The field of four is now set for third annual College Football Playoff. On New Year’s Eve, the Alabama Crimson Tide will play the Washington Huskies in the Peach Bowl. The other semifinal will feature the Clemson Tigers and the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl. After having seen the process unfold for three seasons now, it’s fair to question the benchmarks for picking teams.
Let’s start by going back to 2014, the first year of the playoff. Alabama and Ohio State were also a part of that playoff as well as Florida State and Oregon. There was little doubt that Alabama, Florida State, and Oregon were going to be in. All three schools entered championship weekend in the top four, won their respective conference championships, and therefore stayed in the top four. However, it got interesting when TCU, ranked third in the playoff rankings heading into the weekend, throttled Iowa State in its final regular season game 55-3. The Big 12 did not have a conference championship game at the time and later Ohio State walloped Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big 10 title game and Ohio State leapfrogged TCU in the ensuing playoff rankings, claimed the final spot in the playoff, and wound up winning a national championship.
This was the committee sounding a loud message to the country that conference championship games matter and that a 59-0 win for Ohio State against a ranked opponent was more impressive than a 55-3 win for TCU against a two-win Iowa State team. The Buckeyes validated the decision by upsetting Alabama and Oregon in the playoff and suddenly there didn’t seem to be much of a debate over which team deserved the final playoff spot. Last season was relatively straightforward. While Oklahoma was idle during championship weekend, the consensus was that the Sooners had done enough. Clemson and Alabama took care of business in the ACC and SEC championship games and the winner of the Big 10 title game between Michigan State and Iowa was going to get in and the Spartans came out on top. The three most worthy conference champions qualified and the Sooners were the next best team and claimed the final spot.
Then, some believed this season tossed a wrench into the notion that a conference championship was paramount in the committee’s decision-making process. Ohio State became the first team in three playoffs to not play in its conference championship but qualify for the playoff. The first team out was Penn State, who won the Big 10 championship and beat Ohio State in the regular season. Ohio State had wins over Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nebraska in conference, and more importantly a non-conference win at Oklahoma. Oklahoma was far superior to any non-conference opponent Penn State played and so non-conference strength of schedule seemed to be push Ohio State over the top.
So now after seeing three seasons of the selection committee make decisions, the question arises, what is the value of a conference championship? Many believe yesterday’s decision was a devaluation of the conference championship and a way of enabling the best four teams to qualify even though Ohio State lost to Penn State in the regular season. But, the counter argument there is that if conference championships were so important then each conference in the power five would have a spot guaranteed in the playoff. However, it gets more interesting when you consider the same reason Ohio State got in over Penn State, strength of schedule, is the reason Penn State deserved a spot over Washington. The Huskies’ non-conference wins came against Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State and some felt that if Penn State just scheduled an easier opponent than Pitt, who it lost to in its second game of the season, it would have gotten in over Washington. Penn State also has a win over Temple, who just won the American Athletic Conference championship.
In the end, it seems as if there isn’t a uniform criterion to make the field of four and rather the committee is going to try to pick the best four teams in the nation regardless of consistency from one year to the next. It is likely too early to expand to six or eight teams, but a season like this past one or another season like 2014, might make expansion a more plausible option. For now, somebody’s always going to be unhappy after championship weekend.