Let’s examine the story of a certain high-profile college football team and its contentious quest for a College Football Playoff berth.
It’s a team coming off a year where it lost only one game, filled with highly-touted recruits destined for the first couple rounds of the NFL Draft. It opened the year #1 in the polls and destroyed a highly-touted ACC team away from home in week one, although that win looked a lot less impressive as the season progressed. While this team looked sluggish against a largely unimpressive schedule for a big chunk of the season, it remained #1 in the AP poll through week 10.
The Playoff Rankings were a different story. The committee saw the closer-than-expected wins over unranked opponents as a red flag. The team was still in the top-4 of those playoff rankings, but in mid-November, it was not in the top spot.
Then? Disaster. In late November, the team lost to the only opponent it faced that would finish the regular season in the top-10. It failed to win its division or reach its conference championship game. Clearly this team was loaded with talent, led by a legendary coach, and capable of beating any team in the nation on any given day. But it had some clear holes in its resume.
What would the College Football Playoff Committee do with a team like this?
The 2015 Ohio State Buckeyes fit this description. They came in as defending national champions, played down to several opponents throughout the season, but kept winning until a late-season loss to Michigan State cost them a Big Ten title shot.
The 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide fit this description as well. They came in as defending national runners-up, played down to several opponents throughout the season, but kept winning until a late-season loss to Auburn cost them an SEC title shot.
Those Buckeyes were deemed unfit for the College Football Playoff field. Although they rebounded in the regular season finale to liquefy #17 Michigan, 42-13, they finished #7 in the final playoff rankings. They simply could not overcome their mid-season ennui, shortage of high-profile wins, and the fact that they failed to even reach their conference title game. Yes, they certainly passed the “eye test,” but that was a vague term used by intellectually-flexible people as a substitute for tangible achievements. The committee paid it no mind.
Iowa, a Big Ten West team that made it through the regular season unbeaten against a soft schedule before losing a close game to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship, finished ranked ahead of the Bucks in the committee’s final judgement.
Stanford, a two-loss Pac-12 champion that wrapped up its regular season with a close home win over Notre Dame before cruising past USC to win its league title, also finished ahead of 11-1 Ohio State.
They weren’t just out of the playoffs, they were out of the conversation almost entirely, the third-best team in their own conference.
This year’s Crimson Tide was deemed a worthy part of the College Football Playoff field. Although their loss was in their regular season finale, and they had no chance to rebound against anyone, they finished #4 in the final playoff rankings. Their mid-season ennui, shortage of high-profile wins, and the fact that they failed to even reach their conference title game was not a problem. After all, they passed the “eye test.”
Wisconsin, a Big Ten West team that made it through the regular season unbeaten against a soft schedule before losing a close game to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, finished ranked two spots behind the Tide.
USC, a two-loss Pac-12 champion that wrapped up its regular season with a close home win over UCLA before cruising past #13 Stanford to win its league title, also finished four spots behind 11-1 Alabama.
There is a large segment of the Ohio State fanbase that believes that a grave injustice was done Sunday when Alabama was let into the 2017 field. They’re correct… sort of.
The 2017 OSU team had a great regular season, knocking off Michigan and winning the conference championship. But given their inexplicable implosion in Iowa City, there was a legitimate argument to exclude them.
Sunday, Playoff Committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said, “Alabama was clearly the No. 4-ranked team in the country even as a non-conference champion.”
The 2015 OSU team also had a great regular season, knocking off Michigan. And based on the playoff committee’s decision today, even as a non-conference champion, they clearly should have made the field as well.