Since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), America has been wrought with unfair and unchecked systems leading to deserving teams being left out in the cold. To this day, all six computer ranking systems used to determine one third of the BCS rankings have not been released to the public. This omission created a vail of uncertainty which would allow the puppeteers of the BCS to input any team they so desired into the BCS bowl games without any checks or balances.
Finally, after millions of fans spent years begging and pleading, the College Football Gods blessed us with the perfect checks and balances system, a college football playoff. This is the system we have wanted, this is the system we deserve. Surely any corruption will be prevented with a college football playoff or so we naively believed. If at all possible, this current system is at least as corrupt if not more corrupt than the previous one. While I believe the previous selection system was at least somewhat diluted from pure corruption by the AP and Coaches’ Polls*, the current system puts 13 people in a room specifically biased towards one school and one conference and relies on all of their biases to cancel each other out. What the system fails to take into account is the the ability for one or two major mouths to take over a group and get everyone else to fall in line. This makes the loudest, most convincing, or the most threatening person in that room potentially the most powerful person in all of sports. Not exactly the recipe for transparency and fairness.
Per reports coming from the committee meetings, Barry Alvarez, the Big Ten representative, is among the most vocal of all the committee members and seen as a sort of leader of the group in the discussions. When looking back at the first year of the playoffs, this makes sense. When it looked as if there would be no Big Ten school in the first College Football Playoff, Ohio State jumped two members of a Big 12 conference with more potent offenses and more importantly, more impressive losses. It was not lost on college football fans that while Barry Alvarez represented the Big Ten conference and essentially ran the playoff committee, there was not a single representative of the Big 12 conference (due to Archie Manning’s resignation from the committee).
Now some may say, “hey, that’s not fair, ESPN was singing Ohio State’s praises after the 49-0 drubbing of Wisconsin,” and they would be correct. ESPN jumped on the Ohio State bandwagon as soon as they realized the opportunity. It seemed to be only after ESPN remembered that they held the rights to the playoffs and National Championship game, and they made sure to get all of their pawns behind Ohio State. The speed with which the ESPN on-air talent shifted from arguing between Baylor or TCU as clearly deserving the final spot, to reigning in Ohio State as National Champions after beating a hardly impressive Wisconsin team (though an extremely impressive running back) was remarkable. But, if fans researched how much more money ESPN stood to make by having Ohio State in the playoffs as opposed to Baylor or TCU, no one would be surprised. Even when Ohio State is losing, their nationwide fanbase ranks in the top 5. When Ohio State is winning, they have the #1 largest fanbase. Even winning TCU and Baylor could never dream of breaking even into the top 25 of such a list. ESPN would use this type of metric to calculate how many viewers would watch, and therefore, how much revenue would be generated. From ESPN’s point of view, Ohio State was the only selection that made sense. From the fan’s view, however, the college football playoff was supposed to be the purest way to determine a true champion. When ESPN disregards the quality of the teams and introduces unrelated criteria such as a team’s potential revenue generation, the integrity of college football is brought back to the level of BCS. Typically selecting the final spot for a tournament of this magnitude would be rife with controversy among sports enthusiasts, however, aside from Mark May, Ohio State was made out to be a clear cut finalist with almost no arguments from any other anchors. ESPN went all in on Ohio State and it worked out for them, but it also showed that money may be controlling the integrity of sports even more than we like to think it is.
ESPN wasn’t the only entity that stood to make money off of having Ohio State in the playoffs. Barry Alvarez, the heart and soul of the playoff committee is the Athletic Director of Wisconsin. According to collegefootballplayoff.com, the conference makes more money by having a team in the college football playoff by $2 million. In college football terms, this may not seem like much money, but adding this to the exposure the conference gets by being in the playoff, and Barry Alvarez would do well to ensure a Big Ten playoff berth. While this is all speculation, the facts remain that both ESPN and Alvarez were made better off by putting in Ohio State over Baylor or TCU. ESPN controls the narrative and Barry Alvarez leads the charge behind those closed doors. The worst part is, Ohio State deserved to be in the playoffs and they proved that by winning the tournament, however, it should not have been at the expense of one of those two Big 12 teams.
This brings up the point that, not only is the current selection system an issue, but the number of teams doesn’t make sense. March madness has shown us that by jumping all the way to 68 teams, more isn’t always better. The NCAA has figured out, however, that the most exciting format to determine a champion includes allowing all of the worthy teams to participate. To date, the casualties of the current playoff system, based on the top 8 ranked teams at the time of playoff selection have been TCU (2015), Baylor (2015), Mississippi St. (2015), Michigan St. (2015), Stanford (2016), Iowa (2016), Notre Dame (2016), and while the system worked for them the first year, Ohio State (2016) was snubbed in the second year. Any of these teams could have made a run for the National Championship, and potentially even a few teams ranked even lower would have had a chance. Unfortunately, we now have a tournament recklessly limiting the number of teams to four, coupled with a clearly broken system of 13 biased people in a room deciding which young men deserve the shot to make their dreams come true. The whole concept just does not make any sense.
But griping about it does us no good, so as Linda Cliatt-Wayman says in her Ted Talk, “So What, Now What.” We need to start with a system for selection that does not lend itself to such obvious and egregious biases. We can’t go back to the AP and Coaches’ Polls because both are still biased by many people who only cover or coach one team during a season in one conference. College football deserves the best system possible, and while it didn’t work due to BCS secrecy, computers are certainly the best available system to avoid bias and inaccuracies. The only question is, what should the code consist of? The answer: Vegas. Las Vegas casinos each have developed algorithms in order to beat the common bettor. With enough money, an algorithm could easily be developed to rival the Vegas computers, and to rank each team ensuring honesty and fairness. In addition, the algorithm would be open to the public which would allow for criticism, but prevent questioning. This way, while the system won’t be able to be perfect in its selections, it won’t have any conference or specific team biases that have plagued past systems. The only way to implement this new system, however, is to have the NCAA acknowledge that they are on the right track, but that the current system fails to achieve perfection. The NCAA needs to show a little humility.
*The Coaches’ Poll is completely rife with biases because the coaches have no time to be watching games other than their opponents, but that is for another day.