College football is in dire trouble. Depending on the outcomes of the Pac-12 and Big Ten title games and how the playoff selection committee synthesizes this new information, we could find ourselves in a scary world on Sunday afternoon. One with an atmosphere full of cynicism and possible intellectual dishonesty fueled by greed.
The ignored consequences of a four-team playoff selected subjectively are poised to rear their ugly heads. Imagine the following scenario: Colorado defeats Washington. Clemson falls to Virginia Tech. Penn State narrowly edges Wisconsin in a sloppy, 9-7 game. The committee sets a field of Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.
Seventy-five percent of teams would come from one division. Half the field would be teams that failed to even reach their conference’s championship game let alone win it. Michigan and Ohio State would be richly rewarded for earlier failure by not having to risk another loss against a top team in Indianapolis.
More alarming would be the two teams, Washington and Clemson, left on the outside looking in because they were forced to jump through an extra hoop in December while counterparts who came up just short in the necessary conference games were safely on their couches.
This is not to say the Wolverines and Buckeyes wouldn’t have strong cases to play for college football’s ultimate prize. We’re on the precipice of a chaos scenario brought about by the dearth of great teams across the nation. But the result would send a dangerous and debilitating message to all programs whose main focus is a national title and not regional pride.
The signal would be that conference championships mean nothing. That, under the right circumstances, they are exhibitions carrying greater punitive risk than positive gain.
Why, if given the choice, would Alabama want to play a three-loss Florida in Atlanta this weekend? Every year is national title or bust for Nick Saban. The same can be said of Urban Meyer and Ohio State. Sure, winning the SEC and Big Ten are important, but not at the risk of fumbling away playoff chances. If Clemson had not fallen to Pittsburgh, the Tigers would also be 12-0 and firmly in regardless of the ACC game result. Winning would conceivably give them a chance to improve seeding. Losing would turn firm footing into unstable ground.
The most beneficial thing for these teams to do, of course, is to go out and win these title games, a task easier said than done. These are usually the toughest tests of the year because much is on the line. The pressure is different this time of the year compared to September. Defeating Colorado will be more challenging for Washington on a neutral field than it was for Michigan three months ago amidst the comforts of Ann Arbor. The same could be said for both Wisconsin and Penn State, two teams the Wolverines dispatched early in the season, also in Ann Arbor.
We’re already seeing the committee set up an avenue to pick Michigan by placing them fifth and citing “razor-thin” margins. There is no doubt ESPN and its advertisers, if given truth serum, would say they’re hoping for Colorado to take out Washington or for Virginia Tech to stun Clemson. Milking the cult of Jim Harbaugh and stoking one of the biggest fanbases in the country for another month, plus the ratings bonanza around New Year’s, would be good for business.
The door is open for the college football to become split into two camps: those who care about conference titles and those who spit on them in the interest of winning it all. How long until a university looks around and realizes they’ll lose less by declining a bid to their regional title game than by showing up and adding a digit to the loss column?
If the committee shows they don’t matter by putting both Ohio State and Michigan into the playoff, then why show up at all? If the precedent that not even participating will be rewarded over putting on the pads and losing, why not test that principle?
Division winning teams should be able to weigh all factors and decide if playing this weekend is wise, strategically. If they don’t, the committee would then judge them as a non-conference champion. Alabama would surely decline. Clemson, at No. 3, would be taking a giant gamble as both the Pac-12 and Big Ten winner (and yes, even Colorado) could jump over them. Washington would surely opt to play as they’d surely be leapfrogged. Colorado, on the other hand, would gladly line up and play in the hopes to add something to its resume Michigan can’t claim. It would be move aimed at giving the teams in the driver’s’ seat the chance to enjoy the same potential boost from being idle as teams. It would afford dominant teams the chance to rest on their laurels.
Of course, it will never happen. SEC brass and CBS executives would have an immediate heart attack if Auburn suddenly stepped in for Alabama, the conference’s most massive draw, in Atlanta. The change would also have a ripple effect on teams fighting to get into the top four whose only chance would be knocking off a top squad. It would be a mess and make conference championship weekend far less appealing and important.
But college football is already on the verge of the messiest of messes. The committee’s decisions on Sunday will have a chance to prove the obvious flaws of our current system. The consequences could be dire and integrity-fraying.
Nothing to this point has instilled any belief that they’ll avoid such a calamity. And if they whiff, if they mishandle the whole thing, then something will need to change. Whether that be more clearly defined metrics or, perhaps even expanding to eight teams, a dramatic cleanup will be necessary.