Wednesday, December 10, 2014

College Football's Final Four: Did the Committee Get it Right?

Ohio State grabbed the fourth and final spot in the College Football Playoff over Big 12 co-champions Baylor and TCU. Were the Buckeyes the right choice?
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The newly formed College Football Playoff committee announced the first four semifinalists in Division I FBS college football history Sunday, and the predictable outrage followed.

Nobody was praising the new system for allowing us to avoid an Alabama beat down of Florida State. Oh, don't kid yourselves, if this were a two-team gig, FSU would be No. 1 or 2. It's always an undefeated major conference champ against a 1-loss SEC champ. SEC teams get to lose a game when nobody else does because… SEC! SEC! SEC!

Anyways, instead of celebrating the fact that we're getting No.1 Alabama vs No. 4 Ohio State, featuring a match up of arguably the two best coaches of this generation in Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, people were arguing whether the Buckeyes belonged in the playoff at all.

Instead of getting giddy about a quarterback duel between last year's Heisman winner, FSU's Jameis Winston, and this year's eventual winner, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, the masses were mourning bloody Sunday for the Big 12.

Seriously, does nobody understand that under a system in place as recently as last year, Oregon would be playing Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, Baylor would be in Arizona while TCU would likely be headed to either Miami or New Orleans for some pointless exhibition?

Does nobody understand that there was NO wrong answer for picking the fourth playoff team, because all three teams were deserving, and at least the new system gives one of them a shot to win it all, unlike previous years?

Nope. All we heard on social media was:

How could the committee drop TCU, a team that won by 52 this past weekend, three spots to No. 6?

How did Baylor jump TCU, but get jumped by an Ohio State team that many called dead in the water when it lost to mediocre Virginia Tech in September?

How is Florida State ranked third when it is the only undefeated major conference champion?

How the hell did Florida State move up with another close win against a "pretty good" team?

All of those points have some merit, but it all really comes down to what question the committee is trying to answer:

Are we looking for the four best teams, or the four most deserving teams?

In many cases those answers are the same, but that subtle difference means everything when splitting hairs between a pair of co-Big 12 champions and a true Big Ten champion that had to play a 13th game against a ranked opponent.

In the end, the committee decided to go with a team that ran the table in its conference, and won a difficult championship game to boot, over a pair of attractive co-champions. Were Baylor and TCU hurt by the fact that the Big 12 refused to name an outright champion and, even more so, by the fact that the conference doesn't have the requisite 12 teams to play a championship game?


But I don't think that's a bad thing. Playing one less game, especially when championship games usually feature difficult opponents, obviously makes it easier to run the table or only lose a single game throughout the course of a season.

Could the Big 12 have saved itself by sticking to its own tie-breaking procedure and naming Baylor conference champion? Perhaps.

The Bears would have been a great candidate under the "deserving" category. After all, they would have been the champions of  a conference ranked ahead of the Big Ten (not to mention the ACC and Pac 12 North) in most every computer ranking, and in the minds of the college football watching public.

Baylor defeated TCU in a weird and zany game, which many stat buffs will argue was the result of random variance/chance. Fair point, but right now we're arguing the most deserving team, and the Bears won the head-to-head match up. Random chance or not, that was the outcome of the game, and if we're not going to honor the outcomes of the games, no matter how random they may be, why even play them?

When it comes to deserving, the conversation pretty much starts and ends with Baylor's win over TCU. Also, Baylor's only loss came to West Virginia, a team TCU beat by a grand total of one point, so it's hard to argue that the Bears don't deserve it because they lost to an awful team that TCU crushed.

But then there's the argument for the best team, a point of view the committee seemed to be going with when it ranked TCU so highly in recent weeks. The Horned Frogs are ranked higher than Baylor and Ohio State in most reputable computer polls, most notably holding the No. 2 spot in Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings, trailing only Alabama.

The Horned Frogs have a better margin of victory against common opponents with Baylor and, if you want to argue that Baylor's come-from-behind win over TCU was essentially a tie, you could make the case that TCU was the "better" team over the course of the year, and argue that if TCU and Baylor played 10 times, the Horned Frogs would probably win six or seven of those games.

So, what question did the committee ultimately answer by picking Ohio State? Both.

The Buckeyes rank right in between TCU and Baylor in most computer polls, feature the nation's 4th best total offense (Baylor is 3rd, TCU is 5th), and are the only team other than Alabama in the championship picture to feature a Top-30 defense (hard to believe, I know. The Tide rank 20th, Buckeyes sit at 29th and the Horned Frogs are close at 31st).

Ohio State also erased any doubts that turning to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones would hamper their high-powered attack, scoring 59 points on Wisconsin's Top-10 defense. At the end of the day, if you were looking for the "best" factor, the Buckeyes had it all. Computer rankings, a highly ranked offense and a stout defense that had all improved as the year went on.

As for "deserving," Ohio State was an outright Power-5 champion with 12 wins, including three victories over teams currently ranked in the CFP Top-25 (MSU, Wisconsin, Minnesota), one more than both Baylor (TCU and K-State) and TCU (K-State and Minnesota).

For comparison's sake, No. 1 Alabama (Miss. State, LSU, Auburn, Missouri) and No. 2 Oregon (MSU, UCLA, Utah, Arizona) each have four such wins, while No. 3 Florida State (Clemson, Louisville, GT) has three as well.

While you could argue "best" team with TCU and "most deserving" team with Baylor, the committee decided to split the difference and pick a team with a legitimate claim to both.

But let's not forget, none of these squads would even be in the conversation last year, so just try to enjoy a pair of great semifinals and not feel too bad for the Big 12, the conference with no true champion.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

A forgotten aspect is that both Baylor and TCU beat K-State therefore nullifying that win when the committee most likely "split hairs" over quality wins. Then each team has one quality win, Baylor beat TCU as their quality win which puts Baylor over TCU in the rankings perpspective. Then you have Baylor vs Ohio State in terms of ranking which puts the Bucks over the Bears seeing as though they are outright champs and have more quality wins.