The Spread, Week Eight: Getting The Playoff Right

Are we looking for the “best” teams or the “most deserving” teams? It’s an argument that came up frequently during the BCS era, and it’s not going away with the new committee-run College Football Playoff. While those terms aren’t really all that specific, what people usually mean is that there is a difference between the teams with the most talent or who are playing the best at the end of the year (the “best” teams) and teams who won the most games or played the toughest schedule (the “most deserving” teams). Most fans and followers of college football agree that one of these two approaches is correct, and since the playoff (as the BCS before it) will be filled based on varied opinions and not a single objective method, both of these ideologies will be represented. Most fans will be happy with the outcome, unless their school is among the few borderline teams on the outside looking in.

The problem with both of these ideas is that they are impossible to define, rely heavily on subjectivity and circular reasoning, and are prone to outside influence. “Best” is probably the most meaningless term in all of sports, meaning vastly different things to different people. To some it is simply whoever wins the most, yet others will tell us that the best team doesn’t always win. “Most deserving” only works if you define what makes a team deserving, but even then chances are you’ll eventually say the words “Strength Of Schedule” and any hope of objectivity is out the window. Schedule strength is an absurd notion that can be boiled down to this basic argument: We can’t tell how good a team is just by how many games they’ve won, we have to look at how good the teams they’ve played are, which we’ll determine by how many games they’ve won.

I will refrain from touting (again) an expanded playoff and focus only on making a workable four-team playoff that at least strives for some sense of objectivity. To do this, I’m going to borrow an idea from every single playoff that has ever been conceived for any other sports league: If you aren’t the “best” team in your conference, you aren’t the “best” team in the country, nor do you “deserve” a chance to win the title. All conferences have already agreed that their champion should be treated as the “best” team–that’s who got the big-time bowl bids or the BCS spots. That’s who gets the trophies and the rings. There is no reason to change that now.

Therefore, when selecting four teams to play for the national championship at the end of the year, the pool of eligible teams should be limited to the ten FBS conference champions. The committee can then decide between them by whatever criteria they wish. Chances are the five “non-power” conferences are going to be eliminated based on record and quality of opponents, but there’s a chance a Boise State-type team might make a worthy run.

Still, it’s likely that a four-team champions-only playoff would include only the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC in most years, and of course, one of those is going to be left out. Again, it’s up to the committee to decide where to draw the line when it comes to comparing champions, but I honestly think there will usually be a fairly clear outlier.

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