Tuesday, June 3, 2014

College football needs to forget its past to secure its playoff future

“If it comes down to Notre Dame and an SEC team, the selection committee is probably going to think about that 2012 BCS title game against Alabama.” – Jesse Palmer, on College Football Live

That's probably the dumbest thing Jesse Palmer has ever said. Unfortunately, it is also the most illuminating.

eddie lacy notre dame
As the debate has raged on all offseason about scheduling for the college football playoff, very little has discussed the fundamental problem that college football has in determining a champion, or even a playoff field.

There are not enough games to create a sample size t large enough to accurately compare teams.

This will get infinitely worse as the Power Five conferences, following the lead of the SEC, appear to be set on playing 9 and only 9 games against other Power Five competition. That means most teams are on-board with playing three cupcake home games to make money. That's a full quarter of the season wasted.

This scheduling fiasco has reached such absurd levels that the Alabama athletic director had the nerve to say he was finding it "difficult" to find a 12th game in 2015. As if teams don't want to play Alabama, which is the same school that recently cancelled a series with Michigan State to avoid the horror of a true nonconference road game.

We are left, then, with very little to determine how good these teams really are. It is going to take a difficult job for the selection committee and make it downright impossible. When teams only play one quality team, if that, out of conference, how are you able to accurately compare conferences?

Instead, we are stuck in what Jesse Palmer described because if the playoff spot comes down between Notre Dame and, say, LSU, the only recent data point we have is that Alabama-Notre Dame title game. Palmer is right because I believe that committee will think back to that game and incorrectly assume Notre Dame is behind LSU. It would take place for all teams because, due to weak scheduling, as many teams will only have a tough nonconference game in the past 12 months in the previous season’s bowl game.

It's incorrect for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is that a one-game sample size is not really representative of anything. Also, the game took place two years ago! Why should anything that determines the fate of the 2014 season be even remotely related to the 2012 season?

We've seen this in college football before. Is there any doubt Alabama got the nod over Oklahoma State in 2011 in part because of Alabama's recent track record of success? Look at 2004, when Auburn was left behind two teams that started 1-2 based on the results of 2003.

The biggest problem facing college football in terms of creating a playoff that actually works is forgetting the past. Each season is a new season and, man, it feels ridiculous I even have to write that. But it feels like every season in college football is a continuation of the prior one.

Somehow, college football has become the only sport where past results with different players and rosters affect the current season's results. Take college basketball, which also has a selection committee, and see how that tournament is largely unaffected by prior season results. Let's look no further than UConn, which won the national title behind the greatness of Kevin Ollie despite being dealt with an 7 seed. They beat a Kentucky team, two years removed from its own title, which was seeded 8th. Neither team received any benefit.

Yet in college football, it happens every year. Florida went 4-8 last year. Yet they started the season ranked in the top 10 based on the 2012 season. Early in the season, they lost to Miami. At the time, it appeared to be a good victory for the Hurricanes. It wasn't. Florida sucked. Yet Miami kept climbing in the rankings until they were in the Top 10 themselves – boosted by the victory against a now-terrible Florida team – that, in turn, boosted Florida State to the top spot with a "Top 10" victory over a team that was never Top 10 material.

Yet, yet, yet – there are so many more examples but the Miami one is the best in showcasing how college football, throughout its history, has never stopped and reevaluated what the slate looks like. If anyone with a brain looked at Miami before the Florida State game, they would have wondered how they were ranked #7 despite beating zero teams that would finish the regular season with a winning record.

The onus should be on teams, each season, to schedule aggressively and play the best teams. Instead, they are circling the wagons to ensure that the money stays in house and the top teams keep chasing that elusive 0 in the loss column.

Let's revisit the SEC's decision to remain at 8 games. Is there any doubt that going to 9 games would have dramatically improved the entire league's strength of schedule? Wouldn't have playing 10 games against Power Five competition do infinitely more than 9?

The SEC believes that its "reputation" will carry at least its champion into the four-team playoff every year without fail. Maybe that champion will deserve to be in the playoff. That doesn't mean a team's reputation, or a conference's reputation, should ever come into play.

There is one very easy solution, which the basketball folks figured out years ago, and that is to put an added emphasis on strength of schedule out of conference and scheduling aggressively. We saw the committee exclude Larry Brown's SMU, despite a Top 25 ranking in the polls, because they played no one of consequence in the non-conference.

Will the football folks have the guts to leave out a 11-1 Alabama team, whose only nonconference "test" is a weak West Virginia team in Atlanta, over a 10-2 UCLA team that played at Virginia, hosted Texas and dealt with 9 conference games?

Once that happens – once the selection committee proves that only this year's results matters – then college football can move closer to crowning a true champion from a real playoff and we can get the scheduling improvements we thought would accompany the new playoff.

If that doesn't happen, Jesse Palmer will look like a soothsayer. That is not good for the sport. 

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