All your College Football Playoff committee hate-questions, answered

For years, I could count on this particular week’s inbox to be filled with fiery missives about the evils of the BCS. People certainly have gripes with the playoff, but they’re less about the system and more about the selections. I consider this progress.

Now … about those selections.

For two seasons, the committee told us that three things are important — a conference championship, a 13th data point and strength of schedule.  This year they ignored all of that in selecting the teams.  It seems like they just change the criteria from year to year in order to shoehorn in teams that they want.  Going forward, how does a team or conference know what they need to do?

— Brad, Houston

They don’t. As I wrote Sunday, there will clearly never be a magic formula for getting into the playoff. But you raise an interesting point.

As we know, one person, the chairman, speaks for the committee, and for two years that was Arkansas AD Jeff Long. For the past several weeks, I, like you, felt like new chairman Kirby Hocutt was downplaying the importance of conference championships (“a tiebreaker,” “just one piece,” etc.) compared with Long. So on Tuesday I went digging through Long’s 2014 and ’15 weekly teleconference transcripts to refresh my memory.

Here’s a sampling, with some portions bolded for emphasis:

Nov. 11, 2014: “There is a significant amount of football ahead of us, including the December championship games, which again, I will remind you about each week, because they do factor into our ultimate decisions on selection Sunday.”

Nov. 25 2014: “The conference championship game is one that the [commissioners] told us that we need to look at, so we are certainly going to be looking closely at conference championship games, and if two teams are comparable, a conference championship would be a tiebreaker.”

Nov. 3, 2015: “I will say it every week until the final week, being a conference champion is an important criteria that we will take into account in the final rankings the weekend of December 6th.”

Nov. 17, 2015: “Most teams have now played 10 games, so we have a substantial body of work. We are looking forward to the remaining games in the regular season, which feature a number of key head-to-head match-ups, and let me remind you the CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS will become one of the factors we will look at in the final weekend.”

(Note: The capitalization in that one was in the original transcript, not added.)

Nov. 24, 2015: “Conference champions, as you mentioned, is one of the criteria for us to consider when we have two teams that are basically equal, so they definitely matter. I don't know that I can put a value on how much they matter.

Gosh, how did we ever get the impression conference championships are important? He only reminded them about us every week for two years.

Now, he did specifically say in two of those quotes that they are “tiebreakers” to be used when “two teams are basically equal.” That’s basically how it’s worded in the official protocol, and that’s how this year’s committee treated it in regards to Ohio State and Penn State (not close enough). But you can certainly see why many of us missed that part of his message.

As for the so-called 13th data point — Long probably never should have said that. Let’s be honest, they don’t look at 13 data points equally; they focus on the four of five against Top 25 competition. The 13th game becomes important if a team needs another quality win to get over the hump — like Ohio State in 2014. This year’s Buckeyes racked up enough of them over 12 games to get in.

As for strength of schedule — I don’t agree that the committee ignored it this year, as I’ll elaborate about in a bit.

Why when we had the greatest opening weekend in college football history would the committee put the team with the 127th-ranked out-of-conference schedule in the playoff? Hope it costs the conferences a boatload of cash because of the lower ratings when only cupcake games are scheduled. What were the TV ratings for Washington vs. Portland State, Idaho and Rutgers?

— Mark, Cleveland

The conferences wouldn’t lose a cent in that scenario, but ESPN and FOX would. Good thing I don’t see it happening.

The notion that Washington’s weak early games didn’t hurt it is false. That non-conference schedule is the main reason the committee even had to debate a 12-1 Pac-12 champ vs. an 11-2 Big Ten champ. The Huskies left themselves vulnerable just as Baylor did in 2014. The difference is, there was another one-loss champ in play to pass the Bears, there wasn’t one this year, and the closest competitor had a 39-point loss on its resume.

Meanwhile, Ohio State would not have had nearly as compelling a case to make it as a non-champ without that 45-24 win on the road against Oklahoma. Replace the Sooners with, say, 5-7 Arizona State, and suddenly the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions have the same number of Top 10 wins and Ohio State has one fewer Top 25 win than Penn State. That’s where the two-loss team with the head-to-head win and division championship gets in over the one-loss team.

Looking back at that great opening weekend, Wisconsin’s win over LSU helped the Badgers immensely in the rankings all season. Alabama’s win over USC and Clemson’s at Auburn probably did not affect their playoff standing. Texas-Notre Dame mostly just messed up everyone’s perceptions of how good those teams really were. (They weren’t at all.) But they were all a lot of fun, and I expect you’ll see the major programs continue to schedule them.

Hi Stewart: With all of the strength of schedule talk with the playoff selection, I think a fascinating question that no one is asking is: Would Oklahoma be in the playoff if it had scheduled two cupcakes instead of Ohio State and Houston?  Would an undefeated Power 5 team with a big name be left out even though the data would show they are the same team they are now?

— Robert Madel, Seattle

That’s a tough one. I’ve said for some time it will take an extreme situation for an undefeated Power 5 champ to miss the playoff — but your hypothetical might qualify. Between playing three nobodies, just two Top 25 conference opponents and no conference championship game, the Sooners wouldn’t have much of a case. Three years in we’ve yet to see a playoff team with fewer than three Top 25 wins.

The better question would be what if you swapped out just one of those. As Bob Stoops himself said, you couldn’t justify putting Oklahoma above Ohio State, so let’s say OU still lost to Houston but did not play the Buckeyes. Instead OU played and beat 4-8 Oregon State. Now you’ve got an 11-1 champ with two Top 25 wins and its sole loss to a 9-3 team. In that scenario, it probably comes down to Oklahoma and Washington, and once again, the 13th game (in which the Huskies beat a Top 10 Colorado team) does in the Big 12 team.

Good thing that will no longer be a problem starting next season.

Stewart: Is it finally time to decide whether the true purpose of the playoff is to crown an “undisputed” champion or to just make loads of money? It’s time to end the weekly committee rankings spectacle. The point is nothing more than filling TV time and talk radio segments, but they are also causing avoidable issues with credibility and consistency. If the committee has to explain certain decisions each week, all they do is risk painting themselves into corners as weeks go on.

Don, Xenia, OH

You are 100 percent correct. After the backlash that first year when TCU fell from No. 3 to No. 6 on the last weekend without losing, I suspect the committee is more reticent now to change its order from week to week. Would the Washington-Penn State decision have been different if there were no previous rankings and the committee did not have to justify bumping the Huskies out of the top four?

It also makes it harder for them to account for the fact that teams’ resumes can change drastically without the team itself doing anything differently. For example, I’m not sure why Wisconsin remained as high as it did for as long as it did when the two best teams it beat, LSU and Nebraska, fell out of the rankings by late in the season. (LSU moved back in for the final two weeks.)

All that being said … the show’s not going anywhere. It draws roughly a million viewers most weeks, and the Nov. 15 edition that aired between games of the Champions Classic college basketball games got 2.7 million. And that’s not to mention the hours and hours of conversation and subsequent content they generate for people like myself. I’m conflicted in that I disagree with the concept but unquestionably benefit from it. So I’m good.

Will Matt Rhule be a great coach or the greatest coach in the Big 12?

— Taylor Stakes

There you go. Love the enthusiasm.

It’s a fantastic hire by Baylor. I just hope the fans there show him the necessary patience. Between the scandal, the dire state of the program’s recruiting (currently one commitment), and the impending massive culture change, it’s going to get worse there before it gets better.

How would you reform the sham that is the Heisman? Jake Browning, Donnel Pumphrey and John Ross should, but won’t, be in New York this weekend. Because five of the Heisman’s six voting regions either border or lie east of the Mississippi River, this is to be expected. The Heisman includes more than 900 voters, 157 of which case ballots before last year's conference title games, when Christian McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ all-purpose yards record. When will the award stop being such a regionally-biased, convoluted and altogether flawed process?

— Mark DeVaughn., Diamond Springs, CA

I don’t even know where to begin, but I’ll start with the fact that this was generally an underwhelming Heisman field compared to many in the past. The three West Coast guys you mentioned are great players, but I don’t feel like any of them were snubbed. Browning played poorly against the two best teams on his schedule, USC and Colorado. Ross has the highlights but not the stats. Pumphrey’s only realistic shot was to rush for 2,000 yards and break Ron Dayne’s record before the ceremony; instead, he had some of his quietest games at the end.

But I don’t disagree there’s a hurdle for West Coast players to overcome, and my friend Ralph Russo at the AP nailed it this week when he tweeted:

That’s exactly right.

Lamar Jackson had two bad games at the end and is probably still going to win the Heisman. McCaffrey had two bad games in the middle of the season and vanished into thin air. No one noticed he still gained nearly 2,000 yards. Baker Mayfield struggled in his biggest game of the season (Ohio State) and still made it to New York. In 2013, Stanford crushed then-undefeated Oregon on a Thursday night and Marcus Mariota instantly went from top three on every list to finishing outside the Top 10.

Most of those 900-plus voters are media members. There are not anywhere close to 900 media members who cover more than one team or conference closely. That shows this year in the fact Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers is a finalist. He’s a talented player, but there are far more “outstanding” defensive players this year. (Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, Houston’s Ed Oliver and Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham, among others.) I’m guessing he appears mostly on ballots cast by general columnists or TV and radio hosts who pop in only occasionally on college football and recognize his name from SportsCenter.

There’s no easy fix because the Heisman Trust doesn’t see anything wrong with any of this. They’re good people who raise a lot of money for some great causes, but revising a decades-old voting process is not high on the priority list.

Is Jeff Brohm going to be able to bring Purdue back to relevance?  Seems like a perfect fit, just hoping he can get the Boilers to a level where we stop being a punch line.

— Mike, South Bend, Ind.

I believe so. It’s a great hire by Purdue, and I see a lot of parallels to when Purdue hired Joe Tiller in 1997.

The Boilers are never going to contend in the Big Ten by out-recruiting people, so they need to be innovative. Tiller brought “Basketball on Grass” to the Big Ten at a time when that conference was still comprised almost entirely of “Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust” and caught defenses off guard. Inheriting a quarterback named Drew Brees certainly helped.

Brohm’s Western Kentucky offenses have been lighting up scoreboards for the past several years, and the innovative system he’s running — a little bit of a pro style, a little bit of spread, lots and lots of passing — is a direct descendant of the one mentor Bobby Petrino used to propel Lamar Jackson to New York. Purdue QB David Blough, who this year led the Big Ten in passing yards, was only a sophomore.

Finally, I like Brohm’s prospects better competing in the Big Ten West than I would the East. Wisconsin’s a great team and has been for many years and Nebraska will usually be a contender, but on the whole there aren’t as many premier athletes flying around on defense like there are at Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State. Give him a year and he should be able to put up some points.

Hey Stewart: We all know there are lots of awesome bowl destinations. What would you say are some of the most underrated bowl host cities/venues? I’m a UNC alum living in New Orleans and trying to decide if a trip to El Paso would be worth shelling out a grand.

— John F., New Orleans

If you can afford it, go. While I’ve never been, many people I know have attended or covered a Sun Bowl and had nothing but great things to say about their experience. It’s the rare remaining bowl out there still true to its intended purpose of showcasing the host community. The Outback Bowl in Tampa gets a lot of praise as well. And while I’ve never covered an Alamo Bowl, I have been to many Final Fours in San Antonio, and it’s an ideal setup for that kind of event.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear someone’s first-hand account of the Bahamas Bowl.

Stewart: Isn't there anything that can be done about a ranked conference champion, Temple, being relegated to the Military Bowl?  The system in and of itself ensures that a Matt Rhule will say the hell with it and go to Baylor.  Temple should be playing the Mountain West champ at minimal or a mid-level P5 program in a nice place.

— Bob, North Wales, PA

While it’s not fair, you can’t blame the bowls or the TV networks that show them (and in many cases, own them) from doing what’s in their best interests. They want teams from conferences that are going to sell the most tickets and draw the highest ratings. Temple, for all it’s accomplished the past two years, is not one of them. It’s also not particularly close to any warm-weather bowls.

That being said, the American does have relationships with three bowls in Florida (Miami Beach, Boca Raton and St. Petersburg) and no hard selection order. It’s my understanding that Temple chose to remain closer to home where more of its fans can make the trip.

On top of that, a school from Temple’s own conference, Houston, is in fact playing the Mountain West champ (San Diego State) in a glamorous locale (Las Vegas). There again the marketplace is a factor. Vegas had a spot to fill because of the lack of eligible Pac-12 teams, ESPN owns that bowl and Houston, given how much exposure it’s garnered since last year, is a good TV draw, so it brokered a deal with the conference. But I don’t think that’s why Rhule left.

Stewart: Since you are a local, who do you like for the San Jose State head coaching vacancy?

— David Whitlock, Sunnyvale, CA

Is it too late to throw my hat in the ring? I would hire great coordinators, never punt and turn Hawaii into our primary recruiting pipeline.

And we’d save money by hosting all of our recruiting meals at Adamson’s French Dip.