I realize that at this point in the season, any kind of debate over the College Football Playoff standings is the polemic equivalent of taking a Louisville Slugger to a field of scarecrows. But something happened this week that I think is worth noting, because it gets at one of the underlying sets of criteria the playoff committee faces moving forward into this new era.
What took place involved a national sports-radio host, a football coach and a state best known for being overrun by pandering politicians and ethanol; what happened involved the University of Iowa, which has somehow gone undefeated so far this season and was the playoff committee’s No. 5 team this week.
That ranking did not sit well with Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd, and I know it is Cowherd’s job to articulate those things that do not sit well with him (I happen to think he does it in a far more entertaining fashion than most sports-radio yakkers, but to each his own), but in this case, there are legitimate reasons for that ranking not to sit well. If I were somehow kidnapped by a rogue sports-wagering gang and forced to bet my life savings on whether Iowa will finish this season undefeated, I might call their bluff. I have no faith in Iowa, but I still find Cowherd’s primary rationale to be based in the kind of subjective dung that made college football’s rankings so utterly frustrating for the past, oh, hundred years or so.
I won’t give you the entire diatribe, but here’s part of what Cowherd said, according to The Gazette‘s Mike Hlas: “These Iowa fans – ‘Well, what’s the difference between Iowa and Ohio State, I don’t see any difference.’ Really? Ohio State won a national title. Eighty percent of their starters return, including both quarterbacks. I know who they are. They have a proven track record and the best coach. I’m going to give them, as an undefeated team, the benefit over you as an undefeated team.”
The problem with this, and with much of Cowherd’s diatribe, is blatantly obvious. The problem is that a “proven track record” and the “best coach” shouldn’t mean much of anything within the microcosm of 2015. The problem is that one reason college football is now resorting to a playoff committee rather than the polls is to alleviate the historical bias that has long plagued the system. Remember in 1994, when Nebraska was gifted a national title over Penn State because Tom Osborne hadn’t won a championship yet (and then he won one anyway the next season)? Remember 1978, when Bear Bryant was handed a championship despite losing to USC? This is the kind of nepotistic bullshit that the committee is supposed to ignore when compiling their rankings. And yet it’s clear they’re not immune to it, either.
At this point, it doesn’t really matter that the committee has Ohio State ranked ahead of Iowa; it doesn’t really matter that Ohio State (along with Alabama) is also ahead of a Baylor team that has looked far more impressive so far this season. But tell me, if the resumes were blind, if a school were not attached to the numbers, that the whole thing wouldn’t be reversed; tell me if Baylor had somehow eked into that No. 4 spot in the playoff last year and then won the national title that the Bears wouldn’t be ranked in the top four?
There was more to Cowherd’s rant than that single declaration; there was a legitimate criticism of Iowa’s out-of-conference schedule, but then came perhaps the dumbest argument I’ve heard in quite some time, which is that because Ohio State’s recruiting class is better than Iowa’s, the Buckeyes should somehow be considered a more viable playoff contender.
I mean, that’s exactly the kind of shit I hope we’d be able to get past. And yet here we are, with Ohio State in the top four over three other undefeated teams that have shown more consistency to date; and here we are with a fourth undefeated team, Houston, ranked at No. 24 largely because the Cougars have been an unknown commodity the past few seasons. (Really, what if Houston had gone undefeated last season? Would the Cougars really be ranked that low?)
“Think about the roster of Ohio State. Ohio State’s roster, 80 percent of it’s back from thumping Alabama and Oregon last year,” Cowherd said. “So let’s look at Iowa’s roster. It’s filled full of guys over the last two years – let’s go to last year, 7-6 and lost to Tennessee in a bowl. Their big win, and I’m not joking, over 6-7 Illinois. The year before, they were 8-5. Lost another bowl. Their big win: Over Brady Hoke Michigan. That’s what this roster’s full of. Guys who have gone 0-2 in bowls, and in the last two years their big win before this year, Michigan Brady Hoke.”
My rejoinder to this is simple: Who the hell cares? I thought the playoff era was designed to eliminate the notion of dynastic carry-over. In an ideal world, the playoff committee would be examining everything within the vacuum of a single season, but rants like Cowherd’s prove that even otherwise intelligent people can fall victim to the notion that past performance should somehow be a barometer of future results. The worst thing about college football is that its power structure has always been top-heavy; the only way to change that is to allow each season to exist on its own, without allowing the past to bear down on it. I’m not sure if Iowa’s that good, either, but the only track record that matters is the one unfolding in the moment.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb