The top four teams were revealed at 12:44 p.m. EST on Sunday, and they were vaguely surprising and yet not surprising at all, and afterward, the chairman of this screwball College Football Playoff oligarchy, a Southeastern Conference athletic director named Jeff Long, blinked vacantly into a television camera and said, with a straight face, “We really don’t deal in hypotheticals.”
This declaration came shortly after Long and his 11 other committee members had chosen one team – Ohio State – for the final playoff spot entirely on the basis of hypotheticals, since there is no other way to compare a team that plays in an entirely different region, with no common opponents, against two other teams (TCU and Baylor) with equally valid claims to that fourth spot.
Never mind that TCU had been ranked third in the committee’s poll the week before, and Ohio State ranked fifth, and both teams won by near-identical margins in the final week; what the committee actually did was reinforce the notion that everything in college football is essentially a hypothetical, which is what makes this sport so loaded, the only national pastime that demands a high tolerance for both ambiguity and political rhetoric, the only sport purposefully designed to fuck with us.
Long’s response was exactly the kind of answer a dissembling politician would give (you almost wonder if Condi told him to say it). But this is how Long handled his spokesman’s job all year, which is why I find myself alternating between righteous fury and utter amusement at the brilliant con job this committee just pulled on America.
In a way, the fact that they toyed with us from week to week by shuffling their rankings almost at random was a betrayal of the viewers’ trust, the sporting equivalent of the first season of The Killing. And yet it also played out as a postmodern media satire, a Chayefsky-ian take on our constant desire to consume information largely so we can run to Twitter and manipulate that information based upon our partisan thinking.
To be fair, there was no unfettered answer to the question of who number four should be. But this is why the committee’s ploy worked so effectively. I believed – and still believe – it should have been Baylor, by virtue of its head-to-head victory over TCU, and the fact that the Bears: A) Played in a better conference than Ohio State, and B) Had a more respectable defeat. But maybe you thought it should have been TCU, on the basis of its overall strength, or maybe you agree with the choice of Ohio State after the Buckeyes throttled Wisconsin Saturday night in the Big Ten title game.
The point wasn’t really what you thought. The point was that you spent an unimaginable amount of time and energy fretting about it, along with the committee’s constant re-ranking of said teams.
Here is what we learned at the end, more than anything else: The Argument is what drives college football, and the perverse beauty of the committee’s performance art is that they recognized this. By issuing their weekly rankings every Tuesday night in the final half of the season, declaring them an unfinished project and constantly obfuscating the logic of those rankings, the committee could essentially do whatever the hell they wanted. How else do you explain TCU jumping number to three in the second-to-last poll, then dropping to number six (behind Baylor, after staying ahead of them all season) following a 55-3 win over Iowa State? How do you explain Ohio State languishing out of the mix for most of the season after an inexcusable home loss to a mediocre Virginia Tech team, then suddenly vaulting ahead of TCU by virtue of a single victory?
If you’re looking for common sense here, there is none. There can’t be. That’s the thing about college football that drives some people crazy and draws the rest of us in: It cannot be tamed. A committee can employ eminently qualified individuals, can pore over reams of advanced statistics and watch hours of film, but in the end, it’s all hypotheticals. The weekly rankings were nothing but fodder for “The Argument;” a way to get us to pay attention, and to get schools like Baylor to employ overpriced lobbying firms to attempt to pierce through the randomness.
“We live in America,” Baylor coach Art Briles said after his Bears defeated Kansas State on Saturday, completing an 11-1 season that included that victory over TCU. “If you beat me in a race, you’re faster than me.”
But this is also an America where there are no good answers at the moment, an America caught up in noise and clamor as much as results. And so the committee became a metaphor, unwitting or not. I think they knew that if they chose Baylor, they were sanctioning a team that played a trashy non-conference schedule; if they chose TCU, they were essentially disregarding the notion that head-to-head matchups mean anything; and if they chose Ohio State, they were rewarding the team with the worst loss.
The best thing they could do, then, was screw with our expectations along the way. It didn’t matter what Jeff Long was saying. It only mattered that we watched him move his mouth every week. This whole thing was an episode of Black Mirror, a window into our obsession with ourselves, a hypothetical about a country that is caught up in a perpetual argument. In this case, it’s just college football, and everyone will get over it shortly, but the beauty of this sport is that it always winds up exposing us for who we really are.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb