Fans want black and white but CFP selection is mostly gray
Sports fans want clear resolutions using objective measures to determine which team is best.
Simple: Win something, get something. Survive and advance.
That's the way professional sports and most college tournaments work. It has never been that way in college football and while the playoff has injected some objectivity into the way a champion is determined, in many ways it is as subjective as ever – mostly because it has to be.
''(Fans) look into this process and they want it to black and white, but college football has never been black and white,'' said former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese, a member of the playoff selection committee for the first two years. ''College football has always been gray.''
The current College Football Playoff selection committee is about to dive into one of those gray areas, maybe setting a precedent for the future of picking the final four. Ohio State cannot win the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes were second in the rankings last week and figure to be in the same spot Tuesday when the latest and second-to-last committee top 25 comes out.
Ohio State added to its resume Saturday by beating Michigan, which had been No. 3.
So the Buckeyes (11-1) will be like a golfer in the clubhouse on championship weekend, sitting on a top score hoping not to get caught while Penn State (10-2) and Wisconsin (10-2) compete for the Big Ten title and hope winning it is enough to make up ground. If Penn State (10-2) wins it will have what seems like a particularly good argument to make the playoff ahead of the Buckeyes. The Nittany Lions beat Ohio State 24-21 in October, won the division they share and would be Big Ten champions.
Simple, right? Win something, get something. In this case a playoff spot.
The problem is this isn't the NFL and there are so many other variables to consider.
There are huge variations in nonconference scheduling and very few matchups of top teams. To focus solely on conference plays is to render nonconference games such as Ohio State's victory against Oklahoma meaningless. Or Penn State's loss to Pitt. Even within a conference, schedules can be drastically different, especially when three of the Power Five conferences have two seven-team divisions.
Setting strict requirements for teams to qualify for the playoff and leaving the selection committee with little room for subjective reasoning creates the possibility of boxing out a worthy team.
''There's crazy combinations out there,'' Tranghese said.
Take Wisconsin, which lost to both Ohio State and Michigan, but gets to play for the Big Ten title because the West division is so much weaker than the East.
When the conference commissioners created the playoff and the selection committee, there was much discussion about making only conference champions eligible for the final four.
Coming on the heels of the first and only one-conference BCS championship game featuring LSU and Alabama out of the SEC, emphasizing conference champions was viewed as a way to make it less likely that one league would put multiple teams in the playoff.
Ultimately, the selection committee was charged with picking the four best teams and best was left intentionally vague. The committee was given recommendations, not requirements.
The protocol calls on committee members to consider conference championships, strength of schedule, head-to-head results and common opponents, ''When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable.''
It also says a non-conference champion can be included in the playoff if it is ''unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.''
The protocol brings some objectivity into the discussion. When in doubt do this. How it is applied is subjective.
''You and I could chose to interpret the protocol differently, but that was the intent of the commissioners, Tranghese said. ''You factor all of that into your thinking. It gets discussed. It gets analyzed and you think about it.''
As of last week the 12-person committee had no doubt Ohio State belonged in the top four.
''Does the selection committee see a small margin of separation this week between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State? We do not,'' said committee chairman Kirby Hocutt, who is Texas Tech's athletic director.
It seems more likely that, barring an upset of Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, the fourth playoff spot will come down to the winner of the Big Ten championship game and the winner of the Pac-12 championship between Washington (11-1) and Colorado (10-2).
The circumstances are very different, but just two seasons ago, in the first year of the playoff, Ohio State leap-frogged both TCU and Baylor in the last rankings to take the fourth spot after a lopsided victory in the Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes should not feel too comfortable this week.
''The only (ranking) that matters,'' Tranghese said, ''is the one at the end.''
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP