Let the record show that conference championships no longer matter to the decision-makers in the College Football Playoff. Head-to-head results are worth overlooking as well when more compelling options are available to fill out a four-team playoff bracket to drive TV ratings.
That became the latest message delivered Sunday by the CFP selection committee, which made Ohio State the No. 3 seed in its playoff field. The Buckeyes (11-1) became the first participant in the CFP’s three-year history to make the playoffs without winning a league championship or advancing to its own conference title game.
Ohio State joins champions from three other Power 5 leagues in this year’s field: top-seed Alabama (13-0), the SEC champ; No. 2 seed Clemson (12-1), the ACC champ; and No. 4 seed Washington (12-1), the Pac-12 champ.
Left out of the national title hunt is No. 5 Penn State (11-2), the Big Ten champion and the team that defeated Ohio State 24-21 on Oct. 22 to reduce the Buckeyes to spectator status on college football’s Championship Saturday. A day later, PSU’s win over Ohio State did not matter because the Buckeyes defeated three top-10 opponents during the regular season: Oklahoma, Michigan and Wisconsin.
In explaining Sunday’s decision, CFP selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said: “We come back to our charge to select the four very best teams in college football. Conference championships is only one piece of that.”
That’s good to know. Because two years ago, the lack of a clear-cut conference title proved deadly to Big 12 co-champs TCU and Baylor, both with 11-1 records that match Ohio State’s mark this season.
Also problematic that season, per CFP edict: the fact that neither TCU nor Baylor secured an all-important “13th datapoint” in a conference championship game, the factor cited in propelling power program Ohio State past both private schools from Texas in that playoff field.
In explaining how TCU fell from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final CFP rankings that season despite a season-ending 55-3 victory over Iowa State, then-CFP committee chairman Jeff Long pointed to the Buckeyes’ 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the 2014 Big Ten title game.
“It was a 13th game against a highly ranked opponent,” Long said at the time. “It had an effect. It was significant. I can’t say that it wasn’t.”
The co-champ factor also hurt, Long said, because, “In the other situations, we had definitive champions for those conferences.”
Yet it’s no longer “significant” that Penn State defeated Wisconsin 38-31 in this year’s Big Ten title game? It no longer matters that Ohio State, like TCU and Baylor in 2014, has no conference title and no “13th datapoint” on its season record?
Why doesn’t it matter? During Sunday’s news conference, CFP executive director Bill Hancock likened each football season to a snowflake.
“Every season is different,” Hancock said, citing unique circumstances in each set of December deliberations. He added there was “no reservations among the committee at all” about Ohio State’s playoff pedigree without a conference championship on its final résumé.
Full disclosure: As a voter in The Associated Press poll, I placed Ohio State at No. 4 on Sunday’s ballot based on the Buckeyes’ body of work over the course of this season. But polls are for entertainment purposes. The CFP rankings, when finalized, kill national title hopes for all but four teams.
What is problematic, in this playoff era, is the arbitrary dismissal of a league championship earned on the field in determining which teams remain alive to win a national championship. In the NFL, no one uses the “eye test” to disregard an NFC East title won by the Washington Redskins because the Dallas Cowboys have better stats and will draw higher TV ratings.
What is problematic, going forward, is that CFP criterion cited one year as crucial in determining the path to a title are soon discarded when it doesn’t meet the committee’s needs at a later date.
How foolish must Big 12 officials feel today? They just added a championship game in football to next year’s schedule only to discover that the 13th datapoint they seek for their champion matters only when CFP executives want to use it to reach a predetermined outcome.
In an interview with ESPN.com, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said: “We’ve always heard that championships matter and division championships matter, and now it’s confusing. We’ve been telling (league teams) the 13th data point matters. We added a conference championship game because of that.”
In his estimation, Hancock said the Big 12 “did the right thing” by adding a championship game in 2017 and will be rewarded for that move at some point. But Sunday’s message was about the exception to the rule: Ohio State, the first of 12 CFP playoff teams to be green-lighted without a league title.
Hancock said committee members discussed the message they were sending by taking that step.
“It came up a lot. But it wasn’t a concern,” Hancock said. “What kept coming up was, ‘Are they unequivocally one of the best four teams?’ And the answer kept being, ‘Yes.’ There was no reservations among the committee at all.”
TCU and Baylor fans will, and should, bristle at that comment. Ditto for traditionalists who envisioned a conference championship as a necessary conduit to the national championship puzzle in the CFP playoff era.
No. 1 Alabama (13-0) vs.
No. 4 Washington (12-1)
2 p.m. Dec. 31, ESPN
No. 2 Clemson (12-1) vs.
No. 3 Ohio State (11-1)
6 p.m. Dec. 31, ESPN