The College Football Playoff has been lauded as the structure built to provide college football fans, coaches, and programs with the closure that stakeholders have been clamoring for.
Of course, the new system—set for its inaugural season in late August—isn’t without its damning flaws. With BYU already an early favorite to play the role of this year’s victim, the writing’s on the wall: the College Football Playoff is broken.
But while the mid-majors will suffer immediately thanks to the power conferences’ tie-ins with the New Year’s Six (and the Playoff itself), less is known about how the team’s will be selected. We know that a small’ish group of college football personalities, politicians, fans—or whatever they are—will comprise of the decision-making body that will determine who will get a shot at a national championship, and who’ll be slotted for one of the other high-major bowl games.
What we don’t know is how this committee will select teams. We know they’ll rank and vote on which teams are most worthy of the four coveted playoff spots. We know—or we can hope—that some members of the committee will, to some extent, rely on statistics of some sort, and certainly will factor in strength of schedule. (And we can guess that at least one committee member will just glance at the AP and USA Today Coaches Poll and pick based on that, but let’s not be cynical).
Beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be a standard process by which this committee will select teams. Given that this group will be solely responsible for the outcome of the College Football Playoff, this seems a bit bizarre.
The rationale for this was largely political. The BCS era left a bad flavor in all the stakeholders’ mouths, and its reputation as a structure for deciding which teams played for a national title was far too soiled by the end of its first decade.
And this souring of our relationship with the BCS had its merits. On numerous occasions, the system appeared to be far too biased (in one direction or another) and, on numerous occasions, produced a national title game that failed to answer the only question a national title game is supposed to answer: Which college football program is the best in the nation?
But much of that can be attributed to a single flaw in the system that wasn’t foundational: the fact that the BCS was restricted to selecting two teams. If the current College Football Playoff committee was bounded by the same restriction, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the result—different from what the BCS formula produced or not—was met with general agreement from the college football community.
What would have happened had the BCS expanded to a four-team playoff, then? The theory here is that the BCS drew upon a wide array of sources—and eliminated outliers regularly, albeit to control for its own idiotic inclusion of arbitrary math—to come to a decision about how teams should be ranked.
Using the Harris Poll, the USA TODAY Coaches Poll, and six computer rankings, the BCS did a fine job of aggregating multiple perspectives and combining them into something that—more or less—looked reasonable.
But when selecting just the two best teams, the margin for error narrows pretty quickly. And this is the restriction that damned the BCS.
In fact, it seems as if people from every corner of the college football community—you too, college football twitter and college football blogosphere—generally agreed on which four teams were the best in the country. What they often disagreed on was the order in which those four teams should be placed.
Let’s find out what happens when you expand the national title field to four instead of two. To do this, let’s examine the past four college football seasons. Why four? Because first, that’s as far back as ESPN will let me see the BCS standings. Second, finding polls from independent sports networks and college football internet communities is much harder to find prior to 2010.
For all four years, the BCS standings and the AP poll will be compared. For 2010, 2011, and 2012, SB Nation’s BlogPoll will be part of the comparison, which should be interesting given many SB Nation writers have been vocal advocates for scrapping the BCS. SB Nation scrapped its BlogPoll for the 2013 season.
For 2012, we’ve included Reddit’s college football subreddit and their official poll. We couldn’t find any older polls, and they were missing the post-conference-title-week poll.
For 2012 and 2013, we’ve included the Bleacher Report’s Top 25 poll, which polled a select group of legitimate B/R college football writers. (Again, there didn’t seem to be 2010 or 2011 versions).
2010: Stanford, Wisconsin, or Wisconsin, Stanford?
In the first year of this half-baked analysis, there already seems to be a bit of a controversy. This takes place in the bottom half of the top-4, with Stanford and Wisconsin vying for a spot in the fictitious and retrospective playoff.
Here’s the AP poll after the last week of the regular season:
Here are the final BCS standings, which are released prior to bowl season:
Here’s the conclusion SB Nation—some of the most vocal critics of the BCS—came to, based on a poll of their college football blogs:
One might make the argument, then, that the BCS was alone in thinking Stanford deserved a final-four slot, but given that the two were separated by a relative hair in each poll implies that maybe having just four teams is enough. And besides, both Stanford and Wisconsin were one-loss teams, while TCU, Auburn, and Oregon were all undefeated. So perhaps the fifth wheel might not have had as many reasons to complain.
2011: More Needless BCS-Shaming
If you recall, 2011 was one of those years that accelerated CFB stakeholders’ frustration with the BCS, and rightfully so. The national title game consisted of two teams from the same conference, leaving out an Oklahoma State team that had just as good of an argument for inclusion in the top two as any other team.
But that’s what happens when you’ve essentially eliminated your margin for error by selecting just two teams. Let’s take a look at the final BCS standings:
The BCS rankings here make it pretty clear-cut: LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State, and Stanford were the four best teams in the country. Oregon wasn’t a mile behind, but the Ducks weren’t exactly close (maybe they should’ve taken care of a sanction-ridden USC team in Eugene, huh?).
Here’s the pre-bowl season AP poll from that year, expanded to six teams as USC wasn’t eligible for inclusion into the BCS standings, but its sanctions didn’t have any implications for inclusion into the AP poll:
Again, Oregon’s a pretty distant fifth here. The AP poll also agreed with the BCS standings in allowing Alabama a second shot at LSU, which angered college football fans nationwide. And in both cases, Alabama and Oklahoma State were separated by an incredibly small margin.
Let’s see what SB Nation had to say at the end of the regular season:
What do you know? One of the BCS’s loudest critics didn’t deviate from the BCS, nor did they deviate a ton from the BCS poll. They did, however, differ in the only aspect that mattered at that point: The No. 2 ranking.
Oklahoma State narrowly edges out Alabama in SBN’s poll, and again, Oregon somewhat clearly misses out on the fourth spot. But if the BCS had simply pitted the four top-ranked teams against one another, neither the college football blogosphere nor the BCS nor the national media would’ve complained. Consensus? Not exactly, but close enough.
2012: Oregon-Alabama, Please
The 2012 season didn’t provide as much controversy as the 2011 season did, but it didn’t provide much more closure either. While Alabama absolutely ripped Notre Dame in the BCS title game, Oregon was busy tearing apart Kansas State—a national title contender themselves for much of the year—in the Fiesta Bowl. In a perfect world, the two teams, arguably at their peak this season, would’ve played one more game.
But they didn’t. But would they have, had this gone to a four-team playoff?
Here are the BCS standings for the end of the 2012 regular season:
Here’s the AP poll, expanded to include ineligible Ohio State:
Because Ohio State infiltrated the AP’s top four, the teams invited to a fictitious four-team playoff would be Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida and Oregon, in that order.
Let’s take a look at SB Nation’s BlogPoll:
1) Notre Dame (494 poll points, 15 first-place votes)
2) Alabama (474, 4)
3) Florida (421)
4) Oregon (419)
5) Georgia (410)
Again, the same four teams that topped the BCS standings also topped the AP poll and the SB Nation BlogPoll, the Bleacher Report Top 25, and /r/CFB’s official poll. Once again, independent sports networks, the national media, crazy college football fans, and the BCS agreed, order be damned. Had a four-team playoff occurred, everyone would’ve been happy with everything except with who played whom first.
2013: BCS STRONG THEN
The 2013 season saw much less controversy and perhaps an unprecedented amount of agreement with the final rankings. Florida State was clearly the nation’s best team, Auburn had clearly proven itself as a worthy contender, and Oregon and Alabama had fallen off as the poster-boys for why the BCS was terrible. Of course, we were possibly one Florida State loss away from yet another all-SEC title game, but that’s irrelevant.
Here are the final BCS standings for the 2013 season:
1) Florida State (450 poll points, 18 first-place votes)
2) Auburn (425)
3) Alabama (406)
4) Michigan State (368)
5) Baylor (360)
As a reminder, SB Nation appears to have discontinued its BlogPoll rankings, and are not included in this cohort of rankings. /r/CFB’s poll was also not included due to the fact that the crew didn’t put out a poll after conference championship week, meaning their most recent, non-bowl-inclusive poll saw Ohio State ranked No. 2, prior to their loss to Michigan State in the B1G championship game.
In any case, the four top teams in the three polls were rather clear. Although Baylor narrowly missed the top-four in the B/R poll, they fell behind Stanford for fifth place in both the AP poll and the BCS standings.
WRAPPING UP: The BCS wasn’t that bad
In three of the four years, the college football blogosphere (which will include B/R, despite the fact that they aren’t a network of blogs), the national media, and the BCS standings were in total agreement about the top-four teams. The order, of course, varied, but seeding is a different and, to these eyes, smaller issue.
The year in which a four-team selection process would’ve caused some controversy was in 2010, when Stanford and Wisconsin were neck-and-neck for the final spot. The bloggers and the AP voters gave Wisconsin the nod, but the BCS was stubborn and gave Stanford the fourth spot. Arguments can be made (without referring to the outcome of the bowl season) in either case, particularly because both lost to eventual-one-loss teams.
At the same time, the other top-three teams were undefeated that season, and all parties agreed that those were the best three teams in the country, meaning that maybe the jilted program—Stanford or Wisconsin—wouldn’t have had much to complain about, given the fact that they didn’t take care of their own business and the three other teams did.
As a totally-somewhat-unrelated side note, Wisconsin lost to fictitiously-third-seeded TCU in the Rose Bowl, while Stanford beat then-12th-ranked Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
So sure, controversy about selection won’t go away, even as the Playoff inevitably expands into the “playoffs.” Even if college football turned to a 24-team playoff format, there will invariably be controversy around seeding and the 25th team left out in the cold.
But the BCS as a system for ranking teams didn’t do its job poorly. Restricting the BCS to two selections was the problem, and in all actuality, limiting any decision-making entity to selecting just two teams would undoubtedly result in controversy. The margin for error is basically non-existent, and unless everything falls perfectly in to place (which happens about one-fourth of the time), it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the second-best team in the country from the third-best.
The negative association fans and stakeholders have with the BCS isn’t going anyway anytime soon, though. Meaning the decision-making is left not to formulas that incorporated a broad range of perspectives, but to a small group of humans.
We wish those brave souls good luck.