College football does not set up particularly well for a playoff or for determining a true champion.
For most of the sport’s history, a champion simply got named after the regular season using whatever ranking system happened to hold sway at the time. In the 1970s, the AP and UPI polls (then widely recognized as the championship standards), shifted their final ranking to take into account bowl results. This mostly subjective process created a lot of attention, but was no stranger to controversy with different schools often claiming titles for the same season.
From 1998 to 2013, the much maligned Bowl Championship Series (BCS) took preeminence over the poll system and matched its top two teams in a championship game. The BCS incorporated the poll system into its rankings, and also used various computer models, taking into account strength-of-schedule and other factors in an effort to make the process more objective. Fans and coaches (at least fans and coaches of teams often left out of the top two) despised the BCS and its demise yielded few laments.
For the 2014 season, the College Football Playoff replaced the BCS and marked the first attempt at a true playoff at the big-time level. A committee (some with football expertise and some with little background in the sport) started providing weekly rankings in mid-October and at the end of the regular season seeded four teams into two semi-final games.
So, that solves all the issues with naming a national champion in college football, right? Nah.
Yes, selecting just two teams for a championship game excluded too many worthy challengers. But, naming four teams may not be quite enough. And, expanding to eight teams would probably require giving automatic bids to undeserving conference champions (anybody think Cincinnati or Central Florida is better than Mississippi State or five or six other SEC teams?).
It’s similar to the old Goldilocks and the Three Bears story, except unlike the porridge, or the chair, or the bed, naming the college football national champion may never be “just right.”
However, if the sport is determined to produce a national champion in other than “mythical” name only, the playoff looks to be better than the old BCS system and the poll rankings.
It is difficult to argue with the four teams the committee selected.
#1 Alabama earned the top seed in the playoff and will face #4 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s night. Immediately before that semi-final game, #2 Oregon meets #3 Florida State in the Rose Bowl. The winners play at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on January 12 for the national championship.
As might be expected, those pairings caused a bit of growling.
The angriest arguments emanated from Waco, Texas, where the Baylor Bears and their head coach, Art Briles, didn’t find the college football playoff selection process to be a fairy tale at all. Baylor finished 11-1, shared the Big 12 title with 11-1 TCU (a team the Bears beat head-to-head), solidly whipped then #9 Kansas State in the season finale, but still got left out of the playoff.
Briles is a blunt Texan, and Baylor’s papa bear crawled all over a few targets. First on his list was Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who made the mantra “One True Champion” the conference rallying cry for 2014. Because Baylor and TCU ended with the same record, Briles believed Baylor rightly owned a tie-breaker since the Bears beat the Horned Frogs on the field. Instead, Bowlsby declared the teams co-champions and presented each with a trophy after their final games. Briles felt the conference weakened Baylor’s case by not arguing for the Bears as sole Big 12 champ, and he told Bowlsby as much.
Similarly, the selection committee did not escape Briles’ ire. He argued that the Big 12 lacked allies on the committee, noting (a bit awkwardly) that the only native Southerner of the group was former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (a Stanford professor). I think Briles is great, but he might have been even more effective by alluding to the fact that the committee bypassed two relative newcomers to the national scene (TCU finished in the 6th slot) and went with four of the sport’s longtime bluebloods. Those choices are sure to appeal to ESPN television audiences.
So while Briles made legitimate points, again it’s tough fault the four teams that made the playoff. Alabama won the nation’s toughest division and steamrolled Missouri 42-13 in the SEC championship game to earn the top seed. The Oregon Ducks avenged their only loss of the season by paddling Arizona 51-13 for the Pac-12 title. Unbeaten defending national champion FSU showed its typical resolve in close games by edging Georgia Tech and the challenging Yellow Jacket option attack 37-35 to take the ACC crown. The Seminoles won for the 29th straight time.
That left the final spot to be decided among Baylor, TCU, and the Ohio State Buckeyes. On the strength of the head-to-head win, Baylor was going to get the nod over TCU in the selection committee’s final standings. However, Ohio State continued a stunningly impressive win streak (now at 11 games) by demolishing a pretty good Wisconsin team 59-0 in the Big Ten Title game. That showing was enough to get them into the playoff’s fourth spot.