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Let’s Expand the Playoff! Part 4 - The Playoff is not a meritocracy

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“Tradition” stipulates that committees and boards determine how the ultimate champion of college football is crowned. So what the **** is the point of winning a conference championship?

NCAA Football: College Footall Playoff-Selection Sunday Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

College basketball features “March Madness”, the name given to the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament that decides the ultimate champion of a given basketball season. 8 teams are picked to play in four play-in games and those winners are part of the 64-team bracket. The 32 conference champions are automatically entered into the tournament and the other 36 teams are selected by a ten-person committee. Out of 350 teams, 19% are able to participate in the tournament.

College baseball, technically, has two tournaments to select their champion. 31 conference champions receive automatic berths while 33 teams receive at-large bids decided by a Division 1 baseball committee. 16 of those teams receive national seeds and host super-regionals if they advance to the second round. The 64-team tournament starts with 16 regionals in a double-elimination bracket that determines the 16 teams that get to continue on; those 16 teams then play in super-regionals to determine the 8 teams that get to go to Omaha, Nebraska to participate in the College World Series. Out of 297 teams, 21% are able to participate in the tournament.

The rest of college sports follow similar setups:

  • Soccer gives automatic berths to their 24 conference champions with the other 24 selected by a committee; out of 206 teams, 23% participate in the tournament.
  • Volleyball automatically sends its 32 conference champions while 16 at-large teams are selected by a committee; out of 330 teams, 15% participate in the tournament.
  • Hockey gives their 6 conference champions an automatic berth into the tournament while the remaining 10 teams are selected by a committee; out of 61 teams, 26% participate in the tournament.

And then there’s college football.

A committee puts out a Top 25 ranking starting around the 12th week of the season with the Top Four teams in the last poll of the year getting to go to the tournament. There are no automatic berths given to conference champions. Out of 130 teams, 3% participate in the tournament to claim the title.

And this isn’t a football specific problem; this is a college problem. The high school version of football varies from state to state, but in a broad sense, each level of competition has its own Playoff to crown their champions. Take Missouri, for example: there are six classes of schools that play the sport, with Classes 1-5 split into eight districts and Class 6 split into four districts. Classes 1-5 have 5-7 teams in each district while Class 6 has eight teams in each district but, of course, every team gets to participate in the Playoff. And maybe that makes you think, “kids these days” and conjure thoughts of participation trophies. That’s fine! The NFL - comprised of 32 teams - has a 14-team Playoff to determine their champion, representing a team participation rate of 44%.

100% of high school teams. 44% of professional teams. 3% of college teams.

Hmm.

What’s even more confusing about the current Committee-driven selection process is that there are no solid qualifications to make it in. Sure, the unfortunate spokesman-de-jour gets trotted out every Tuesday to stammer through weak talking points of, “they’re playing at an elite level” and passing the sacred “eye test,” but the criteria is such that they seemingly pick the four teams they want and work backwards to defend it.

To wit, here is their mission statement, taken straight from the Playoff Committee’s website:

The criteria to be provided to the selection committee must be aligned with the ideals of the commissioners, Presidents, athletic directors and coaches to honor regular season success while at the same time providing enough flexibility and discretion to select a non‐champion or independent under circumstances where that particular non‐champion or independent is unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.

When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable, then the following criteria must be considered:

Championships won

Strength of schedule

Head‐to‐head competition (if it occurred)

Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory)

To date, three teams have been included in the Playoff that did not win their conference championship:

  • 2016 Ohio State, who was 5-1 against teams with winning records, including losing to - and keeping out of the Playoff - B1G Champion Penn State. Ohio State proceeded to get shut out 31-0 by Clemson.
  • 2017 Alabama, who lost to Auburn in the last week of the regular season but went on to shut down Clemson and win the National Title in a thriller against SEC Champion Georgia (who also lost to Auburn).
  • 2020 Notre Dame, who was pummeled by Clemson 34-10 in the ACC Championship the day before the final rankings came out and then lost 31-14 to Alabama in the Playoff.

Also, five undefeated teams have been left out of the Playoff:

  • 2016 Western Michigan went 13-0 overall and 3-0 against teams with winning records while winning the MAC handedly; the Broncos were ranked 15th in the final Playoff Poll.
  • 2017 Central Florida went 12-0 overall, 5-0 against teams with winning records, and had two wins over teams ranked in the final Playoff Poll; the Knights were ranked 12th in the final Playoff Poll.
  • 2018 Central Florida went 12-0 overall and 6-0 against teams with winning records; the Knights were ranked 8th in the final Playoff Poll.
  • 2020 Cincinnati went 9-0 overall, 5-0 against teams with winning records, and had one win over a team ranked in the final Playoff Poll; the Bearcats were ranked 8th in the final Playoff Poll.
  • 2020 Coastal Carolina went 11-0 overall, 5-0 against teams with winning records, and had two wins over teams ranked in the final Playoff Poll; the Chanticleers were ranked 12th in the final Playoff Poll.

So, what we’ve learned here is that teams that don’t win their conference championship can play in the Playoff, but we’ve also found out that going undefeated doesn’t mean you can make it in the Playoff. And that’s...ok?

There’s nothing wrong with a committee handpicking some of the participants in a Playoff - the other college sports do that, as well - but making a Committee pick all of the participants in the Playoff - without some automatic qualifier - makes the regular season seem hollow and without purpose. Why play the season at all if winning your conference or going undefeated means you get shipped off to a game that doesn’t give you a shot at the grand prize?

I’ve said it in every one of these pieces and I’ll say it again: let conference champions be automatic qualifiers for the Playoff. Keep the Committee’s poll and use that final ranking to determine the at-large bids that don’t get in with a conference championship. This allows the pompous retired ADs and coaches to still feel important while they argue about style and quality wins while the teams who actually did the work and won their conferences know they get a shot at the ultimate goal.