Forward Pass: What the playoff got right, what it got wrong in Year 1
GRAPEVINE, Texas — You spent the season watching the weekly rankings shows, reading columns like this one, debating with your friends.
Finally, on Sunday, the selection committee unveiled its first-ever College Football Playoff field, one guaranteed ahead of time to disappoint two fan bases and sure to infuriate just about everyone.
But then a funny thing happened.
Chairman Jeff Long explained in fairly straightforward fashion why Ohio State, not TCU or Baylor, landed the fourth spot. Simply put, the Buckeyes won their conference championship game. The Bears and Horned Frogs didn’t play in one.
"Ohio State’s performance in a 13th game gave them a quality win over a highly ranked team," Long said of the Buckeyes’ 59-0 rout of then-No. 13 Wisconsin. That Ohio State did it a week after losing yet another star quarterback, J.T. Barrett, "spoke volumes about the strength of the team."
Mind you, that same night, Baylor beat an even higher-ranked team, No. 9 Kansas State, in impressive fashion (38-27). But Long specifically noted Ohio State played a stronger non-conference schedule than the Bears. Meanwhile, poor TCU went into the last weekend thinking they were the third-best team in the country, thrashed Iowa State 55-3 and the next day found out it was now sixth.
But that 11th-hour reordering was always a possibility, not only because conference championships finally became one of the criteria, but because teams’ schedules don’t even out until their seasons are complete. Ohio State and Baylor played top-15 teams on the final day while TCU played a 2-10 opponent. The differences between them were always "razor thin," as Long said a gazillion times, so one game out of 12 or 13 could make a significant difference.
I had no problem with the final bracket (even though it meant I spent 18 hours Saturday traveling to and covering two games involving no eventual playoff participants) because of Long’s sensible rationale behind it. And because it’s hard to argue those aren’t the four best teams right now. There’s a certain segment of the population that still believes Ohio State should have been eliminated from contention the day it lost to Virginia Tech nearly three months ago, as if the 11 games it’s played and won since then never happened. I’m not one of them.
Personally, I would have had TCU as my fourth team, but I don’t think the Frogs’ exclusion was any injustice. As a quick dash of perspective, none of the teams vying for that lost spot were 2004 Auburn. They all had flaws. None would have been in play for the BCS National Championship Game. But we have four spots in the postseason now, and the committee had to pick one of them.
My problem was the process leading up to Sunday. Why go through the trouble of producing those weekly rankings knowing they might have little bearing on the final product? Long himself has repeatedly said the committee starts with a "blank slate" every week. Why deceive TCU fans into thinking if their team wins, it’s likely in, when in fact it now seems the Frogs were doomed all along due solely to bad scheduling luck.
Not to toot my own horn, but I predicted something just like this would happen back in April when the CFP folks first announced they’d be doing weekly rankings:
Imagine … Oklahoma is 9-1 and ranked No. 3 in both the AP and coaches polls. The committee decrees the Sooners are No. 3, too. OU fans rightfully figure if its team wins out, it will be in the playoffs a week later, though, after beating 2-9 Kansas 55-7, the Sooners drop from third to fifth in the playoff rankings. Between playing the hapless Jayhawks and losses that week by its three non-conference opponents (Louisiana Tech, Tennessee and Tulsa), OU’s strength of schedule nosedived over the weekend.
Umm, TCU beat 2-9 Iowa State, 55-3, on the final weekend and dropped from No. 3 to No. 6. Eerie.
Heck, you don’t even have to play a game for the committee to reevaluate. Just a little bit further down Sunday’s rankings: Mississippi State, 10th the week before, moved up to No. 7, one spot ahead of fellow 10-2 Michigan State, after neither played a game. That simple flip knocked the Spartans from a seemingly certain Orange Bowl berth to the Cotton Bowl. Long extolled it as an example of the committee looking at teams with a fresh lens every week, and the fact is, the Bulldogs did have the better resume.
But does that mean if the committee met again next week it might have reevaluated Ohio State and TCU? That Buckeyes performance would not have been so fresh in the members’ minds.
"Human nature is the most recent achievements are probably the most impactful," conceded Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby.
Of course, ESPN’s programming department is going to make sure the committee keeps doing those rankings next season. They’re ratings gold, and they create narratives for the rest of the week. The best the public can do is acclimate itself going forward.
Year 1 of the selection committee had its good and its bad. Yes, it introduced nebulous concepts like game control and "we remember that an opponent used to be ranked." But it also showed it’s not tethered to traditional top 25 voter behavior in the way it more deeply evaluated Florida State. And it sent a strong message, via Baylor, that non-conference schedules do matter. The latter, in particular, could benefit fans tremendously.
But we always knew a four-team playoff would not go off cleanly. There will always be controversy. There will always be seemingly deserving teams left out. All we can ask for is a logical explanation. It helped that Ohio State went out and gave Long and the committee an easy-to-justify answer.
THE FASCINATING FINAL FOUR
Understandably frustrated TCU running back Aaron Green tweeted Sunday: "Had TCU and BAYLOR been big NAME/MONEY schools we both would’ve been in smh…." He wasn’t alone with that theory. The night before, Mississippi State AD Scott Stricklin, noticing the budding Ohio State groundswell, wrote, "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"
We’ll never know whether Condoleezza Rice, Michael Gould and their cohorts subconsciously gravitated to Ohio State on the final night because of its helmets and tradition. Or whether they would have done the same if Maryland was the 11-1 Big Ten team laying the smackdown on Wisconsin.
But of this I’m certain: The committee is getting much less flak than it would have if the "snubbed" teams in its first year were bigger brands with bigger followings than two small private schools in Texas. Neutral fans may feel sorry for one or both, but they’re not as passionately livid as they would have been if they felt an Alabama or Oklahoma was getting jobbed.
In fact, whereas the backlash to the final BCS rankings often lingered right up through the bowl games, I get the sense that by Monday afternoon most fans will have it out of their system and will instead be looking ahead to the first-ever semifinal matchups.
Because, wow. Marcus Mariota versus Jameis Winston in the Rose Bowl? Nick Saban versus Urban Meyer in the Sugar Bowl? For the first year of a new system you couldn’t ask for a more fascinating set of pairings than Alabama-Ohio State and Oregon-Florida State. The only thing more exciting than knowing we’ll see those games Jan. 1 is the fact we then get to see the winners play each other 11 days later.
What’s interesting is that as closely as we’ve perceived those teams to be — for example, the AP and coaches polls have Florida State higher than Oregon — Vegas sees a heavy favorite in both. Alabama opened as a nine-point favorite over the Buckeyes. That’s less surprising than the Ducks as an eight-point favorite over the defending national champion Seminoles, winners of 29 straight games.
Of course, both underdogs will be trying to overcome lingering stigmas. You might as well go ahead and brace yourself now for "Can Ohio State hang with the SEC" stories. As you may recall, the Buckeyes suffered back-to-back BCS title game blowouts to SEC foes Florida and LSU in 2006 and ’07. As you may have heard, Ohio State is 1-9 all-time versus the SEC in bowl games.
I would assume that anyone who’s watched the Buckeyes play this year has shed the outdated "slow" stereotype. Meyer’s definitely fixed that issue. See Jalin Marshall, Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, et al. But his team reached the playoff a year earlier than many expected, and it’s facing an Alabama team with far more weapons than any of the Buckeyes’ Big Ten foes. This Tide defense is mortal, as Auburn showed, but if by chance they do shut down the Buckeyes, hopefully it won’t turn into another annoying referendum on Ohio State’s program.
Meanwhile, Vegas has ample reason to be down on the ‘Noles. Saturday’s 37-35 win over Georgia Tech in the ACC title game marked the 10th time in 13 games that Florida State has failed to cover the spread. And just like Ohio State, FSU will be taking a big step up in competition with the Ducks, who put on their own masterpiece Friday night against Arizona. Oregon may be the team that finally builds a lead and keeps it against Winston and the ‘Noles.
But here’s where trying to predict the playoff games gets dicey. As much as you think you might know about these teams based on their 13 performances, bowl games often bring out an entirely different product. Many of their stars will spend the next week on the banquet circuit. The 25-day layoff gives injured players time to heal, but it can also disrupt teams’ rhythms.
And remember, these are still bowl games. Florida State and Oregon will still go to Disneyland and take part in the Lawry’s Beef Bowl. My prediction: Someone’s going to come out sharper than they have all season, and someone else is going to come out and lay an egg. I just don’t know who will be which.
WILL THE PLAYOFF HURT ALL OTHER BOWLS?
Since the day the commissioners first announced the CFP nearly two-and-a-half years ago, they vowed to "take back New Year’s." And they planned to do that both by moving all of the major bowls back to Dec. 31 or Jan. 1 and by having the selection committee make the pairings themselves based on teams’ actual merits.
Their first attempt is certainly promising. While we know Baylor and TCU would rather be in one of the playoff bowls, at least the fifth-ranked Bears get to stay almost-local in the Cotton Bowl and face top-10 foe Michigan State on New Year’s Day. No. 6 TCU gets to square off with the SEC in that league’s backyard, facing No. 9 Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve. The Orange Bowl seems a suitable sendoff for No. 7 Mississippi State’s best team in decades. And an Arizona-Boise State Fiesta Bowl just kind of makes sense.
Compare that lineup to BCS years past, when conference tie-ins and rigid selection orders gave us such classics as the 2007 Wake Forest-Louisville Orange Bowl, the 2011 Oklahoma-UConn Fiesta Bowl and the 2013 Florida State-Northern Illinois Orange Bowl.
"The committee leaned heavily on … getting the highest-ranked teams we had against each other," Long said of their new roles as pseudo-bowl executives. "The rankings were the overriding thing here. The highest-ranked teams we could get, given the parameters that we have."
Once the committee released its full top 25, the rest of the 38 bowl matchups started trickling out. There, too, many mid- and lower-level games will enjoy more appealing matchups than usual this year, but for the opposite reason. By prioritizing geography and equitable matchups over rigid orders of teams’ records, the ACC’s, Big Ten’s and SEC’s new pool systems largely achieved their goal of freshening up their lineups.
Case in point: The Dec. 29 Texas Bowl will pit old SWC rivals Texas and Arkansas. If those were two other 6-6 teams, you might not bother to watch. If those same teams were playing in Memphis, they might not draw a crowd. As it is, I’d expect the Houston game to enjoy higher-than-usual attendance and TV ratings.
The question is will casual fans watch and travel to these bowls like they have in the past, or is the playoff going to overshadow everything else? While the BCS Championship Game was always the biggest deal, there was still undeniable prestige and attention afforded the other BCS bowls. I get the sense that won’t be the case for the newly elevated Peach Bowl, even with two top-10 teams in it. And while the Orange Bowl will have better teams (Mississippi State and Georgia Tech) than it has in many recent seasons, it may still lose a little glamour moving to New Year’s Eve.
I could be wrong. There’s no such thing as too much college football. But something tells me we’re going to be talking a lot more about Ohio State-Alabama and Oregon-Florida State on Dec. 31 than we will the games being played that day.
I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON …
… Just how wide a margin Mariota wins the Heisman by. The Oregon quarterback all but wrapped up the trophy Friday night against Arizona, and then Ohio State made sure of it by thumping Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin. Alabama star Amari Cooper had another big game against Missouri and finishes with a remarkable 115 catches for 1,656 yards. He’ll go to New York, but he’s not going to win it, either.
Believe it or not, USC’s Reggie Bush holds the record for highest percentage of first-place votes with 84.9 percent in 2005, which seems ridiculous now given that a) he ended up giving the trophy back and b) the runner-up was Texas’ Vince Young. I think it’s entirely realistic Mariota will top that mark this year given he’s led virtually wire-to-wire.
ON TO BOWL SEASON
Three games we’re most excited for:
Rose: Oregon-Florida State (Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET). It’s a fitting end for Mariota’s accomplished career that he’ll play in his first Rose Bowl. And Winston returns to the venue where he threw the game-winning touchdown for last year’s title.
Sugar: Alabama-Ohio State (Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET). The Tide hold advantages in most areas, but one potential mismatch is Joey Bosa and the Buckeyes’ D-line against Alabama’s O-line. It will be interesting to see what plans both sides devise.
Peach: TCU-Ole Miss (Dec. 31, 12:30 p.m. ET). Four years ago, Gary Patterson’s program legitimized itself nationally with a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. It’s still the overlooked party crasher. Beating a top-10 SEC foe would help change that.
Five games you shouldn’t miss:
Orange: Mississippi State-Georgia Tech (Dec. 31, 8 p.m. ET). Dak Prescott did not look full strength down the stretch. The break should bring out his best. Paul Johnson has struggled in bowls, but this is his best team to date.
Cotton: Baylor-Michigan State (Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m. ET). The Spartans’ defense did not fare well against Oregon or Ohio State. But despondent Baylor seems most ripe to play the role of Alabama last year in its "consolation bowl."
Fiesta: Arizona-Boise State (Dec. 31, 4 p.m. ET). Who doesn’t have warm memories of Boise in the Fiesta Bowl? Boise used to have to go undefeated to get in. This year the Broncos lost twice, but they got better.
Alamo: Kansas State-UCLA (Jan. 2, 6:45 p.m. ET). The Wildcats aren’t splashy, but they’re fun to watch. QB Jake Waters doesn’t have nearly the athleticism of counterpart Brett Hundley, but he zips some darts in there.
Music City: LSU-Notre Dame (Dec. 30, 3 p.m. ET). The Irish won’t get back all those injured defenders, but I expect they’ll be better than they were down the stretch. The Tigers are so young, though, they might look different, too.
One under-the-radar gem:
Boca Raton: Marshall vs. Northern Illinois (Dec. 23, 6 p.m. ET). It’s not a bad little matchup for a brand-new bowl, as two of the season’s best mid-majors square off before Christmas. It’s also Herd star Rakeem Cato’s college sendoff.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, "The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff," is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.