to-head fallacy.

The Committee was steadfast until the final rankings, at which time inexplicably dropped TCU from #3 to #5 (even after crushing Iowa State 51-3 despite playing its reserves with extremely conservative playcalling). Florida State, winning a 37-35 nailbiter over Georgia Tech, moved up from #4 to #3. To round out the four-team field, Ohio State's dominance over Wisconsin won it the #4 spot, placing a team from the oft-mocked Big 10(+4) in the inaugural college football playoff. So after being on the outside looking in for so long, Ohio State played itself into the final spot.

Or did it? The week before the final standings were announced, I couldn't listen to sports radio without a talking head relentlessly espouse the head-to-head fallacy. The tide of public opinion was turning, and Baylor's hiring of a lobbyist/PR firm fanned the flames. The Committee was in a no-win situation: placing TCU ahead of Baylor places the nation in an uproar as the head-to-head fallacy has successfully entered the mainstream groupthink. Voting for TCU is now akin to voting for the Affordable Care Act in a district convinced the legislation contains panels of death (this is actually a solid analogy, for while several more factors are at work that should legitimately influence your opinion on the matter, the only thing people latched on to was a lie). 

Yet if the Committee placed Baylor ahead of TCU, where's the rationale? Nothing happened that weekend to justify the move - while TCU rolled, Baylor struggled greatly with a home game against K-State. Solution: leave them both out. No one is focused on the fact that Baylor jumped TCU in the final standing - they're focused on the two Big 12 teams being left out. Except that these are two small schools that play in the Big 12. While the Big 12 remains a better conference than the Pac-12, Big 10, or ACC, it lacks any coastal media presence. Plus, these are small schools! They're not Ohio State! No one actually cares about Baylor!

I'm not alleging any grand conspiracy - these things are often done without conscious devilishness. Yet the outcome remains the same. In the last week of the season, it suddenly became unfashionable to consider TCU better than Baylor. But you couldn't put Baylor in the playoff and leave out TCU. What's a Committee to do? Alabama and Oregon are considered the best two teams, and take seeds #1 and #2. They can't leave Florida State out (undefeated fallacy?). This leaves one spot for two deserving teams, and they offer a damned if you do and damned if you don't option. Unless you give that spot to Ohio State instead. Problem solved. So when Ohio State gets stomped by 20 points, just remember that it should have been TCU and Baylor playing that game. But they can't both play. So it's easier to just put the Buckeyes there.

I started off blaming the media. Maybe I should blame the spinelessness of the committee.

[1]  unless it's Baylor or a non-BCS program

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