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The Problem with the College Football Playoff

I really don’t know, offhand, if I’ve been pro- or anti-playoff for NCAA football. I liked that the BCS gave us the possibility of seeing a champion determined by playing a game, but I recognize that there are lots of arguments about who should be playing in that game.

So far this year, though, I’ve been somewhat unsatisfied with the way the playoff rankings have been determined. I think I understand them, but I’m not happy about them.

The arguments seem to have changed. Last year, Auburn just won; nobody really seemed to care that it was because Alabama totally blew field goal coverage, or Missouri forgot to defend against the run – which was, after all, only Auburn’s greatest strength. Auburn was the team of destiny, after all! — and maintained that position as the team of destiny, except the ‘destiny’ in question was to lose in the second half to FSU, just as so many teams have done this year, too.

This year, the argument seems to be around strength of schedule, and that strength of schedule is taken as a whole season. I think this is where things break down.

Strength of schedule is effective in a playoff like this only if it’s calculated before the game in question is played.

Look at Notre Dame/FSU. ND was ranked #5 before the game, and lost thanks to a controversial call.

The controversial call was not the offensive pass interference to close the game – it was that the same play hadn’t been called as a penalty earlier in the game for one of ND’s touchdowns. The refs only warned ND about the play, and then Notre Dame’s coaches got all surprised when the referees followed through on the warning and called the penalty later in the game.

Now, Notre Dame is 7-3, and out of the top 25 in the Associated Press polls. At the time of the game, this was a power matchup, and FSU got a lot of credit (which it deserved) for winning, even if it was over a one-loss team.

Note: Notre Dame’s one loss at the time was against FSU. I don’t think you should get dinged for winning a game against the team you’re actually playing.

Now, though, that game’s not really relevant except as a win – the implication is that “at least FSU didn’t lose.”

But with the playoff system, the stakes are so high that one loss can entirely deflate a team; for most teams, once they lose, they no longer have the same urgency; the rabbit’s already dead, the milk has been spilled, the water is already under the bridge. Once you have that first loss, for most teams, they get to play and enjoy – maybe play the role of spoiler, I suppose, but generally at that point it’s pride and not purpose.

Note: you want both pride and purpose when you play a sport.

The result is that once a team like Notre Dame, or Clemson, or Miami, or anyone, loses, the impact of the game on strength of schedule is minimized somewhat. That’s wrong, for the most part.

To me, a team that is ranked highly and loses, then continues losing, needs to be carefully evaluated. Perhaps it’s the spirit of the team that gets out of whack – that doesn’t mean the game wasn’t a true test, it only means that the losing team took the loss too much to heart. Perhaps it was an injury to a critical player, as happened to Miami’s Duke Johnson last year; losses after that injury don’t mean that the games in which that player was fully effective weren’t valid!

I’m still watching the playoff system to see what the results really are, long term – but right now? I think it really is a competition of brands (as Charles Pierce wrote on Grantland’s “Roll Brand! Alabama’s Win and the Problem With the New College Playoff“), and that concerns me.

I’m still at the point where I think FSU should be left on the pedestal until they get knocked off of it on the field… and at the end of games.

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