The latest black eye for college football is about to come from a self-induced roundhouse punch in the form of an invitation to the four-school playoff for a team that failed to not just earn a conference championship, but even a division title.
In the first year of the college football playoff, 2014, Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Oregon all won their leagues. It was the same the next year for Alabama, Clemson, Michigan State and Oklahoma.
That precedent is about to be broken here in 2016. Not just a selection of a non-league champion, but a non-division champion.
Ohio State is second in the latest national rankings by the committee that studies potential playoff entrants, yet didn’t win its division in the mis-numbered Big Ten, thanks to a loss to Penn State. Instead of the Buckeyes lining up to face Wisconsin for the conference crown on Saturday, it will be the Lions. PSU and OSU finished with the same league record, but the Lions hold the tiebreaker by virtue of its head-to-head victory. Ohio State will stay home and prepare for the playoffs while the eventual Big Ten champion will be relegated to a lesser postseason event.
The playoff committee responds that its role is not to pick the four best conference champions for the two-week playoff tournament, but the four best teams. And they collectively think Ohio State is the second-best team in the nation behind an Alabama squad that looks unbeatable.
Fair enough, except that anyone who viewed the traditional end-of-regular-season rivalry match with Michigan can question whether the Buckeyes are one of the four best teams in the country. The argument is beside the point, however. The question is whether there should be some sort of criteria for playoff consideration, some sort of threshold that needs to be crossed before a team can be selected.
The playoff committee might be right in that they should choose the four best teams. A squad that dominates the regular season but is upended in its conference championship game might merit consideration for a semifinal position. That would be the case if Florida upsets Alabama in the SEC championship this weekend. The Crimson Tide has been ranked No. 1 every week this season, and is outscoring opponents 39-11. The defense has allowed less than 10 points in half its games and scored more than 40 points in half its games.
The Tide, if upset by the Gators, would almost certainly still be selected for the playoff. There should be a place for a wildcard in the formula. The difference is they won a division title to earn a spot in the conference championship game. Ohio State did not, and should therefore be eliminated from playoff consideration. And, yes, the Buckeyes might be one of the best teams in the nation, but you should have to earn your way into the playoff, and they did not.
There’s a reason why the situation exists. If a conference championship is required of a playoff participant, then the lucrative structure of the sport and its momentum toward four large power conferences would eventually breakup — the result of good teams repeatedly falling short because it couldn’t get over that last hump of a league championship game. Or those conference title contests would be called off, and TV loves them.
Requiring at least a division title as a compromise would still allow for wildcard entries and maintain the stability of the system, for better or worse (it’s worse, by the way). College football would also maintain what credibility it, uh, has…left. Yeah. Well, stability is good.