In Praise of Expert Panels (in Football, at Least)

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

It is a short holiday week, and even if I had something to say about the big national news story from Ferguson, Missouri, I would rather write about something relatively frivolous.  And, as Professor Dorf's recent personal remembrance of his days as a jock demonstrated, nothing quite matches sports for its marriage of complete unimportance with intense interest.  When it comes to American college football, I have written some rather serious things (see most recently here) about the institutions of higher learning that serve as host/sponsors to the lucrative games, and I hold what appears to be a minority view about how the lucre should be spent.

Today, however, none of that matters, for I want to talk about the College Football Playoff (tm).  More accurately, I want to complain about the consistent inanity of the talk among college football commentators about the playoff.  Not that this should surprise anyone.  This is still a world in which people seriously argue that a coach in 2014 is historically great, because he has just set the record for most consecutive 9-win seasons.  This is ridiculous, of course, because it conveniently ignores that it is only in the last decade or so that teams have played 13 or 14 games in a season, whereas within my lifetime teams would play ten games and, even if they won almost all of them, would not play in a bowl.  Nine-and-five is just not the same as 9-1, but you would never know that from listening to anyone on ESPN.

Even so, there are two remarkable things about people's reactions to the new playoff system.  First, as I predicted some time back, the new four-team system (replacing the BCS two-team championship that lasted for almost two decades) satisfies no one.  Just last weekend, one of the sports shows displayed the results of a poll of college football coaches regarding the optimal size of a playoff system.  A majority favored either 8 or 16 teams.  To hear the talk last year, the only problem was that it was all terribly unfair when a third team was left out of the BCS championship in the occasional year when there were three undefeated teams.  Now, the problem is that we're not sure whether a team with a bad loss on its record (e.g., Ohio State, which lost at home to a terrible Virginia Tech team in September) will be able to show that it really deserves to be #4.

I promised not to be serious here, but it is at least worth mentioning that the extra games are physically debilitating for the players.  The players themselves, of course, will always look into a camera and say, "Let us decide it on the field," but it is notable that the NFL players' union has consistently opposed increasing the length of the regular season schedule, as well as expanding the playoffs.  This is still one of the most brutal and dangerous sports that people are willing to watch, and adding rounds of playoffs would guarantee many more serious injuries, many of them career-ending.

It is not, therefore, as if it is "free" to add more games.  Nonetheless, it is at least amusing to see how earnestly people on the sports shows will talk about the injustice of having only four teams make the playoff.  I have always liked the pre-BCS system, in which there was no attempt to coordinate an on-the-field champion.  Last Saturday, because nearly all the big-time teams were playing "cupcake games," I ended up watching the Harvard-Yale game.  The second-highest division of the NCAA in which the Ivies play has a playoff system, but the Ivy League prohibits its teams from playing in it.  One of the commentators said that he had asked the players whether they felt cheated by not being able to compete for a national championship, and apparently they said that they like knowing that the last game of the year will be their big rivalry game.

In pre-BCS days, Oklahoma and Nebraska would play nearly every year for the Big 8 championship, and the winner would play in the Orange Bowl.  Meanwhile, Ohio State or Michigan (or, occasionally, Wisconsin or Iowa) would play USC or UCLA in the Rose Bowl.  The best years were those where, say, Oklahoma would beat Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, and USC would beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, and then no one was happy.  Except that everyone was happy, because they had something to argue about for years.  Ask any Michigan player if beating Ohio State at the end of the season, and then playing (most likely losing) in the Rose Bowl was a successful season.

So, nothing has been gained in terms of making the game more exciting, fulfilling, or anything else by dumping the old system.  "Deciding it on the field" sounds like it means something, but unless we are really going to go to a 64-team playoff, the arguments will never end.  Even in men's basketball, where the NCAA does run a 64-team playoff, there are arguments about "bubble teams," and about bad calls and all that.  How about best-of-three championship series?  Make that best-of-seven!  Oh brother.

The second remarkable thing that has emerged in this year's new playoff system is the expert panel that will anoint the four semifinalists.  That panel includes a collection of respected college athletic directors, former coaches, and so on -- and, for reasons that mystify me, Condoleeza Rice.  (I know, she was Provost at Stanford before becoming a neocon princess, but so what?)  Starting at mid-season, that committee has been releasing weekly rankings of teams, with members of the committee offering cryptic comments about what they are taking into account, all of which leads to mad speculation about what they really care about.

And it turns out that this committee is actually pretty savvy.  To hear the commentators on the sports shows (former coaches and players, mostly) talk about it, the primary thing that should matter is win-loss record.  Except, you know, when it doesn't.  So, this year, everyone is in a tizzy because the committee has said that Florida State is #3, even though it is the only undefeated team among the "Power 5 conferences."  The thing is, Florida State does not at all look like the best team in the country.  They have played no one of any consequence, and they keep barely winning.  Now, of course, the new narrative is that winning close is their "signature."

Meanwhile, take a look at the Western Division of the SEC.  Those seven schools beat up on each other every week, but the evidence is that they are the best in the country.  The teams in the division have lost exactly three games combined outside of the division, and all three were to the two best teams in the SEC East (twice to Georgia, once to Missouri).  I am no fan of the SEC, having grown up in Big 10 country, but quality is quality.  If a team plays tough games every week, sometimes they will lose.  Meanwhile, Florida State barely wins against mediocre opponents.  Everyone seems comfortable with the idea that undefeated Marshall cannot be taken seriously, because they "haven't played anybody"; but at least Marshall wins its games convincingly.  Florida State has been blessed with weak opponents, too, and it barely manages to win.

The traditional polls (the sportswriters for the AP, and the coaches for USA Today) are impressed by the win-loss mark.  True, one-loss Alabama tops the coaches' poll this week, but Florida State received more first place votes than 'Bama.  And the commentary is all about "proving it on the field."  One of my favorite lines is: "Florida State has won every game.  What more could they do?"  Marshall?  "Well, they don't play anybody."

Which is why I write to praise this particular expert panel.  They are actually trying to figure out which teams are the four best in the country, based on a combination of factors that seem to make sense.  (There are still some oddities, like having TCU ahead of Baylor, even though TCU lost to Baylor.)  In a system that should not exist, and where the matter being decided really could not be less important, this committee has decided to ignore the encrusted conventional wisdom and actually think clearly about the issues.  If only the buffoons on the Bowles-Simpson committee had done the same!