College football is messy. It always has been. It always will be, no matter how precise a playoff system the sport might devise or revise in the future.
Think you have the perfect plan? A college football season’s imperfections and plot twists will usually (though not always — see Texas-USC in 2005) work around it and cause a number of inconveniences.
For those who are new to this site and to my writing — I wrote at College Football News for over a decade — I pretty much had enough of the BCS when Nebraska was selected over Oregon and Colorado to play Miami in the 2002 Rose Bowl, that season’s (supposed) national championship game. The BCS had to erode college football tradition to some extent, in order to create an annual season-ending 1-versus-2 national championship game. If the system was going to be valuable and beneficial for the sport, it had to offer a clear and merit-based set of mechanisms for resolving such messy disputes, which have almost always been a part of college football history.
When Nebraska — thrashed by 26 points by Colorado, and not even the winner of its own DIVISION, let alone its conference — was given the benefit of a few decimal points (0.05, to be specific), relating to a certain off-the-radar game just before the final BCS standings were released, the BCS exposed itself as a silly soup of computer-generated numbers without any common-sense checks and balances.
What team helped put Nebraska over the top in its battle with Colorado (while Oregon, the team which deserved to play Miami that season, never got its chance)?
Ain’t life delicious?
It was the Horned Frogs’ 14-12 win at Southern Mississippi, on Dec. 7, 2001, which enabled Nebraska to face The U in Pasadena for the whole ball of wax. The cry went out across the nation: “YOU CAN’T PLAY FOR THE NATIONAL TITLE IF YOU DON’T WIN YOUR OWN DIVISION!” Such would be the case a decade later when Alabama, not a division winner, got to play LSU for the natty in the Louisiana Superdome.
This is where the discussion meets a fork in the road.
You are free to debate whether or not winning one’s division should be a prerequisite for College Football Playoff eligibility and/or inclusion. You are free to disagree with me or a colleague at work or members of your family.
Regardless of stance or attitude, I think we can all agree that division championships represent an objective, structure-based, and generally legitimate discussion point for playoff consideration and/or inclusion. That’s a tangible element, something which is built into the architecture of conferences and their season schedules. It’s a valid criterion for playoff discussions.
Then, on the other hand, there are the not-as-valid, not-as-structured, not-as-legitimate discussion points which are slapped against the wall in response to the chaotic flow (or non-flow, as it were) of a college football season.
We saw this in 2014 in year one of the College Football Playoff. “YOU CAN’T LOSE TO VIRGINIA TECH AT HOME AND BE SELECTED FOR THE PLAYOFF!” That’s what a lot of people (mostly from the South) said about Ohio State. It was as though the Buckeyes had violated a specific part of the College Football Playoff selection/inclusion manual.
However, where is the citation — Chapter, Verse, Section, Paragraph — which says that Ohio State is ineligible for the playoff if it loses at home to Virginia Tech?
Is there a rule about losing at home to North Carolina? On the road at Penn State? At a neutral site against Washington?
Those are legitimate discussion points in terms of comparing resumes during and at the end of a season, but they are not legitimate discussion points in terms of demanding automatic exclusion from a playoff, or even automatic exclusion from consideration for the four-team extravaganza.
Yet, midseason reactions from fans would suggest that these are matters of instant disqualification.
TCU, though, provided the even better (read: more hilarious and, accordingly, pathetic) example of how broad sections of the public latch onto wild and crazy notions of what should immediately disqualify a team from having a chance to compete for a national college football championship.
We don’t see many 61-58 football games during any season. We definitely don’t see many 61-58 games that become centerpieces of a college football national championship debate. Last year, though, “Baylor 61, TCU 58,” became the most hotly-debated individual game on the entire regular-season docket. Sure, a large part of the discussion focused on the simple facts that Baylor won and TCU lost in head-to-head competition. However, a significant part of the anti-TCU and anti-Big 12 choruses which sprang up last season was rooted in optics:
“YOU CAN’T PLAY A 61-58 GAME AND HAVE YOUR CONFERENCE CHAMPION IN THE PLAYOFF, BIG 12!”
“YOU CAN’T GIVE UP 61 POINTS IN A GAME AND BE ELIGIBLE FOR THE PLAYOFF, TCU!”
Okay… show me the manual with the chapter-and-verse citation.
Is there a similar rule for playing a 3-0 game — you recall the 2008 Sun Bowl between Oregon State and Pittsburgh, right? (We can never have enough group hugs to get over the experience of watching that contest. It remains traumatic to this day.)
What if two teams played an 8-5 game with one safety on each side?
How about an 11-9 game with seven turnovers?
It’s stupid to say that “Score X should disqualify Team Y from the playoff,” but this stuff happened regularly with the BCS, and don’t be surprised if it explodes all over #CollegeFootballTwitter when a new plot twist occurs this season.
TCU authored an absurdity (not its fault, but it was part of the mechanism) in 2001, helping Nebraska. The Frogs were the victim of both Gary Andersen’s walkaway no-show at Wisconsin versus Ohio State in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game, and the political mess created by the Big 12. The Frogs had the best resume of any 2009 team after Alabama, but the brand name of Texas leapfrogged TCU and put the Longhorns against the Tide in the Arroyo Seco.
If TCU is part of the mix in this year’s playoff — and it very well could be — let’s stick to debating the degrees and measures of resumes, instead of leaping to the conclusion that the Frogs are automatically unworthy of inclusion because they violated an unwritten rule which is made up on the fly.
Frogs eat flies; they don’t make things up on them.
Those are words to live by before another college football season which is almost certain to be messy.