The matchups are set, and bowl/playoff season is upon us. Now that we’ve made it this far, here are 10 takeaways from the first spin on the College Football Playoff carousel – what we’ve learned, what we’ve liked, what’s lacking.
1. This is better than the BCS. Much better. Even though the playoff bracket is highly questionable, think where we would be under the old system – quite likely with Florida State playing Alabama, and everyone else left out of championship consideration. The computers used in the BCS formula had the Seminoles and Crimson Tide as the top two teams, as does the USA Today coaches poll.
That would exclude an Oregon team that almost everyone else believes is one of the two best teams. Think of the outrage that would be generating today. It also would exclude Ohio State, and both Big 12 candidates, TCU and Baylor.
The simple act of including two more teams created interest and excitement, and it also creates three highest-level matchups – the two semifinals and the final – where the BCS was tasked with just producing one big game.
But most importantly, the four-team field radically reduces the risk that the best team wasn’t kept from playing for a title. Oregon is the biggest beneficiary of that.
2. That said, the process was far from smooth and satisfactory. For one thing, the weekly made-for-ESPN shtick should end – ultimately, it proved to be nothing but reality TV fakery. The incremental releases didn’t mean much in the end, when the committee trap-doored TCU at the last minute and elevated Florida State based on something other than its last performance. If the rankings releases aren’t going to be useful and accurate guideposts that inform the public on what the committee values, don’t release them.
But since the Tuesday night rankings releases drew good ratings and great coverage and endless debate, don’t count on that happening. Still, if it’s possible to reduce the number of rankings – maybe every two weeks – that would be an improvement. In this instance, less would be more.
Also there is a sense that the weekly trek to Grapevine, Texas, and hours spent scrubbing the same data, became an excessive chore for the committee members. If you want to attract the best and brightest to be on the committee, don’t make it a burdensome experience.
3. Along the same lines, some power brokers in college sports were cringing at what they considered excessive specificity that Long provided, sometimes talking the committee into difficult positions. In short, they found him overly available and overly chatty. If there has to be a weekly rankings release, there doesn’t have to be a weekly dissection of every team’s position by the chair. Getting into the specifics of why teams were ranked where they were tended to create more mini-controversies than it solved. One influential administrator I spoke with favored simply releasing the rankings without explanation beyond general methodology, and not discussing specific teams in any substantial manner until the final rankings were released.
4. Exit interviews with all the committee members would be instructive. It would be interesting to learn what their experience was – especially those who came from outside the mainstream. We’d all like to know more about what happens in the room when deliberations are going on, and we’d like to hear it from more than just Jeff Long, accommodating as he was.
The idea of committee members from outside the college football mainstream sounded valuable early on; was it? We'd like to know. And if it was, would the committee dare consider bringing in a math/computer expert who could analyze schedules? Or, God forbid, a Las Vegas line-setting expert? (I know the answer to the latter. And that answer is no.)
5. Better scheduling seems a certainty going forward. And as much as I disagreed with having Ohio State in and Baylor out, the biggest takeaway from this inaugural playoff season may be that the part of the schedule each school controls is a vital part of the equation. If the Bears earned a playoff berth with a non-conference slate of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo, the backlash from leagues and schools that have scheduled more courageously would have been severe. If there are fewer Northwestern States on Power Five schedules going forward, that’s a net gain for college football fans.
I find it disagreeable, but the Big 12’s double-barreled snub may well lead to a serious discussion about expansion by the league. The problem with that: It was the one conference that played a full round-robin schedule and thus had a true champion. (Or co-champion, as it controversially turned out.) The other problem: It forces the Big 12 into cookie-cutter mode in aligning with the other conferences and further homogenizes college athletics. Regional flavor already is disappearing, as leagues sprawl far beyond traditional geographic boundaries. Now, if the Big 12 goes back to 12 teams, every conference will look and act alike, too. When conferences are as indistinguishable as the NFC South and AFC East, the college game loses something.
But if the Big 12 is forced into expansion mode, it should target two of these four teams: Boise State, BYU, UCF and Cincinnati. Ideally, the league would grab Cincinnati to give West Virginia company (and a travel partner) on the Eastern Frontier. The other preferable school would be BYU, but if it would prefer to stay independent then Boise State would be an adequate substitute.
That said: The realignment/expansion spasm of the last few years was a low point in the history of college athletics. Going back down that road would not serve the common good; it would only serve the Big 12.
6. The CFP folks should do a better job of defining and explaining their methodology – if the public is going to trust the process, it has to understand the process. And this maiden voyage seemed at times like it was being plotted on the fly. It might also consider releasing vote totals for each position in the top four – without names of committee members attached – so the public can see how strong (or weak) the mandate was for each team. The more we know, the more we’re likely to trust the process.
7. Not only should the criteria for selecting the four teams be explained in detail, but the CFP needs to educate the masses on what goes into filling the other “New Year’s Six” bowls. A lot of fans were mystified about that part of the committee’s job, and the impact it would have. The matchups are good: Baylor-Michigan State in the Cotton; TCU-Mississippi in the Peach; Mississippi State-Georgia Tech in the Orange; and Boise State-Arizona in the Fiesta. Those probably are better than anything the BCS system would have produced. But that part of the new postseason was just kind of rolled out under radar. Certainly, the public will get a better grasp of that second-tier bowl process in the coming years. For now, it was something on an unexplained side-effect.
8. The New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day triple-headers stand to be a huge quality-of-life upgrade for average fans. The sport gave away its franchise on those days in recent years, in the quest for more TV ratings and revenue. Getting that back should be great.
9. The inclusion of blueblood Ohio State at the expense of nouveau riche TCU and Baylor furthered a suspicion that the media – primarily the most influential media outlet, ESPN – will cater to traditional name brands. And that will in turn affect the committee.
Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin gave voice to that school of thought on Twitter when he said Saturday night, “Some commentators leaving Big 12 out of top four. Would they be doing same if it was Texas and OU instead of TCU and Baylor? #brandnamebias” Stricklin had seen his own striver program downplayed at times this season in comparison to more established powers.
Since the playoff is an ESPN entity, it’s worth at least noting who its most visible studio and/or game analysts are, and where they played and coached: Kirk Herbstreit (Ohio State); Desmond Howard (Michigan); Danny Kanell (Florida State); Jessie Palmer (Florida); David Pollack (Georgia); Joey Galloway (Ohio State); Brian Griese (Michigan); Lou Holtz (most strongly identified with Notre Dame); Mark May (Pittsburgh); Mack Brown (most strongly identified with Texas). I am not questioning their professional objectivity – they’re pros who, for the most part, will call it like they see it. (Herbstreit, the network’s leading man, in particular has weathered backlash from some idiot fans who don’t think he’s been “loyal enough” to Ohio State.) But you don’t see a lot of representation from outside college football’s old-school elite among the ESPN ex-jockocracy – and don’t think that people at the Mississippi States, Baylors and TCUs haven’t noticed.
ESPN is a place that tries hard to be diverse – but diversity can mean a lot of different things. Giving a prominent role to someone who played or coached somewhere outside the blueblood level would be a welcome inclusion.
10. More Larry Culpepper. The Dr Pepper concessionaire/stealth playoff architect led an advertising campaign that was clever, humorous and effective.