College Football's Big Test: A Weekend of Change - Rolling Stone
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The Games Behind the Games: College Football’s Lobbyists, Loyalists and Lunatics

Will a weekend of Top 25 battles settle the playoff picture? Don’t bet on it

Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on during warm ups against the Syracuse Orange in East Rutherford, New Jersey on September 27th, 2014.Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on during warm ups against the Syracuse Orange in East Rutherford, New Jersey on September 27th, 2014.

Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during warm ups against the Syracuse Orange on September 27th, 2014..

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I suppose I could start by decrying the inherent political ridiculousness of an acting employee of a participating entity serving as the chairman of an independent panel of arbiters, but hey, this is a college football column, and if you haven’t figured it out already, the sport abides by its own fluid syllogisms. The fucked-up-ness goes way deeper than just one dude.

And so let’s just delve straight into this week’s fodder for reflexive accusations of bias: On Tuesday night, Jeff Long, who is both the athletic director at the University of Arkansas and the chairman of the inaugural College Football Playoff selection committee, was asked about the reasoning behind ranking Alabama fifth in its poll, one spot away from creeping in to the four-team playoff with several weeks to go. Long essentially admitted that the committee relied on the “eye test;” that they understood Alabama had no great reason for being ranked ahead of other one-loss teams like TCU and Michigan State, except that Alabama looks like a top-five team.

At another point, someone asked Long whether it mattered how teams scheduled in terms of non-conference games, or who they scheduled, and this is what he actually said: “Well, first of all, the committee doesn’t try to send messages. By the fact of how we rank we will send a message.”

That these two statements are inherently contradictory didn’t seem to bother Long at all. He serves on a committee that’s tasked with comparing apples to oranges, and what we’re quickly finding out is that there’s no good way for anyone to do this, even a dozen reasonably smart and informed people who happen to own iPads. The criteria is fluid and changeable; what was once a “good win” can turn into something else over time. The message of the playoff committee, two weeks in, is that there is no consistent message. Michigan State scheduled one of the best non-conference games of the season against Oregon, and is on the fringe of the playoff picture based on the perception of its conference; Mississippi State scheduled no one in the non-conference, but is undefeated and ranked first based on the perception of its conference.

And you may think all of this is building to an argument for #SECBias or some other callow message-board theorem that your Cousin Hank swears by, but that’s not it at all. I think what we’re learning here is that the selection committee, in its nascent days, is a reflection of our own general confusion and illogic. I think the committee is attempting to sort through the public’s inherent perceptions on the fly. Should the strength of one’s victories matter more than the number of victories themselves? Is the SEC really that much better than everyone else? Is the Big Ten a brontosaurus staring up at a meteor? Can I really be expected to stay awake for Pac-12 games?

And I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The real issue is that there are not, nor will there ever be, consistent answers to these questions. The real issue is that college football, even in this new era, is essentially a semantic debate.

This week, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly defended his team’s performance to date by noting that many of the other top schools in the country book “glorified byes” into their schedule; at the same time, Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw defended the Bears’ toothless non-conference schedule with the “everyone-does-it” defense. This comes on the heels of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini questioning ESPN’s relationship with the SEC, which was followed by Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher attributing the same relationship for the sharp focus on the Seminoles’ off-field issues.

Why are these people doing this? Well, why shouldn’t they? Lobbying works, doesn’t it? It’s been a hell of a week for lobbyists, who apparently spent the Tuesday night after the Republican wave of election victories actually high-fiving one another in a back room, as if enacting the opening scene of an upcoming Martin Scorsese film. The thing that sets college football apart from every other major sport is that its subjectivity has always rendered it akin to American politics. Maybe you thought a dedicated selection committee might alter that reality, but I don’t think it’s capable of doing so.

This weekend is the one we’ve been waiting for: Six games involving top-25 teams will Swiffer away some of the mess. But in the end, we’ll still be left with certain questions that can’t be answered. If Michigan State topples Ohio State this weekend and goes on to make the top four, then some people will argue that scheduling strong non-conference games does matter; if Baylor destroys Oklahoma and somehow creeps up into the top four, then the argument can be made that strong non-conference games don’t matter at all. If Alabama outslugs LSU, then maybe the eye test applies.

There’s no way of knowing what the hell these people are thinking, largely because there is no way to apply consistent logic to college football. There are the only the games, and the games behind the games.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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