Wednesday, December 17, 2014

No Questions Allowed

Here's the text of an ESPN commercial hyping the so-called College Football Playoff:

No computers. No excuses. No more debate. This is what you asked for: a college football playoff on ESPN.


There's no questioning the qualifications of the four teams anointed to participate in the semifinals. No. 1 Alabama (12-1) plays No. 4 Ohio State (12-1) in the Sugar Bowl and No. 2 Oregon (12-1) meets No. 3 Florida State (13-0), the defending national champion, in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. The winners advance to a final game on Jan. 12, The semifinalists are the winningest schools in Division 1 and belong in any playoff field. So where's the beef?

Well, I have two beefs, or beeves, if you're into Middle English. First, although the computer rankings have been dispensed with, the nabobs of college football having discovered that computer results are only as good as the programming they are fed, the new rankings are generated by a 13-member committee, which means that it's still a popularity contest. You cannot eliminate human error from anything dependent upon human judgment. Any pilot will tell you that.

A major criterion for the committee is strength of schedule, which was also heavily weighted in data provided the computer in years past. Strength of schedule is subjective. Reliance on the Southeastern Conference's perceived strength led to embarrassing errors by broadcasters before the 2009 Sugar Bowl, when Utah of the Mountain West Conference (a non-BCS league) beat then-No. 4 Alabama 31-17. Before the game, the Fox team of Kenny Albert and Darryl Johnston discussed the belief that no player on the Utah roster was good enough to start for Alabama.

Similarly, Boise State of the MWC opened the 2011 season by beating Georgia 35-21 on the road, leading the Bulldogs' Brandon Boykin to tell The Sporting News, "They're just as good as any SEC team." What does that say about the MWC's strength of schedule?

The second problem is that a four-team field isn't a playoff, it's a bracket. Can you imagine how the popularity of March Madness would wane if it began with the Final Four?

Even an eight-team field wouldn't be a real playoff, but it would got a long way toward silencing critics of the coalition of university presidents and preferred conferences who founded the ridiculous series of "championships" created by picking two teams to play for the crown. Their initial attempt to rig the system stemmed from the desire to keep the popular year's end bowl games going while creating the aura of an authentic title game. They set up the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2006, and explained that there could not be a full playoff, because the big schools' student-athletes were too busy cramming for finals in December to participate in a series of elimination games.

At the same time, schools of the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly the 1-AA class, were allowed to continue with a 16-team playoff system that produced a real national champion. The inference was that the FCS field either didn't have student-athletes _ or that their classes weren't tough enough to tax the ability of football players to juggle athletics and education.

The new CFP marks another attempt to hoodwink fans who want to see the championship decided on the field. And, in this initial attempt, one of the previously preferred conferences got stung. It's the Big 12, which has two teams _ Baylor and TCU _ that absolutely ought to be allowed to prove on the field whether they could handle Alabama, Oregon, Florida State or Ohio State.

Baylor (11-1) is ranked fifth by the committee and Texas Christian (11-1) is sixth. TCU's only loss was to Baylor in in a 61-58 shootout in Waco, Texas. The Bears sustained a 41-27 loss at West Virginia the next week, but if that's an elimination factor, then someone should be looking at Alabama's performance in early October, when the Crimson Tide stumbled in a 23-17 loss at Mississippi and then squeaked by Arkansas, 14-13,

After all the regular-season games and conference championships, The Associated Press ranked Baylor fourth ahead of Ohio State, and the CBS Sports final poll had TCU fourth, also ahead of the Buckeyes. So much for ESPN's "no more debate" about which teams belong in the four-team playoff field.

While we're on the subject, it's also worth mentioning that ESPN is a sponsor of the college playoff. That strips the network of the neutrality required in the highest standard of journalism and certainly led to the hyperbole _ and hubris _ of the ad.