Friday, November 14, 2014

Picking a Final Four ... all just anyone's opinion

        I feel compelled and somewhat motivated to write about a matter of national importance.
The new national-championship trophy, the
College Football Playoff payoff. (Actually,
I liked the BCS crystal ball football.)
      I like the College Football Playoff. There, I said it.
      It is so important. I have seen so much written about it for months and months, and have (not) heard so much said about it (because I try to avoid all the sports talk shows, except son-in-law's when I'm in Knoxville). And the interest is only ramping up day by day.
      Who's in (thank you, ESPN).
      Who will be in the first-ever Final Four -- the two semifinal bowl games, with the winners playing for the national championship right down the road from here (Fort Worth) at Cowboys Stadium, JerryWorld or whatever they call it?
      I am not here to debate the Final Four rankings -- the TCU or Baylor question, the Oregon-jumping-Florida State issue, the Alabama in-or-out talk, the what-about-Ohio State/Arizona State speculation.
      I will leave the debates to (1) all my media friends and (2) more importantly, the committee. (More on the committee below.)
      But this CFP is important enough to bring in a former U.S. Secretary of State to help settle matters. It is more important than which party is running Congress, than U.S.-China relations, the fight with ISIS, Russia-Ukraine, the Middle East's never-ending conflicts, immigration reform, gun rights, tax reform. It's more important than the New York Yankees' off-season roster moves; it's even more important than the frickin' Super Bowl.
       That's right.
       I purposely have avoided writing about this, or speculating about it, or talking all that much about it because I figure there is enough of that on TV, radio and the Internet.
       But, really, I love the idea because I love college football -- and the idea of one true national champion, decided on the field after a playoff game or three playoff games is perfect. Beats the heck out of "mythical national champion."
       Here is the gist of this piece, though: There is no perfect selection system. OK, you got that? As long as the human element is part of the selection process, it won't be perfect.
       But humans -- a committee of 12 people deciding the Final Four teams -- is a helluva lot better than computer-based selections (uh, humans do input the info into the computers, don't they?).
       So scrapping the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system, with its computer rankings as part of the process, was fine with me. I'm glad the bowl-game honchos -- who have had so much control and so much financial clout -- for years and years are willing to play along with the CFP.
        So why am I writing about this now, what prompted me to force my opinion on you? Because there are stories and talk shows all over the place concerning this, and I want to get my two cents in. Because, in my extensive research for this piece, I came across -- on Facebook and AOL search -- two columns by sportswriters who I know and respect and whose work I admire.
         And they are both blasting the College Football Playoff system, and even embracing the much-criticized BCS.
         Matt Hayes, who writes college football for Sporting News and, in my opinion, knows as much about it as anyone and writes it as well as anyone, began his professional career as a prep writer at The Florida Times-Union where he was regularly and enthusiastically advised -- maybe that should read "chewed out" -- by a prep sports editor. Hmmmm.
         This week, Matt wrote: "The best part of this now-spectacular mess is this new, everything-will-be-better playoff is no better than the BCS. In fact, three polls in, it’s mirroring the most controversial product ever used by the sport."
         David Climer is the talented, very readable veteran sports columnist for The (Nashville) Tennessean. He wrote: "Looks like the BCS formula was less flawed than the current committee structure."
         Look, those are one-paragraph items lifted from a whole column, and I'm certainly not picking on Matt or David because there are hundreds of stories/columns/talk-show debates of the same nature.
        Here is what I am saying: What did they expect?
        There is always going to be controversy on NCAA playoff selections or polls/rankings, no matter what sport. There always has been. It's not perfection; it's just subjective.
       The biggest problem I have with the new College Football Playoff system is that I think they should have started with a Final Eight -- four quarterfinal games, two semifinals, one title game. Picking eight teams rather than four might've eliminated a lot of this BS speculation.
        If eight teams were picked, you think the teams left out -- say, the Nos. 9-10-11-12 teams -- wouldn't feel slighted?
         Look at the NCAA men's basketball tournament. There are 68 teams in it now, and every year several teams not selected are unhappy (SMU, for instance, last season). Every year there are debates on the No. 1 seeds. And I can remember when only 24 teams were selected, and then only 32, and there were no seedings.
          Picking a Final Four this season is so much better than the BCS' final two.
          Southern Cal thought it should have been in the national title game in 2003 (LSU was fortunate to be chosen, through the BCS system, to face Oklahoma). Auburn was the undefeated team left out in 2004. TCU and Boise State, both unbeaten and both in "minor" conferences, had to settle for a Fiesta Bowl matchup in 2009.
           And the worst BCS finalist ever was Nebraska in 2001. It didn't even make the Big 12 Conference championship game, having lost to Colorado 62-36 in its 12th game of the season. But a few weeks later it was playing Miami in the BCS title game. That was absurd.
            LSU, of course, was quite fortunate to be in the 2007 season BCS title game. It took final regular-season losses by Missouri and West Virginia to give the Tigers a reprieve. But, no apologies; that was a great Tigers team, which lost twice in triple overtime. If they'd been picking a Final Four that year, LSU would've been one of the teams.
             There is lots of criteria for the College Football Playoff committee to consider, and I hope one thing it can avoid in a Final Four is a repeat of a regular-season matchup.
              In 1996, Florida State beat Florida 24-21 to end the regular season, but the then-Bowl Alliance had them matched up again in the Sugar Bowl (designated as the national championship game). Florida won the rematch 52-20.
             More significantly for me, LSU won on Alabama's field 9-6 in overtime in the classic 2011 showdown and unbeaten LSU won the SEC title while Alabama watched. But the BCS system had them rematched in the national-title game. We know how that came out. Am I bitter about LSU having to replay a team it had beaten on the road? You bet.
              I almost never look at the college football rankings; the rankings don't matter when teams line up to play.
              I have not watched the College Football Playoff show revealing the committee's rankings the past three weeks. I never read one of the preseason and regular-season Final Four speculation stories. My writing buddy Teddy Allen points out all this was "interesting, but not significant."
              But Teddy and I agree that late in the season -- and from this point -- the CFP rankings do matter. I'd be a lot more interested if LSU was in contention. It's not. And it lost its final chance to be a "spoiler" when it let the game with Alabama slip away, despite a great effort, last Saturday.
              No question, though, the CFP and the rankings make for great interest, give the media great fodder. It helps make college football important to millions of people.
              I have no problem with the 13 people selected for the CFP committee, not even with Condoleezza Rice being a member. They're all very qualified, in my opinion, and very willing. Too bad that Archie Manning had to withdraw because of physical woes because few people love college football more and know more about it.
              About Condoleezza: We've all seen the criticism that she "doesn't know football." Such bull. She as smart as anyone on that committee, smarter probably, and more studied. Uh, she's dealt with more serious issues, OK. Sure, she might have a Stanford bias, but I think her opinion on college football (and most things) is to be valued.
                Here is what I'll remind you: For decades and decades, the "mythical" national champion was decided by (1) The Associated Press poll, which means 25 or 35 or whatever the number of media members -- writers and broadcasters -- or by (2) the coaches' poll; football coaches who might have had a bias for their own team or against another coach's team for one reason or another.
                I've been in a group of 25-35 sports media types. Ask them to rank, say, the best college football teams from 1 to 25 ... and you might have 25-35 different rankings. Never seen a media group -- two people or 50 -- who agree on all that much.
              (I'm just thinking -- suppose the committee consisted of Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Kevin McCarthy, Steny Hoyer, Ted Cruz, Dick Durbin, John McCain, John Cornyn, Elizabeth Warren and Carl Levin. Think they could decide anything with a consensus?)
               Politics, sports ... it's the human element; it's just people's opinion. It's not perfect; it's never been perfect. It never will be.
                 There is much more that can happen in these last few weeks of the regular season (and conference championship games). Hey, I think Mississippi State, Florida State, Oregon and TCU belong in the Final Four right now. That's just me. Next week I might think it's Alabama, Baylor, Arizona State and Ohio State.
                They didn't ask me to be on the committee. But I'm not going to spend much time trying to figure out what the committee has to figure out, and I'm not going to spend time criticizing what they do. I'll leave that to my media friends ... and to you. Good luck.


  1. From Teddy Allen: Holy crap! I wish you WERE on the committee, and that the meetings were aired, like Senate sub-hearings on C-Span. I would pay to watch it. Good job sir! Onward!

  2. From Tom Gibson: I think the playoff is better with four teams; increases the chance that one or more of the Big 5 conferences will be left out. It increases the controversy and arguments, which is good for the visibility of the sport. If there were eight spots, each of the Big 5 would assume they are guaranteed a slot for their crummy champion in any given year. Why reward the mediocrity of the ACC (in most years) or Big Ten (in almost every year)? Besides, isn't the national champion determined every year in the LSU-Alabama game? Or, if not there, the SEC Championship Game?

  3. From Ross Montelbano: Great article. You are correct, there will never be a system that makes everyone happy.

  4. From Tommy Henry: I believe they should have used the BCS point system to select the top four teams with some tiebreakers added. While it wasn't perfect, this system was fair and objective. And since it involved so many different people, it was pretty much free from politics. But, no, we have to use committees! And the subjective beat goes on ... and on ...

  5. From Maxie Hays: Love your opinion. I think you should have been selected for the committee.
    I'm just glad that four teams are going to be selected and wish that eight teams would be selected.
    There is no perfect method but this beats the other way. I think that eight teams would give the best team in the nation a chance to play for the championship.