Mailbag: Why Ohio State in the playoff makes perfect sense & more

BY Stewart Mandel • December 10, 2014

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It was long an annual Mailbag tradition that my inbox would overflow with angst and fury on the Monday and Tuesday after the BCS pairings were announced. So I was curious to see what the first-ever College Football Playoff Morning After would be like.

I can now report that while the playoff, as expected, produced its own selection controversy (Ohio State over the Big 12), the tenor of the reactions was muted by comparison. Instead of furious screeds wanting to burn the BCS to the ground, I instead got an extension of the committee debate and some muted grumbling over the process. So that's progress.

Conversely, there seems to be far more conspiracy theories with the committee than there were the BCS standings. And of course now I've got to deal with a whole new round of Big 12 expansion speculation. What is this, Chapter 4?

But first thing's first . . .

Stewart, now that the euphoria of Ohio State's big win over a one-dimensional and overrated Wisconsin team has waned a bit, would the committee still put the Buckeyes in the playoff over Baylor? Was the committee unduly influenced by the last thing they saw as opposed to a team's full resume?

-- Grant Calease, Des Moines, Iowa

There's no question recency played a huge part in the decision. Remember, the committee previously met on Mondays and Tuesdays. For the final edition, though, members watched the games together all weekend and began their vote Saturday night as soon as the championship games ended. Ohio State's clinic wasn't just fresh in their minds -- it was probably still playing in the background. And yet, I do believe if they met today they'd still pick the Buckeyes, due to the following sequence of events that transpired over the last week of the season.

Like me, the committee clearly believed as recently as last Tuesday that TCU was a better team than Baylor or Ohio State (or Florida State for that matter). I saw both the Horned Frogs and Bears in person last weekend, and I do believe TCU was the slightly better team of the two Big 12 squads. Both have explosive offenses that can hang 50 on you in their sleep, but TCU's defense is more athletic and more complete. In fact it was one of the best in the country, but its stats don't reflect that due to one bad game . . . against Baylor. Once their schedules were complete, it became impossible even for a TCU advocate like me to justify ignoring the teams' head-to-head outcome.

Meanwhile, another game Saturday had an inadvertent negative effect on both Baylor and TCU, which was Oklahoma State upsetting Oklahoma. On the surface that seems ridiculous given that they all played each other. Nobody's overall strength of schedule changed one way or the other. But the committee clearly showed throughout the process how much it valued wins over top 25-caliber opponents. Oklahoma was No. 4 in the country at the time TCU beat the Sooners and No. 16 when Baylor won in Norman, but after finishing 8-4 they fell out altogether. So when time came for the final decision, Ohio State actually had three top-25 wins (Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota), all of them away from home no less, while Baylor (vs. TCU and Kansas State) and TCU (vs. K-State and Minnesota) each had two, both at home.

Finally, while Jeff Long insisted it wasn't the committee's job to "send messages" about scheduling, there's no doubt in my mind that a contingent of members on that committee -- particularly the sitting ADs -- were uncomfortable with rewarding Baylor while it openly defies the larger movement around the country to beef up schedules. A quote Barry Alvarez gave me in an interview for my book last spring has always stuck in the back of my mind: "It's pretty easy for me to take a look at a schedule and see what the intent of the schedule is." Baylor's intent is pretty clear; it doesn't have a Power 5 opponent scheduled until 2017. (But it's already got Incarnate Word locked up.) Meanwhile, for all the flak Ohio State took for losing to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes also scheduled and slaughtered a Cincinnati team that finished 9-3 and shared the American Conference title. Throw in 6-5 Navy and the Buckeyes took on three teams tougher than anyone Baylor did.

So to recap, TCU and Baylor's schedules finally aligned closely enough after the final week that the committee invoked the head-to-head tiebreaker, at which point the decision came down to Baylor or Ohio State. The Buckeyes' performance against Wisconsin gave them more quality wins (as defined by the committee) than the Bears and a better overall body of work (nine wins over bowl-eligible teams to Baylor's five). In the end, it probably wasn't that difficult a decision.

Can you imagine a scenario in which the team dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 was named "Texas" or "Oklahoma?"

-- Hakimu Davidson, Atlanta

The outrage would be a lot louder, that's for sure.

As I just described, the rationale and chronology behind why the committee changed the order like it did makes perfect sense. That being said, I hate that the TV-driven weekly rankings put TCU's players through the five-day roller-coaster of being told they were No. 3, going out and winning the last game on their schedule 55-3 only to be told they're now No. 6. It's something the committee needs to reexamine in the offseason.

I wish there were a way to measure the effect of brand bias. It's definitely real, albeit largely subconscious. I'm guilty of it myself. And the main way it manifests itself is our tendency year-in, year-out to give the big-name programs the benefit of the doubt, even when they're struggling, while needing the less-traditional programs to constantly prove themselves over and over again. But the only way to know definitively whether that's what happened here would be for the exact same scenario to play out next season, only with Texas and Oklahoma reprising the role of TCU and Baylor and someone like Maryland playing the role of Ohio State. That's not going to happen.

Also, can we put to rest all the ridiculous conspiracy theories that IT'S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY. First of all, there were no TV or bowl executives in the room, just the committee members, none of whom earned a dollar for their services. The College Football Playoff is getting its $7 billion from ESPN whether Ohio State or Ohio makes the game and whether 30 million people watch or 300 watch. The playoff people even minimized the potential for financially driven conflicts of interest by tying so little of the playoff money to participation. The difference between Ohio State making the playoff as opposed to the Peach Bowl is $2 million for the Big Ten, split 14 ways.

But hey, if you're someone who's dead set on believing in some FIFA-like corruption scandal involving Tom Osborne, I'm probably not capable of talking you out of it.

The selection committee made it quite clear that the Big 12 needs to stage a championship game. What do you expect to happen first, that the Big 12 will successfully petition the NCAA to lessen its required numbered of teams to stage a championship game, or the Big 12 will go on a raid to expand its conference to 12? If it's the latter, what teams besides BYU do you expect the conference to reach out to?

-- Trevor Kuhn, Portland, Oregon

Definitely the petition.

As my friend Andy Staples wrote last spring, the origins of the NCAA's 12-team, two-division model was incredibly random. Basically, a two-division, 14-member Division II conference, the Pennsylvania State Athletics Conference, wanted to hold a championship game without it counting against the schools' limit, so it drafted an NCAA proposal that passed almost unnoticed at the 1987 convention. Five years later, SEC commissioner Roy Kramer used it as a basis to start his league's now iconic event, and everyone's just kind of abided by it ever since without questioning why.

Finally, last spring, the ACC and Big 12 authored their own proposal to "deregulate" conference championship games, just to give themselves the option. (The ACC might want to scrap divisions altogether.) Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told us Sunday that the measure got pushed to the backburner last offseason due to the NCAA's larger restructuring. You best believe they'll be pushing it back on the table this offseason.

Now, even if that passes (and there's no reason it shouldn't), that doesn't necessarily guarantee the conference will stage a championship game in 2015. There's a danger in overreacting to the first year of a new system. Yes, it definitely cost the Big 12 this season. But keep in mind, if just one of Alabama, Oregon, Florida State or Ohio State had lost in their championship games last weekend, Baylor would be in the playoff right now, and we'd all be extolling the Big 12's model for not putting its teams at risk of the same fate. It's too soon to say definitively whether the Big 12 absolutely needs to implement a title game ASAP, though I do believe the potential rewards would outweigh the risks.

As for expansion . . . I don't get the sense that's on anyone's immediate radar. There just aren't enough logical candidates. It's been challenging enough to integrate geographically clunky West Virginia in basketball and other sports that involve weekday travel than in football. Now you want to send the Mountaineers' volleyball team to Provo? As Bowlsby said earlier this week, expanding for the sole purpose of staging a football championship game "would be among the poorest reasons to do it." But, of course, that won't stop the speculation.

Stewart: What do you think are the chances Bob Bowlsby has already placed calls to ADs at Houston, Rice, SMU and Tulsa inquiring as to whether they would be interested in joining the Big 12?

-- Tom M., location unknown

And . . . here we go.

Those four schools averaged 22,418 in home attendance this season. So no, their phones aren't burning.

Stewart, please explain to me how we aren't having this "somebody got screwed" conversation next year when there are five power conferences and only four slots?

-- Mark Roshkowski, location unknown

It's interesting. While I've long maintained the playoff will not remain at four teams for the entire 12-year contract -- halfway through is the sweet spot -- the No. 1 reason may be something I hadn't fully anticipated. When the commissioners agreed to this arrangement in June 2012, there were still six, not five, power conferences. While they knew there would be controversy about who got left out, they could not have foreseen where that controversy would essentially boil down to "which conference was the big loser this year." All the heat Bowlsby is taking right now could just as easily be directed at Larry Scott or Jim Delany this time next year. And heaven help whoever becomes the new SEC commissioner if the SEC gets left out in his first season on the job.

End of the day, squeezing five conferences into four spots is undeniably clunky, and I could see the commissioners tiring pretty quickly of having to take turns being the perceived loser from year to year. While I remain skeptical about the slippery slope of going to eight -- do we really need to see this year's Michigan State team play for the national title? -- there's no question it'd be a lot cleaner if all five conferences were guaranteed a spot. In fact it'd put some meaning back into winning your conference. It was definitely an odd scene after TCU's game Saturday. People celebrated, but you could tell they weren't sure whether they should be fully celebrating just yet. The downside would be that the most important games down the stretch would involve teams that just aren't that great.

Hi, How come I can hear Rece Davis without delay when he is talking to Jeff Long, while Jeff himself seems to suffer through a five-second delay before hearing Reece's questions? Are they sending those questions around the sun and back on their way to Jeff?

 -- Luke, Portland, Oregon

It may be that the Gaylord Texan exists in some sort of five-second-delay Twilight Zone. Those of us there Sunday to cover the proceedings watched the announcement on TV in a room not far from Long's secret lair -- and found out each of the teams on Twitter five seconds early.

Hi Stewart. After seeing TCU and Baylor get punished for a lack of a conference championship game, it occurred to me: Could Notre Dame face a similar problem if it was to be on the bubble with another conference champion? How do you think Notre Dame could preemptively solve this?

-- Andrew, Providence, Rhode Island

Sure, it's a concern. It always has been, given the committee's emphasis on conference champions. It just so happened that all the serious contenders this year were conference champs, so we didn't find out yet just how much that part factors in and how that may or may not affect Notre Dame.

But like I said before, it's too soon to conclude that the lack of a championship game will always hurt the Big 12. It very nearly didn't. Furthermore, Notre Dame is the anti-Baylor when it comes to scheduling. It never plays an FCS school. Besides Navy, it usually plays only one school outside the Power 5 (this year it was Rice). And whereas TCU ran into some bad luck that its last game was against the Big 12's worst team, the Irish always close with USC or Stanford. What I'd worry about if I'm Brian Kelly is the fact his team never plays on the last Saturday of the season. As Michigan State found out, you can drop down in the final poll simply by not playing.

Speaking of which . . .

Sure you'll see plenty of this one: How did Mississippi State -- idle and coming off a loss -- jump ahead of a Michigan State team that was idle and coming off of a win?

-- Erik Olson, Bluffton, South Carolina

I asked Long this very question at his second press conference Sunday, and he gave a pretty vague answer, probably because he couldn't give the real one, which is, "We realized we screwed up last week." There's no earthly reason why the Bulldogs should have been lower in the first place. They beat top-25 teams Auburn and LSU. Michigan State lost decisively to the only top-25 teams they faced -- Oregon and Ohio State. My guess is the committee got too caught up in Mississippi State's Egg Bowl loss the week before to see the bigger picture.

The Big 12 needs to gain two more teams to add a conference championship game, right? If so, what would be the chances of NIU (Northern Illinois) being one of those two?

-- Jarod, Naperville, Illinois

Somewhere below the chances of Bob Bowlsby and Art Briles having Christmas dinner together.

Which of the following four teams was the least heralded entering the postseason: 1999 Virginia Tech, 2002 Ohio State, 2012 Notre Dame or 2014 Florida State? All went undefeated in the regular season but were major underdogs going into their bowl games.

-- John Quintanilla, Denton, Texas

It was definitely 2002 Ohio State, followed by 2005 Texas. My recollection is they were both given absolutely no shot against the respective juggernauts they were running into -- Miami in '02, USC in '05 -- each of whom came in on 34-game winning streaks.

While I don't believe FSU is being viewed nearly the same way, and in fact there are plenty of people (namely my colleague Bruce Feldman) who sincerely believe the 'Noles are still the best team in the country, how crazy is it that a defending national champion on a 29-game winning streak is a nine-point underdog in its bowl game? I can't imagine there's ever been anything comparable.

I think the Bahamas Bowl is great. Who wants to go to Detroit for a bowl in December? But I can't imagine every player on the participating teams has a passport. Two to three weeks is a pretty tight turnaround for a passport and it's fairly expensive to elect the rush option. Is there something already prearranged for the players who do not have a passport?

 -- Timothy, Twin Cities, Minnesota

It's a great question. I checked with one of the participants, Western Kentucky. Conference USA informed the school a couple of weeks ago that it was in the running so officials there could get the process rolling. A spokesman told me everyone from football ops to sports information to the secretaries have been helping with getting everyone's paperwork filled out. They're using the players' head shots from the media guide as their passport photos. According to the State Department, the expedited service takes two-to-three weeks, so they should be good to go for the Dec. 24 game. In general, schools or conferences can tap into the NCAA Student-Athlete Assistance Fund to pay for passports to these events.

And let me just say, I'm all for a bowl game in the Bahamas. Did you see the video of Central Michigan players' reaction when they found out that's where they were going? You think Rutgers' players were going bonkers like that when they got the call for Detroit? Or Florida to the Birmingham Bowl? I'm all about bowls getting back to their roots of being warm-weather tourist-friendly events. Though I'd imagine the number of visiting fans will be pretty sparse, in part because of that same passport issue.

So with the Big 12 getting shut out of the playoff, is the next round of conference realignment inevitable? If so, who are the likely targets for the Big 12? BYU? Boise State? UCF?

-- Rajiv Dalal, Tallahassee, Florida

Sources tell me The College of the Bahamas is No. 1 on the Big 12's list. They think this bowl game is going to help make college football into a big deal there. If that doesn't fly, though, keep an eye out for NJIT. I hear Bowlsby wants to beef up the league's basketball profile.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for 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

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