The Upcoming College Football Playoff Selections: Let’s Get Ready to Grumble!

And now the real fun begins, with irate fans and their respective media pom-pon squads clinging to unshakable allegiances to protest the governing authority and engage one another in contentious, bitter debates over the four-team field for the 2016 College Football Playoff. The race for the White House was only slightly more acrimonious and insane. So-called identity politics began with college football.

Bernie Miklasz-3
Bernie Miklasz

At the center of the coming firestorm is a wishy-washy CFP selection committee, which seemingly set identifiable markers for choosing the four teams. But upon further review the CFP board left so much wiggle room in its loose guidelines, you’d think the document was cribbed from Roger Goodell’s NFL relocation rules.

Please allow me to quote from the CFP committee’s stated guiding principles:

When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable, then the following criteria must be considered:

Championships won.

Strength of schedule.

Head-to-head competition (if it occurred).

Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory).

If your loyalty is to Penn State or Wisconsin, then you’ll take comfort from the language that stresses “championships won.” Wisconsin won the Big Ten West. Penn State surprisingly won the Big Ten East side and will play Wiscy for the conference championship trophy … which may be reduced to a runner-up trinket.

If winning championships is the top-line CFP committee priority, then the winner of the Big Ten title game should count on being handed a spot in the four-team tournament, right? After all, the Big Ten is widely viewed as the best conference in college football for 2016. And the crowned champion of the best league in this American land has to be in the final four. It’s pretty simple.

That would especially be true of Penn State, which defeated Ohio State in a head-to-head clash in Happy Valley Pa. If Penn State won the mighty Big Ten division that houses No. 2 (Ohio State) and No. 3 (Michigan) then the Nittany Lions should have no worries as long as they handle Wisconsin.

Hee hee hee …

Let’s go back to that language and make sure to look at the disclaimer:

“When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable,” …

Key word: “comparable.”

Ohio State was ranked second in last week’s CFP poll, behind Alabama. The Buckeyes protected their No. 2 status by winning a double-overtime game over the No. 3 team, Michigan.

If you’re No. 2 and you take down No. 3, then it only reinforces and reaffirms your case as a top-four team.

Unless, of course, glue sniffing is involved here.

Unless the CFP committee plans on inviting two Big Ten reps to the tournament, the four-team deciders couldn’t possibly toss out Ohio State out after adamantly backing the Buckeyes to this point.

The flip-side argument: Hey, what about winning the championship? Hell, Ohio State didn’t even win its division. If you can’t win your damned division, then how do you qualify as one of the four best teams in the nation?

Answer: wiggle room.

And you don’t need to have the flashy moves of Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson to exploit the dance-floor space left open by the devious committee.

The way the CFP committee wrote it up, the guidelines that circle championships and other factors only apply if the resumes of contending teams are so closely matched in quality that it’s necessary to go to the tie-breakers.

Don’t take my word for it.

It’s right there in the committee’s own words:

“Strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and championships won must be specifically applied as tie-breakers between teams that look similar.”

Obviously the committee doesn’t see razor-thin similarities between Ohio State and Penn State, or Ohio State and Wisconsin.

In last week’s CFP poll, Ohio State was No. 2.

Wisconsin was No. 6.

Penn State No. 7.

At this time o’ year, that’s a fairly significant gap — unless the No. 2 team loses.

And Ohio State isn’t playing next weekend. So losing a football game isn’t possible for coach Urban Meyer and his student-athletes.

The committee obviously believes Ohio State is superior — and remember, this determination was made even though the Buckeyes had already lost at Penn State by three points on Oct. 22. The week before that, Ohio State won at Wisconsin by seven in OT. Wisconsin isn’t as relevant to the final-four hissing contest.

I’m not here to put down Penn State or Wisconsin. I think the committee was foolish by giving the appearance of prioritizing conference championships. It’s puffery. It makes bait-and-switch moves maneuvers possible. I’ve said on the radio that Penn State should be included in the final four as long as it wins the Big Ten title. Yeah, but that was before the smart guy typing this bothered to read the fine print in the committee’s flimsy guidelines.

If the committee believes Ohio State is unquestionably better than Penn State and Wisconsin, then the tie-breakers aren’t in play here.

And in that context, Ohio State is in excellent shape: 11-1 overall, 8-1 in the Big Ten, three victories against Top 10 opponents (Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Michigan). Two of the three wins were on the road. The only loss occurred on the road, at Penn State, against a team that’s currently sitting at No. 7 — and will likely move up a spot or two when the updated rankings are unveiled Tuesday night.

That said, Ohio State has reasons to experience anxiety between now and Dec. 4 when the committee makes its final ruling and sets the four-team playoff.

— In theory the winner of the Penn State vs. Wisconsin B1G ball will strengthen its credentials and perhaps give committee members a reason to reconsider everything. And possibly waffle.

— Committee members will also face some pressure from critics that undoubtedly will throw the guidelines back in their faces. How many times do you think the members will be reminded of the CFP board’s insistence that winning championships and succeeding in head-to-head conflicts are high-priority items on the check list?

– Let’s go back to the committee’s mission statement. This is one of the first sentences: “Establish a committee that will be instructed to place an emphasis on winning conference championships.”

Yeah, well, OK. Maybe. Maybe not. Should I enter that under fiction or non-fiction?

Again, the committee used the NFL-like technique to provide cover by including escape-hatch verbiage. But that doesn’t change the intended purpose: to score PC points the committee did considerable chest-thumping over the value of winning a conference title. The committee chose to create an obvious perception for public consumption — but have absolutely no obligation to abide by it. The committee is like the opportunistic college coach that signs a contract, takes an oath, and hops out of the deal to take a job at, say, Texas.

— This is the third year of the current system. In the first two seasons, the four-team format was filled, exclusively, by conference champeens. So will the committee deviate from the established pattern?

— Remember what happened two years ago? With TCU getting booted from the top four at the end? This isn’t an exact parallel, but Ohio State fans surely will remember the late flip-flop by a committee that had TCU at No. 3 and Ohio State at No. 5 heading into championship weekend.

TCU wiped up Kansas by 52 points, and Ohio State rocked Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten title game. When the final playoff ranking came out, Ohio State was escorted past TCU on the strength of winning the conference title.

Granted, part of this was the silly Big 12’s fault; the conference has no championship game and declined to recognize an official champ. Baylor and TCU finished tied for first in the Big 12 that season with 8-1 records, though Baylor technically owned the tiebreaker through a 61-58 win over TCU during the season. But the Big 12 wouldn’t take a stand, and that made it easier for the committee to just go around the conference.

Of course the 2016 committee could choose two Big Ten teams next Sunday: Ohio State and the winner of the Big Ten championship. But that’s hardly a smooth, cure-all solution. To the contrary. Such a decision would generate even more controversy … not just inside the Big Ten but in other regions as well.

First of all there’s Michigan, the committee’s No. 3 team last week. The Wolverines lost a double-OT game on the road against the second-ranked team. There’s no shame in that. Doesn’t that keep you in the top four? Moreover, Michigan has wins over Penn State (49-10) and Wisconsin (14-7) this season. What’s that? Michichan lost at Iowa? Yeah, and Penn State lost at Pitt.

But it isn’t so easy. What about Michigan’s friendly schedule? What should we make of that? The Wolverines (10-2) played nine of their 12 games inside the state of Michigan. And in its three true road games, Michigan destroyed Rutgers, arguably the worst team in the FBS division, and lost at Iowa and at Ohio State. Look, I think the Wolverines are an excellent team, but is it a crime to exclude them? Do they really deserve to be rewarded?

If Alabama and two Big Ten teams take up three of the four spots, then what do you say to the contenders teams that win out and capture conference championships next weekend?

With a win over Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, Clemson would be 12-1 with victories over three teams ranked in last week’s CFB ratings. It would be hard to scratch the Tigers, unless they fall to VaTech in an upset.

Washington would likely be vulnerable if the committee opts for two Big Ten teams. The Huskies would improve to 12-1 with a win over Colorado in the Pac 12 championship, but they lose points with their non-conference schedule that featured three soft-serve ice cream cones: Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State. What kind of message would it send if the committee gives a de facto endorsement to a team that made no attempt to schedule a respectable non-conference opponent?

Yeah, it’s a gloopy mess.

I believe the Big Ten deserves two teams: Ohio State and the official Big Ten champ. And I can’t even say, with good conscience, that Michigan should be bumped in favor of Penn State or Wisconsin. But this isn’t supposed to be simple. Difficult (and flawed) decisions are required. One must make excruciating choices.

Barring an upset on championship weekend, Clemson would join Alabama and the two B1G teams in this feuded-over final four. I didn’t say this is ideal or beyond legitimate challenge — but then again I didn’t create a four-team arrangement instead of going with a more logical eight-team set-up that would, in fact, give the committee some extra wiggle room.

Perfection isn’t possible with a four-team format in a sport that has five power conferences and too many credible claims on four spots. An eight-team playoff would make it a helluva lot easier to pick the furniture and select the colors and make it look good. But even if the tournament expanded to eight we’d all be whining about some of the choices and airing our grievances about overrated, underrated, overlooked and overhyped teams. With the CFP selection committee moving the goal post in setting criteria, disputes are inevitable. And really kind of entertaining.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie 

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