What We Learned About the College Football Playoff

Alabama? No question. Oregon? Yup, just bring the Heisman along. Florida State? 29 straight. However, slot number four posed more of a conundrum. Would high-flying TCU hold the fort? How about the Buckeyes, who shut down Wisconsin? And what about the Baylor Bears, who knocked off the Horned Frogs? The verdict is in…

The committee has spoken, and now the debates begin. Instead of computers and formulas, a joint decree made behind closed doors determined big-time college football’s Final Four ‒ and also who gets left at home. After a wild final Saturday of action, members rewarded conference championship game winners while snubbing those contenders that spent the day finishing their regular-season slates.

So what has this new process revealed in its inaugural year? Here’s what we learned about the College Football Playoff.

1. The Big 12 Needs a Title Game

Ohio State and Florida State took advantage of a high-profile 13th game to move ahead of TCU and Baylor. That makes some sense, since playing 13 games is harder than playing 12 games, and teams that play only 12 have an extra bye week. ACC and Big Ten contenders also have a grand platform to show off to the committee on the final weekend.

This could have major repercussions for the Big 12 and its institutions. Will they add two teams to become eligible for a conference title game? They haven’t yet found schools compelling enough to add yet, but getting snubbed for the inaugural playoff may change things.

Will the NCAA approve title games for conferences with less than 12 teams, as the ACC and Big 12 have previously suggested?

Will Big 12 teams continue to look elsewhere ‒ as Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas A&M have done ‒ or will further defections to other Power Conferences take place, rendering the Big 12 a Big 8 or less?

2. Teams’ Rankings Can Be Closer Than They Appear

Last week the committee had TCU No. 3, Florida State No. 4, Ohio State No. 5, and Baylor No. 6. But while the teams covered four positions in the rankings, those slots were closer than they appeared, according to the voters. Chairman Jeff Long said Sunday that the committee viewed the quartet as 3a, 3b, 3c, and 3d. The fluidity displayed in the rankings throughout November continued through to the final decision.

3. Schedule Up!

Baylor’s non-conference record was 128th, dead last in FBS. Had Ohio State gone undefeated with a win over Buffalo instead of a loss to Virginia Tech, they would be undefeated, but would they have shown as much? The Virginia Tech loss was preferred over anything Baylor did in non-conference games, which means in the future teams will need to play better competition in the non-conference schedule. This is an excellent development for non-conference matchups and competitive games.

4. It’s Better To Have One Good Team Than Two.

TCU and Baylor, both being in the same conference, held each other back. Their game earlier in the season was a classic, but probably hurt both teams in the committee’s eyes. In the other conferences, only one team stood clearly above the pack.

5. Coaches on the Committee Have a Lot of Sway

Long admitted as much, and two of the three former coaches ‒ Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin) and Tom Osborne (Nebraska) ‒ are from Big Ten schools (the other, Tyrone Willingham, coached at Washington, Notre Dame and Stanford). Long said members leaned heavily on these coaches for their perspectives on certain issues. Did their vocal stances move other committee members to change their votes from TCU to fellow Big Ten school Ohio State?

6. Conference Strength Doesn’t Mean As Much As Before

According to Jeff Sagarin’s conference ratings, the Big Ten is the 4th-best conference and the Big 12 ranks second when looking at the division rankings cumulatively. Only one of Sagarin’s Top 25 teams from outside the Big Ten lost to a Big Ten school: SEC Title Game participant Missouri (Sagarin #16) fell to Indiana (Sagarin #87) in a head scratcher. Meanwhile, every ranked Big Ten team lost a non-conference game: Ohio State to Virginia Tech, Michigan State to Oregon, Wisconsin to LSU, and Minnesota to TCU.

7. The Committee Doesn’t Care About Nine-Game Conference Schedules.

Each Big 12 team plays a nine-game conference schedule, while members of the SEC, ACC, and Big Ten each play eight. During that ninth set of Big 12 matchups, five of its teams add another win ‒ but the other five get tagged with losses. Members of competing conferences spend that ninth game playing against non-conference opponents in what are usually winnable games. The Big 12’s approach deflates its members’ collective record, which affects the perceived schedule strength of its best teams. For instance, Oklahoma may have finished 9-3 had they played, say, Tulane instead of West Virginia.

Conversely, the SEC, ACC, and Big Ten can add up to 14 wins each as its members play weaker teams, inflating their winning percentages against FBS schools.

This is something the Big Ten should look at closely, as its teams will play nine conference games beginning in 2016.

8. Having a Big Name Helps

Ohio State is a prominent program with a higher national profile than either of the Texas-based Big-12 conference co-champions. The Buckeyes bumped TCU and Baylor. Would that have happened had they been Texas or Oklahoma instead?

The reasons to move to an 8-team playoff are many. Even with the obstacles, the outcry for a more inclusive format will only get louder as one-loss teams are left on the outside looking in at the expense of Power Conference Champions and their outsized reputations.

Andrew Pina has covered LSU’s running game, the historic season of Marcus Mariota, the disadvantages of being Kansas State, why Thanksgiving is the obstacle to expanded playoffs and whether SEC crossover games are unfair.

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