Mike Merrell’s Three and Out
Despite a mid-season hiccup that had bandwagon fans clinging for their dear fan-lives, the Oregon Ducks are in the first College Football Playoff as the Rose Bowl home team facing the Florida State Seminoles. It’s a great matchup: East vs West, North vs South, this year’s probable Heisman winner vs last year’s Heisman winner; and, let’s face it, good vs evil. All of this is made possible by the conversion from the two-team BCS Championship to the four-team playoff format. Without the change, Oregon would be on the outside looking in on a rematch between the champion of the unbeatable SEC and (barely, barely, barely, barely) unbeaten Florida State.
Though the new format worked out great for Oregon, still not all is well with the way Division I-A college football wraps up its year. The problem: There are elephants in the living room, and that is the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.
Elephant No. 1: False start on naming the Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Why would the Pac-12 jump the gun and name its coach of the year before its championship game? Anyone who watched the Championship Game and considered the ramifications of the outcome could tell you: Mark Helfrich, not Rich Rodriguez, is the Pacific-12 Coach of the Year.
Rich Rod took an Arizona team that nobody thought would do all that much and won the Pac-12 South, which, top to bottom, is at worst the second best division in college football. Over the past two years, he coached the Wildcats to two wins over Oregon.
It was a nice achievement, but there are two problem with selecting Rodriguez over Helfrich. First, while the Pac-12 South is tough (Colorado aside) all the teams are pretty even and Oregon is head and shoulders above every one of them. Second, Arizona prevailed in the South and over Oregon the past two years largely on the basis of plain old luck. The Wildcats caught the Ducks on their worst day two years in a row and used up all of their nine lives to even make it to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
People might argue, “Well, yes, but Helfrich inherited a full cupboard from Chip Kelly and had Marcus Mariota for a quarterback.” They would be right, and that is exactly why Mark Helfrich is the 2014 Coach of the Year. Kelly was a tough act to follow, and Helfrich delivered in spades — in only his second year as a head coach, as compared to Rodriguez’s nearly twenty years.
Helfrich overcame two years of recruiting handicaps brought on while Kelly debated leaving and possible NCAA sanctions loomed. When Kelly did leave, Helfrich engineered a plan to save the then-current recruiting class. And who discovered Marcus Mariota? Mark Helfrich. Who recruited Mariota? Mark Helfrich. Who developed Mariota’s skills? Mark Helfrich. And whose team is ranked second in the nation and has been chosen to represent the Pac-12 in the Final Four? At the end of the Championship Game, who was wearing Gatorade and who was wearing a face that looked like somebody died? The Pac-12 jumped the gun on naming Rodriguez coach of the year. Throw the yellow flag or send it to the replay official for review and play it over. Mark Helfrich is the Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
Elephant No. 2: While the general consensus is that the Playoff Selection Committee got it right in naming the top four teams, the process still stinks. TCU and Baylor certainly have to think so, anyway. The big question is how TCU went from third to sixth while beating up on Iowa State. As a society we seem to love our drama, and this is a good part of our love for sports. We’ve been playing the “Who’s in?” game for the last half of the season, hanging on the weekly announcement from our illustrious panel of judges. They’ve jerked us around and toyed with our emotions. They’ve said it was three SEC teams plus Florida State. As late as this past Saturday it looked possible that the SEC could be left out all together. The problem is that the process takes the drama off the field and puts it in the hands of judges. That’s all fine and good for ice skating and water ballet, but why go there for football? In this complex world we need some simplicity in our lives, something like: The team with the most points wins.
Elephant No. 3. Five power conferences, four playoff spots. Yes, I’ve said it before, but for goodness sake, do the math. This does not work. It will never produce results that everyone can live with. An eight-team playoff would be better, but as long as we have a panel of judges selecting the finalists, the last few places will always stir controversy, whether it’s two teams, four, eight, sixteen, or whatever. Of course, any team that is marginal for the last position has a decreasing chance of winning as the number of teams increase, and that’s a good thing.
But having longer seasons for the selected teams carries its baggage as well: more risk of injuries to the players, and on the flip side, more practice time and more recruiting exposure.
Even with an eight (or more) team playoff, the scheduling differences among the conferences would remain problematic: the SEC and its teams’ four (usually patsy) nonconference games, the Big-12 with its lack of a conference championship game – which penalized TCU and Baylor this year. And the Big-12’s penchant for scheduling SMU, Samford and their ilk.
Would an eight-team playoff have solved much this year? For Baylor and TCU, yes, but numbers seven and eight would just be a new mess to deal with. Creating four super-conferences and letting the mid-majors do their own thing could take the judging out of the process without making the season any longer. With two divisions in each conference, a conference championship for each super conference would create an eight-team playoff without adding any more games than what we have now.
Waiting until all the results are in to name a coach of the year, deciding results on the field instead of in a hotel conference room, and structuring things in multiples of two when it takes two teams to play a game are all just common sense. Failing to use common sense creates drama in our lives. If that’s what we really want, then we’re doing everything right.
Top photo by Gary Breedlove