It’s somewhat fitting that in the victory-lap season of the BCS system, a fine batch of chaos rests in a room somewhere, ruminating, ready to break Selection Sunday.
Atop the BCS standings sit two undefeated teams with imperfect resumes, followed by three SEC teams with strong peripherals but dented records. How the three-piece BCS machine churns out its bowl selections Sunday evening will depend on conference championship results and its own cockeyed calculations.
Whatever the verdict, it won’t calm the churn among rival fans and politicking administrators. A popular rebuttal from outside the top two – anyone not rooting for No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Ohio State – seems to be, “Just give us the playoff already. Next year, things will be better.”
Well, not entirely. Yes, four teams will have a chance to play for the national championship beginning in 2014 instead of two, which is better. Yes, an intelligent 13-person committee (12 members plus a committee chair) will embrace a streamlined and thorough process for picking the four-team field, which is better.
But similar hot-button issues will still exist. Fringe teams will still campaign for a way in, while those with glossy surfaces but less depth to their cases will hope they aren’t bumped out. This season’s kindling will produce similar fires for the next era, and so then the question becomes: How might the playoff committee handle the issues currently dividing college football?
Three members of the committee – chair and Arkansas AD Jeff Long, Clemson AD Dan Radakovich and former USA Today writer Steve Wieberg – spoke with FOX Sports about the playoff process and were asked some of those questions.
To be clear: They were happy to speak on the record about the process in general but not about the specifics of this season or hypothetical playoff scenarios. “This year needs to happen [without hypothetical talk] for the coaches and students who are participating,” Radakovich said. “That’s where we’ve aligned as a committee.”
In those conversations, though, they did offer valuable insight into the playoff process, which can be applied to some of this year’s scenarios. That’s what we’re going to do below in hopes of cutting through some of the noise and offering a different perspective, but it’s important to note these are our own interpretations and not necessarily the committee’s stance.
With that, let’s highlight two major talking points powering discourse in BCS debates and a third interesting side note in the wake of Thursday’s Jameis Winston news.
1. Ohio State and the strength of schedule argument
The 12-0 Buckeyes figure to be in the national championship should they beat Michigan State this Saturday in the Big Ten title game. This makes many people outside of Ohio angry.
According to the latest strength of schedule rankings, Ohio State has the 61st-tougheset schedule in the country. The three one-loss SEC teams behind the Buckeyes – Auburn, Alabama and Missouri – rank 26th, 48th and 41st, respectively. Should the 35-spot difference in schedule strength between OSU and Auburn be plenty to make up for the Tigers’ one loss, which was at LSU? Many fans would say, “Hell yes!”
The committee is going to heavily weigh strength of schedule, of course, but it will be just one component whose significance will fluctuate.
“Each year, strength of schedule will be [weighed] differently,” Radakovich said. “You have to look at how much you have purview over. There are a lot of different variables associated with strength of schedule, but it’s only one factor.”
Wieberg thought of the strength of schedule argument last Saturday night when he was watching the Iron Bowl from his couch in Missouri. He was viewing the game as a fan, not a playoff committee member – he’s going to enjoy the rest of this season that way without analyzing, he says, since he’ll be doing that intensely next year – so Wieberg did what most fans were doing, which was consider different debates.
“After the Iron Bowl finished, it kind of underscored the strength of schedule issue,” Wieberg said. “We have some unbeatens who’ve played schedules that don’t look up to par with the others. I think that’s an interesting discussion. There are valid arguments both ways, and people will be aggravated either way. This underscores the prickliness of this [process].”
My takeaway: The committee clearly believes SOS is important, but I don’t think it will assign as high a value to it as fans and media tend to (two parties interested in polarizing discussion as much as evaluating football teams).
Too many analyses regarding Ohio State seem to end at, “Terrible schedule? Kick their ass out.” The committee, thankfully, will go much deeper.
“When you get down to it, winning games matters a lot,” Radakovich said.
He said that matter-of-factly and not specifically regarding the Buckeyes, but it seems like you could assign that sentiment to Ohio State and already be in the ballpark of how a similar team would be judged. Fans might be eager to dismiss the weak schedulers, but if a team from a major conference wins every game, I find it hard to envision any scenario in which the schedule would significantly hurt it.
Continue to rail away at the Buckeyes this season – which is plenty valid – but know those making the decisions soon might have a different perspective.
2. That said, a note about the one-loss SEC teams
In any sane world, Alabama would need the unthinkable to happen to play for the national title, which is both Ohio State and Florida State lose their conference title games. If that happened, Bama is in. So we’ll focus on the other two.
Auburn and Missouri fans, here’s a nugget for you:
The committee will meet again in January to begin the process of evaluating previous seasons and the scenarios that unfolded, set an agenda for the 2014 season and pour the first cement of the system they will rely on to seed next year’s playoff. The members have spent only five or six hours together total thus far, so they will start from the beginning and prioritize the measures they deem important to evaluating teams.
“Then we’ll provide those to each committee member, and they’ll weigh them from their perspective and different background,” Long said. “We’ll build a consensus [of factors] for the top four and then go from there.”
There will be a secondary set of factors constructed after that, but the consensus for determining the top four teams will have four, possibly five, parts. It’s reasonable to assume these four will be included: record, strength of schedule, strength of conference, performance against top-level competition. Those won’t be assigned specific values, just deemed a high priority.
“I don’t think there will be a formula, like 40 percent strength of schedule or something like that,” Wieberg said.
Good news for the SEC: In a season like this one, three of those four factors heavily favor your league compared to Ohio State (or Florida State). If we’re lucky, this would render some of the already incessant campaigning occurring in the South (yes, and elsewhere) unnecessary.
This is the basis for the SEC champion’s case for leaping an undefeated team and getting into the national title.
Auburn and Missouri both win the strength of schedule argument against Ohio State and FSU. Jeff Sagarin does a cool thing in his strength of conference rankings by breaking up divisions and ranking them individually. Auburn benefits the most, as the SEC West ranks No. 1 (just ahead of the Pac-12 South). The SEC East, home to Mizzou, ranks No. 4, while the Big Ten Leaders (Ohio State) comes in at No. 8 and the ACC Atlantic (FSU) follows that at No. 9.
Performance against top-level competition, as a byproduct of the conference strength results, skews towards the SEC, too. Ohio State has a quality win over Wisconsin and an opportunity this weekend to beat No. 10 Michigan State. That’s where the Buckeyes’ top-level competition chances end, though.
Missouri can beat that by claiming wins at Georgia, at Ole Miss and against Texas A&M. Auburn? Those Tigers beat Ole Miss and won in College Station, but when pressed for proof by the undeafeateds, Gus Malzahn – OK, we all know it would be Jay Jacobs – probably just runs the Chris Davis clip and drops the damn mic (For the visual form of this, type “B-Rabbit vs Papa Doc” into YouTube. There’s adult language, so I won’t link it, but there are the breadcrumbs.).
So if a committee, and not the BCS, was sorting through this season’s debates, Ohio State likely benefits from SOS being only one primary factor in the process. The Buckeyes’ problem? SOS is only one primary factor, and the one-loss SEC teams can make more compelling cases in all of the others.
3. Something to think about in light of the Winston news
FSU quarterback Jameis Winston was cleared Thursday in a sexual assault case, with state attorney Willie Meggs deciding sufficient evidence for filing charges wasn’t present, so Winston is free to move forward and play for the Seminoles in the ACC championship game this weekend and, presumably, the BCS title after that.
If Winston was charged, the BCS would have had to determine if undefeated FSU without Winston was still worthy of playing the title game.
I asked all three committee members what the process would be for a situation in which a prominent player on a title contender couldn’t play due to an injury or some other off-field issue.
Radakovich: “You have to look at what the circumstances are. If there’s a key injury and a player won’t be able to participate, we’ll have to look at that. Would off-field stuff that is out of the control of so many people be treated the same way? I don’t know. It could be.”
Wieberg: “It won’t be [considered] just because it’s off-field stuff. It will be how off-field stuff changes that team versus another team. If injuries and off-field issues take a player off the field and that changes a team, those will be handled the same, I imagine.”
Long agreed that injuries and off-field injuries that fundamentally alters a team will definitely be a factor, but “that varies per program” and it’s almost impossible to speak in general terms about such a situation. The committee would just have to handle the circumstances when they arrive.
It’s unlikely an undefeated team is penalized for the faults of one player – even the team’s best player – so Florida State still likely would have played in the title game if Winston wasn’t available to participate.
But if a one-loss team among a pool of contenders with similar profiles finds itself in a similar situation next season while fighting for a playoff spot? Based on the information above, it’s absolutely fair to believe the player’s absence would be weighed heavily in the evaluation process.
Teddy Mitrosilis writes and edits college football for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.