Playoff field is right, despite noise

December 7, 2014, 4:05 PM

— -- We pause amid the hysteria created by the College Football Playoff selection committee to point out that it couldn't have given us two better games for the first semifinals in the history of major college football. Whether measured by X's and O's or by the number of storylines, the matchups are fantastic.

No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State at the Allstate Sugar Bowl means Saban-Meyer IV. The Crimson Tide and the Buckeyes will be preceded by No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual, which likely will present a matchup of the two most recent Heisman Trophy winners, quarterbacks Marcus Mariota of the Ducks and Jameis Winston of the Seminoles.

OK, Big 12, resume your caterwauling. League co-champions Baylor and TCU finished the season at No. 5 and No. 6, respectively.

The committee picked the right four teams, even if it did so in a way that sowed confusion among fans trying to figure out how the Horned Frogs could drop from No. 3 after beating up Iowa State 55-3.

Ohio State overtook Baylor and TCU despite an embarrassing early-season loss to Virginia Tech.

Ohio State overtook Baylor and TCU even though the Bears and Horned Frogs checked the boxes they needed to check in their victories Saturday. In addition to TCU's rout, Baylor defeated No. 9 Kansas State 38-27.

And, it has to be said, Ohio State overtook Baylor and TCU because the Buckeyes played a championship game and the Bears and Horned Frogs did not. It's not the 13th game per se that made a difference. But the Big Ten championship game, in which Ohio State defeated No. 13 Wisconsin 59-0, afforded the Buckeyes one more opportunity to play well against a highly ranked opponent.

When the commissioners chose this playoff format last year, they understood that there would be hard feelings Sunday.

"Everyone can do the math," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said Friday. "Four slots and five big conferences, and beyond the five big conferences there are other strong teams. So any bellyaching about not getting in, I don't think people are going to react to that. We went into it expecting it to be controversial, expecting at least one conference to be on the outside looking in."

Scott said that before he had the luxury of knowing that Oregon, a Pac-12 team, became a playoff shoo-in by defeating Arizona 51-13 in the conference championship game. And for all the cries there have been all season about the need to expand the playoff to eight teams before it ever played out at four, there's something to be said for musical chairs.

Not the overused metaphor for teams that switch positions, but the actual game, in which there are more participants than there are chairs.

A playoff with fewer spots keeps the pressure on teams that already have clinched conference championships. It also gives the sport a marketing boost.

"If you know you're guaranteed a spot for your conference champion in the playoffs," Scott said, "you care less about what's going on in other parts of the country."

The first selection day for the playoff ushered in a new era. By selecting the four teams it did, the committee nodded toward the conventional wisdom that has ruled college football since the Associated Press poll began in 1936 even as it pivoted toward the new four-team format.

Undefeated Florida State and its 29-game winning streak could do no better than the No. 3 seed. The committee could make this statement on the Seminoles without causing any pain because it had four slots to fill instead of only two. But it's a statement nonetheless. In the BCS poll-and-computer era, analysts say, Florida State wouldn't have fallen below No. 2.

Dropping Florida State to No. 3 exemplifies the value of a committee making the decision instead of the BCS system, and the four-team format gave the committee the elbow room to execute its verdict without straying too far afield from traditional thinking.

But the committee also left precedent behind in a startling way by dropping TCU from No. 3 in the penultimate ranking to No. 6, even after the Horned Frogs did what they should have done against the Cyclones. Committee chair Jeff Long, Arkansas' athletic director, said Sunday that the decision is a reflection of the rise of Ohio State, not a loss of respect for TCU or Baylor.

But it also illustrates how the committee's promise to start its rankings from scratch at every meeting breaks off from the traditional contract between poll voters and poll readers. Before the season began, playoff executive director Bill Hancock said the decision to release weekly polls beginning at midseason came about in part to condition the public to the committee's thinking.

There are plenty of marketing reasons for the weekly polls. The Tuesday night announcement became the start for the weekly watercooler debates that fuel the national passion for the sport. But starting from scratch every week means the previous rankings are moot. So what exactly are the fans being conditioned for?

The weekly votes also left hanging anyone who believed that TCU being No. 3 last week meant the Horned Frogs had a safety net beneath them as they headed into the final week of the season.

Long called the decision to make Ohio State No. 4 "clear-cut" without revealing the actual vote by the committee. We will never know whether the 44 college football analysts who work at ESPN mirror the committee's thinking. In our collective guess of the playoff field, posted early Sunday morning, Ohio State received 25 votes in the top four, TCU 12 and Baylor eight. (That adds up to 45 because KC Joyner included the Horned Frogs and Bears and excluded Ohio State and Florida State.)

That said, let's hope that they don't stop the polls. They're great fun.

The committee's work is done until January. The commissioners will meet with committee members in Texas before the championship game to debrief them about the system. The rest of us can enjoy the semifinals. Well, those of us outside of the Big 12, anyway. Adding insult to injury, the highest-ranked team left out of the top six bowls? No. 11 Kansas State of, you got it, the Big 12.