The hype and debate over college football’s final four will surely trump anything the NCAA’s basketball final four will come up with next March.
College basketball’s version is decided on the court over several weeks of tournament play.
College football’s first ever “final four” was settled in a hotel suite in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex over a six-week span.
I didn’t envy those 12 members of the college football playoff selection committee one iota as their weekly ratings (of the top 25 along with the top four) were sliced and diced by every sports fan and media type in the country.
All eyes were on them every Tuesday, as the rankings were released after a weekend’s worth of match-ups from college football’s five power conferences and a few mid-majors just to keep the affair honest.
I don’t care how much you think you know about college football, Nick Saban’s “process,” Oregon’s fast track offense, Ohio State’s seemingly endless supply of quarterbacks or the read option versus the power I — the job of figuring out which college football team deserves an elite four distinction or even a Top 10 ranking is like judging Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit models and determining who should get the cover.
It’s extremely subjective, loaded with bias and separated by paper-thin pluses and minuses. Deciding between original recipe or extra crispy, paper or plastic, blondes or brunettes is easy. Nothing in college football’s quest to decide a true national champion has been anywhere near easy.
College football has been at the mercy of media and coaches’ polls since the advent of the forward pass. Then came the grand BCS system of weekly power rankings based on mountains of computer analysis, coupled with human polls and rumored secret weekly Papal letters from the Vactican thrown in for good measure.
It took the powers at large (university presidents) years to decide on changing to a playoff format, and then even more time to decide on the committee process to decide exactly which four teams would earn the right and the ranking for this first ever mini-tournament.
The playoff selection committee included 12 people — from athletic directors to former coaches to a former Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice). Louisiana’s own patriarch of football’s first family Archie Manning was named to the panel, but pulled out due to impending knee surgery that limited his physical wherewithal and travel.
From the time of their first ranking in October, I wasn’t sure exactly what criteria and reasoning they used from week to week. There was no decisive stat or margin of victory that helped them decide what team would top the totem pole at positions one through four. They watched a lot of games and pored through reams of game notes and numbers. Many match-ups were watched live, while some were downloaded to individual iPads and laptops.
Committee chairman and delegated chief spokesman Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long made it known that the group of 12 started each week with a clean slate and clear mind in its efforts to gauge the teams and the weekend’s performances for their re-rankings.
This was no simple task, considering the obvious early power coming out of the SEC West division. You had Alabama making its usual statements each week. Last season’s title game finalist Auburn was off to a strong start. And then there was the Mississippi phenomenon.
It was the Boise State feel-good story of the South. For the first time ever, both Ole Miss and Mississippi State got off to unbeaten starts. They were both ranked in the top four at one point.
In deference to the Mannings (Archie and Eli), the state of Mississippi has never posed a clear and consistent danger of taking college football by storm. At various times, the Rebels or Bulldogs threatened the elite of the SEC, but never for more than a few weeks. And never, ever would both be on the rise at the same time.
Not until this season.
Mississippi State, led by quarterback Dak Prescott (born in Sulphur but schooled in North Louisiana) made it as high as No. 1. Ole Miss, behind a fast and tenacious defense and resurgent senior quarterback Bo Wallace, rose as high as No. 4.
What in the world of grits and biscuits was going on here? William Faulkner must have hit his head more than a few times turning over in his Oxford, Miss., grave.
Imagine what the rest of college football and the media hierarchy from the East, West and Midwest were thinking: two Mississippi schools in the running for playoff spots, especially after Mississippi State toppled Auburn and Ole Miss upset Alabama.
Meanwhile, perennial power Oregon was running roughshod in the Pac 12 (The colorful Ducks did have one stumble to Arizona).
Despite that 14-13 hiccup against the Rebels, Alabama was winning tough games. (Remember the near upset by LSU.)
Urban Meyer had Ohio State on another protracted winning streak even after losing Heisman hopeful quarterback Braxton Miller early in the year. TCU and Baylor posted impressive wins, but not against the mightiest of opposition.
And what was the committee to do and think of defending national champion Florida State? The Seminoles, by virtue of holding the title and being undefeated, grabbed the top ranking from the outset, and rightfully so. I believe when you’re the champ and still unbeaten and unscathed, someone has to knock you down and out before you give up the pedestal.
Nearly every Saturday, and one Thursday night (big game at Louisville), Florida State had the committee members’ heads spinning, as the ‘Noles fell behind and were forced to rally time and again to squeeze out comeback victories. Head coach Jimbo Fisher admitted it wasn’t always pretty, but the victories still counted in the win column. FSU was undefeated and ACC conference champions when the book was closed on the regular season.
I can only imagine that the chalk boards in that north Texas hotel suite resembled an impossible physics/calculus/computer algorithm of numbers, names, scores, stats, QBRs, strength of schedules, winning margins, who beat whom and where and some common denominator that might make sense of another wacky year in college football.
Could two teams from the SEC West really crack the final four? If Saban’s Red Tide fell to Missouri in the conference title game, could the mighty SEC really be shut out of the playoffs? If Arizona beat Oregon again this time in the PAC 12 championship game, would the Wildcats storm the playoff gates?
Does Florida State hang on if they lose in the ACC championship but end up with only one defeat? How do you definitively judge the Big 10 when it has so many mediocre teams? Do you grant a playoff spot to Ohio State even though they’re down to a sophomore third-string quarterback (since reserve J.T. Barrett received a broken ankle in the team’s regular season-ending rivalry showdown victory over Michigan)?
And the ultimate word problem involved the Big 12 — a conference with only 10 teams and no year-ending league championship game to crown a “one true champion,” but with two deserving co-champs in TCU and Baylor both sitting on the bubble come D-Day.
It would be fun to argue, position and debate it with the whole country watching and waiting (including those in the White House). But I wouldn’t wish this one on my worst enemy, including Bobby Petrino or Bobby Knight.
So, on the first weekend in December, after conference championship games were completed, the CFP committee met one last time to offer up the first playoff teams and pairings. After years of waiting, endless debate, political pressure, power struggles, egos, big money contracts and television influence … drum roll please …
The committee got it right.
No. 1 Alabama (12-1) versus No. 4 Ohio State (12-1) in the Sugar Bowl Jan. 1.
No. 2 Oregon (12-1) versus No. 3 Florida State (13-0) in the Rose Bowl Jan. 1.
There was uproar in many circles because TCU, ranked third the week before the final decision, was bumped down and out of the top four. And there was nearly equal criticism that Baylor didn’t crack the final four.
I’m not one to follow the party line, but the Big 12 has only itself to blame for being on the outside looking in. The Big 12 knows the importance and weight that comes with having a conference championship game. Every other major league has one. Sometimes being the Lone Ranger will help you. But then you will have to ride off with the horse that brought you. Baylor and TCU’s weak non-conference schedule didn’t sway many votes.
The Big 12 that counted (the selection committee, not the conference) was correct in selecting four conference champions who solidified their positions on the field.
I’m not buying the conspiracy nuts who think the committee had to listen to outside pressure from the NCAA or big TV networks to select college football’s marquee names and their respective television markets to beef up the pairings and ratings. I think these men and one woman nailed it with the four best teams in college football.
Don’t get me wrong; I know the powers that still rule the college game believe they must compete with pro football for fan interest, TV ratings and contracts worth billions of dollars along with merchandising sales.
These weekly playoff rankings were great for ongoing media fodder and controversy, which enhances fan appeal and keeps the college game at the forefront of sports alongside the behemoth that is the NFL.
The next phase of this crowning of the champion is enlarging the playoff party.
I know we just got a final four, and I don’t want to sound greedy, but as the old TV sitcom once touted … Eight is Enough.
Get Rick Sarro’s perspectives on sports on Soundoff 60, which airs Monday through Sunday nights at 9 pm on Suddenlink Channel 60 and Saturday and Sunday mornings at 10 am as well.