College Football Playoff selection committee has new predicament with Big Ten joining fray

ByIvan Maisel ESPN logo
Thursday, September 17, 2020

If I were a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee this season, I would apply for a sabbatical. Or to the Peace Corps. Or to go just about anywhere else besides those selection committee Zoom calls that will begin Nov. 17.

College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock's crew might have to try to discern the difference between, say, a 9-0 Big Ten team and an 11-1 ACC team.

Then explain it.

Then duck.

In a sport that gave us split national champions, the BCS formula, and debates that never die, we are on the cusp of a season that could deliver spectacular chaos. Think about it: The Big Ten teams will play eight-game regular seasons, the SEC and Big 12 will play 10-game regular seasons, and the ACC plans to go one game beyond that. Throw in a championship game for the two best teams in each conference.

Now, tell me how to fairly size up one team that has played a schedule one-third longer than another. Do you penalize the team that played fewer games? Do you reward the team that played more but has a worse record? Do you set the schedule differences aside and measure performance only? Do you bang yourself in the head with a mallet because it feels better than deciding whether an undefeated Wisconsin is better than a once-beaten Georgia?

I mean, as potential autumn nightmares go, it's not a disputed presidential election, but it'll do.

What about the teams forced to take a COVID-19 break for a game or two? Do you penalize Clemson if Syracuse no-shows? And what do we do with playoff contenders or their opponents whose rosters are shrunken by the virus?

Alabama opens next week against a Missouri team that will be short 12 players. The selection committee trumpets its protocol for taking key injuries into account when assessing the results of a game. Tigers coach Eli Drinkwitz didn't say Wednesday where the 12 Tigers land on the depth chart. But it seems reasonable that (A) the Crimson Tide won't get a lot of style points for winning, and (B) the Crimson Tide won't be the only team that faces a diminished opponent.

As with everything else in intercollegiate athletics this calendar year, we are in uncharted territory. But it seems as if the selection committee's normally difficult task just upped its game, as if the members signed up for conversational Russian and were told to translate "War and Peace."

I point this out as someone who clamored for a selection committee long before we ever got one. NCAA tournament fields long have been filled by asking knowledgeable administrators to fill out the brackets. College football remained an outlier for decades. Just about every other college sport utilized a selection committee. But the administrators didn't want to do that for football. They liked bowl games. They liked going to warm places for New Year's Day. They liked polls.

Even when they approved a playoff beginning in 1998, the administrators chose not to appoint a selection committee. They didn't want the responsibility of selecting the teams. So they came up with an idea: Let's create a formula that no one will understand! That's one reason the BCS had so much trouble establishing credibility. (See the Florida State-Miami-Washington-Oregon State debate of 2000, the USC-LSU debate of 2003, the USC-Oklahoma-Auburn-Utah debate of 2004, etc.)

We didn't get a selection committee until 2014, when the BCS was put to bed and we got a four-team playoff. And you know what? The committee nailed its landing that first year, picking Ohio State for the No. 4 seed over TCU or Baylor. We will never know whether the Horned Frogs or Bears should have been given a shot at the national championship, but we learned pretty quickly that the Buckeyes were good enough.

Hancock has tried to keep things simple in this unsimple season. He has said the committee will continue to execute its charge -- to pick the four best teams in college football. That gray area will benefit the committee. It's hard to argue against it.

If this were Major League Baseball, and we identified the four best teams simply by winning percentage, someone would be at a disadvantage. St. Louis postponed 18 games early in their 60-game season because of a pandemic pause. The Cardinals are attempting to play 32 games in September, which isn't fair to them. They also have seven doubleheaders on their schedule, 14 seven-inning games, which isn't fair to the rest of the National League.

The Big Ten didn't announce it will hold any jamborees to make up for lost games. But keeping 14 teams sufficiently healthy to play eight games in eight weeks is daunting enough. Last season, by the way, no Big Ten team played more than seven weeks in a row.

The selection committee might not make the right decision. It's hard to imagine how it will, measuring apples against oranges. But the selection committee is the system we have.

"Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried," Winston Churchill said on Nov. 11, 1947, a day on which Notre Dame and Michigan were ranked 1-2 for the first time. They traded positions twice before the end of the year. The writers voted for the Irish. Others awarded No. 1 to the Wolverines. And 73 years later, you can still goad their fans into an argument over it.

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