The System is Broken
And it’s nothing a selection committee can fix.
The selection committee released its rankings for Week 14 last night, and for the first time in history, a team outside the traditional Power-5 conferences became ranked. Two teams, actually. Boise State is ranked 23rd and Marshall is ranked 24th. These rankings are important because the selection committee is taking the highest ranked non Power-5 school to a New Year’s Day bowl game (Rose Bowl, Fiesta, etc.). The excitement of these games will be dramatically lower this year with the playoff being in place, but a spot at a New Year’s Day bowl game will generate a significant amount of money for the schools participating (assuming they can sell their tickets for the event). While supporters of the underdogs are finally sighing in relief, the truth is that this technicality shows the committee-based rankings are just as broken as the BCS.
Fans were annoyed that even the worst of BCS conference champions were allowed to play in a BCS Bowl game, which brought in tons of money to the school, and conference as a whole. The system would put worse teams ahead of deserving teams because of this technicality. The committee is essentially creating the same scenario with a flipped script. The problem was never “the small schools are getting left out.” The problem with the BCS was that it took less deserving schools over better, more deserving schools. The committee is doing the exact same thing by forcing a non-Power 5 school into a New Year’s Day bowl. Both the BCS and the committee are set up to take teams to bowl games based on where they are and not by what they have done. And as a fan, it’s frustrating.
The primary problem with the BCS wasn’t so much its rankings. If you go back and look at the BCS rankings, there is controversy in the top two teams taken in a few of the years. Like in 2004. 2007 was a total mess, but even a committee wouldn’t have fixed that year. Sure, arguments can be made for the BCS busters in Utah, TCU, Hawaii, and Boise State, but it really is hard to justify that these teams, with their strength of schedule, should have been ranked in the top two. Many people have said this from the start: choosing between teams #4 and #5 will be just as difficult as picking between #2 and #3. This year is proof. There are six one-loss teams ranked in the top seven in the College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings. Fifth ranked TCU is ahead of seventh ranked Baylor. Baylor beat TCU head-to-head, but TCU beat West Virginia who beat Baylor worse than they beat TCU. It is simply impossible to predict what would happen in a Baylor/TCU rematch. Sadly, the Big 12 is lacking enough members to have a conference championship game to help decide things. The ranking system isn’t necessarily messed up, it’s the lack of on-field evidence of who is the better team.
So, what can we do? We had a BCS system that couldn’t get the top two or the BCS bowl games right. We have committee being forced to pick a non-Power 5 team because of years of complaining. We need a system that values each conference evenly. The only way that would work is if every conference champion is allowed to play in the playoffs. It has worked well for basketball. It can work in football as well. With a 16-team playoff system, 11 spots would be taken by conference champions. That leaves room for five wildcards. If this system were in place right now, as of the most current rankings, we would have something like this:
Alabama vs. Memphis; Oregon vs. Georgia Southern; FSU vs. Northern Illinois; Miss State vs. Marshall; TCU vs. Boise State (no kidding); Ohio State vs. Arizona State; Baylor vs. Michigan State; UCLA vs. Georgia
This type of system is something I have gone back and forth on. On one hand, it gives meaning and importance to every game being played in college football. Those Thursday night MAC games have a bit more excitement because the winner gets to play the SEC powerhouse. On the other hand, teams like Arizona and Wisconsin get left out of the fold to make room for the Sun Belt champ. The problems of weaker teams advancing over better teams is still present. In my scenario listed above, the lowest ranked wildcard team is Arizona State, currently ranked 13th. Ask this, if a team can’t crack the top 13 and/or win its conference is there really any argument the team can make to show they deserve a title shot? Also, how can we say an undefeated Marshall couldn’t hang with the top teams? Such a system is significantly more definitive of who should be in than the one in place now, which can’t determine who is better between two one-loss teams from the same conference and punishes teams for not being in a great conference.
A 16-team playoff would eventually create better match-ups in the regular season. If a team doesn’t win its conference, it will need a strong showing that it won significant games outside its conference. UCLA, for instance, has two victories over teams that qualify for the 16-team playoff. Wisconsin, the team left out by one spot, hasn’t even played a team that qualifies. In the eyes of a committee, that schedule makes a difference. If that doesn’t seem logical, look at Florida State. FSU is the only undefeated Power-5 team, but they are only ranked third due to their supposed strength of schedule and close calls.
Playoff expansion is imminent. I just hope that when it comes time to expand it, these measurements are taken into place. Not only does the qualify of the playoff games increase, but the matchups in the regular season will as well. That goes for both out-of-conference scheduling and lower-tier conference play.
With all of the growth in college football, it is certain that the current system in place won’t work long-term. We’re stuck with the 4-team playoff until 2024. During that time, conferences may expand and/or dissolve. In 10 years, there may be more room for another wildcard or two. Only time will tell if the 4-team playoff can have better results than the BCS. During which time, the only thing to do is sit back and enjoy the playoffs and a side of medicore, meaningless bowl games.