Here’s a fun little case of potential turnabout to consider as you await the College Football Playoff committee’s latest effort to publicly justify its logic:
Back in 1973, in the era of straight-ahead power football and convoluted Nixonian paranoia, Ohio State and Michigan, both undefeated, played to a 10-10 tie. During the final two minutes of that contest, Wolverines quarterback Dennis Franklin broke his collarbone; in the wake of this confounding scenario, the vote on which team should go to the Rose Bowl was left to a committee of Big Ten athletic directors. Taking Franklin’s injury at least partly into account, the committee voted 6-4 to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl for the second straight season, causing Michigan’s Bo Schembechler to (rightfully) engage in a titanic public denunciation of the power structure that feels all the more startling because it emerged out of the mouth of one of the most authoritarian coaches of the 1970s.
What does this have to do with the era of spread football and Benghazian conspiracy theories? Maybe nothing, and maybe everything. On Saturday, on the same weekend that Alabama turned about the chaos of last year’s Iron Bowl by outlasting Auburn at its own chaotic, pace-setting style, Ohio State, the No. 6 team in the playoff committee’s most recent poll, beat Michigan 42-28. It was not exactly a dominant performance against a Wolverines squad that appeared to have abandoned all hope sometime in late September, but it was a victory, and Ohio State has 11 of those on the season, along with one not-very-good home loss to a 6-6 Virginia Tech squad that squeezed its way into bowl eligibility despite an inherent inability to, you know, score points and stuff.
And yet, something else happened in that Michigan contest that was not reflected in the final score, but may impact Ohio State’s stature with the playoff committee: Late in the game, Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett (who was putting up Heisman-worthy numbers) broke his ankle. He is, obviously, out for the remainder of the season, and because Barrett was already a replacement for starter Braxton Miller (who hurt his shoulder before the season began), the Buckeyes will now start third-stringer Cardale Jones against Wisconsin in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game. Which means that, even if the Buckeyes win, they may have already lost with the playoff committee that will decide their fate.
I suppose there is some deliciously juicy irony here, given the break the Buckeyes got 40 years ago, when even Woody Hayes didn’t think his Ohio State team would get a chance to play in the Rose Bowl, but a faceless committee rewarded him nonetheless based (at least somewhat) on a single injury. And yet, one dumb decision made by a group of powerful people in a conference room does not justify another, and the fundamental problem with this playoff committee – that it has been charged with choosing the four “best” teams rather than the four most deserving ones, based on body of work – could potentially rear its head if they choose to demote the Buckeyes this week due to an assumption.
After all, that’s what we’re dealing with here, isn’t it? If Ohio State wins on Saturday, and Cardale Jones looks mediocre or worse in his first career start – and both Baylor and TCU also win – the committee will be charged with making an assumption. They will have to choose the one-loss team they think is “best” for the fourth and final playoff spot; they will have to assume that TCU is “better” than Baylor (even though Baylor beat TCU in head-to-head play, which also gets at the flaws in that fundamental charge of choosing the best teams over the worthiest ones), or they will have to assume that either TCU or Baylor is “better” than Ohio State.
Take the Barrett injury out of the equation, and I don’t think the latter is an unjustified decision. The Buckeyes have the worst loss of any of the three teams; the Buckeyes play in the lesser conference, and the Buckeyes have generally won in less-convincing fashion than any of those three teams. There is reason enough in the numbers to exclude Ohio State, but if committee chair Jeff Long comes out on Tuesday and admits that the committee demoted Ohio State merely due to Barrett’s injury, it will again reveal the flaw in their mission statement.
This is more the fault of the protocol, rather than the committee itself – one of the guiding principles is that “other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance” will be taken into account – and my only hope is that, if Long admits to doing as much, the unfairness of such considerations will be considered in future seasons.
(And I know that the NCAA basketball committee has taken injuries into account for seeding, but this is a blockheaded comparison. It’s sort of like saying that getting bumped from the first-class cabin on a flight is the same as getting bumped from the flight altogether.)
I realize that this whole thing is an inherently subjective process, that every decision is essentially an assumption and that this is part of what separates college football from every other sport. I realize that we (once again) live in an era where people cling to paranoia and distrust of public institutions, and I’m reluctant to ascribe any such inherent bias to a group of people who really don’t have that much gain by engaging in an oligarchic conspiracy. I just happen to think it’s worth fighting authority when that authority is operating on the wrong principles.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb