College Football Playoff: Issues & Solutions
Now that the conference commissioners have decided that they favor a four 4-team college football playoff over the current BCS format or a plus-one, the debate has centered on whether that four-team playoff should consist exclusively of conference champions or the “best four teams”. While there have been compelling arguments made in favor of each side, it bothers me that these debates (first about the playoffs v. plus-one, now about this) continue to ignore the biggest problem with college football in recent years—the manner in which teams are subjectively ranked.
Every possible postseason format involves the subjective ranking of teams. 120+ FBS teams play against schedules of varying difficulty. There is no simple formula that can be used to determine which teams are more deserving or better than other teams. The BCS, which everyone now hates, chose teams because of where they were ranked. Sometimes it worked, like when two teams were clearly better/more deserving than everyone else (2002, 2005, 2009, 2010). Sometimes it didn’t and had people yelling for college football playoff. Thinking the same thing won’t happen in the future simply because there are four teams instead of two is delusional. The four-team playoff will be just as subjective as the BCS regardless of whether it’s the “best four teams” or conference champions (there are more than four conferences, so some conference champions will have to be subjectively chosen over other conference champions). In fact, it might be even more subjective, as there are more often two teams that are clearly better/more deserving than everyone else than there are four such teams.In order to avoid the problems of recent years and the injustice they caused, the way teams are ranked has to be corrected.
How can that be done?
(1) by having unbiased, knowledgeable people vote, and (2) by making it clear to the voters and everyone else what they’re actually voting for, because most of them have been getting it wrong forever.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF DETERMINED BY UNBIASED, KNOWLEDGEABLE VOTERS
Coaches should not have a say in the rankings. Not only are they biased (they benefit from having their conference’s teams highly ranked), but they lack the requisite knowledge. Nick Saban might know a lot about football, but he doesn’t know a damn thing about how well Stanford or Wisconsin play it. Coaches don’t sit around on Saturday watching a bunch of games. They don’t watch film of teams they’ll never play. They don’t study the resumes or stats of teams in different conferences. They know their team and their opponents, and that’s not enough to be preparing rankings.
Unfortunately, the same could be said for beat writers who vote in the AP Poll or voters of the Harris Poll. Who is capable of preparing the rankings then? I don’t know. The NCAA Basketball Tournament has managed to do a good job of it though. Whatever they’ve been doing, college football needs to do the same.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF VOTING BASED ON THE WRONG CRITERIA
This is the part that I find more bothersome because it’s been going on year after year and few in the mainstream media have pointed it out (there have been a few, including John Brandon at Grantland, but I don’t recall who they are). The voters are not supposed to rank the best teams, they’re supposed to rank the best resumes. There is a major difference there. The latter is less subjective and more fair. Human beings are incapable of knowing whether one football team is better than another football team. We’re clueless. That’s why there’s so much money in Vegas. The greatest predictors on Earth are right what, 60 percent of the time? By having voters rank teams based on the subjective opinions about which team is better or which would win some hypothetical game, you’re guaranteeing that the poll is inaccurate.
That is not be the case with ranking resumes. It’s based on what a team has done, not what people think it’s capable of doing or would do in some hypothetical situation. According to the AP guidelines, that’s what voters are supposed to be voting on. The rankings are supposed to change drastically from week to week. A team should not remain secure its spot simple by not losing. If one undefeated team beats a series of great teams while another beats a bunch of cupcakes, the former should be ranked ahead of the latter regardless of how good we think those teams are or where they were ranked prior to the season. Results are what matter. Results are what should matter, not public relations and subjective opinions.
THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF FORMAT
If the rankings were corrected, this best four/conference champions debate wouldn’t even be necessary. There would be very few legitimate gripes if the teams with the four best resumes played for a title.
It is worth noting though that the same type of misconceptions that have been plaguing voters and many in the media for years with regard to rankings is currently taking place with regard to the playoff. We keep hearing how it should be “the four best teams” or “the four best conference champions”. That’s wrong. Even if, for argument sake, we pretend that it shouldn’t be the four most deserving teams, it’s still wrong. If the goal of the playoffs is to crown the best team, the way to do that is not by including the “four best teams”, but rather by including the “four teams with the greatest likelihood of being the best team.”
Although at first glance those might appear to be the same thing, there’s actually a huge difference between them.
Here are two examples:
2004. Texas and Cal were more likely to be among the best 4 teams in the country than Utah. They were ranked 4th and 5th in the BCS while Utah was ranked 6th. They played tougher schedules than Utah, and both lost only one game to a team ranked in the top two.* Of those three teams though, Utah was the team with the highest probability of being the best in all of football. We knew for a fact that neither Texas nor Cal was the best team out there because they each lost to an undefeated team that would also be playing in the playoff. They had their chance and failed. The same could not be said for Utah. While the Utes might not have been one of the best four teams in the country, there was a chance that they were the best, and therefore they should have been in the four-team playoff if it existed at that time.
2009. UF was more likely among the best 4 teams in the country than TCU, Cincinnati or Boise (and we now know they were better than Cincinnati). They played a tougher schedule, and lost only to undefeated Alabama. TCU, Cincinnati and Boise, however, all had a greater likelihood of being the best team in the country. We knew for a fact that UF wasn’t the best team in the country that year. They got blown out by Alabama on a neutral field. The same couldn’t be said for TCU, Cincinnati or Boise. Although they all probably would have lost to Alabama too, we can’t be sure of that because they all went undefeated (and we heard the same thing the year before about undefeated Utah, which beat the shit out of 12-1 Alabama).*
*This is not to say that a team that lost one game against an opponent couldn’t win the second game. We saw that happen this year. Even if that team were to win though, it wouldn’t prove that they were the best team in the country; only that they’re on equal footing with that other team. ’11 Alabama was certainly not unquestionably the best team in the country last year.
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