Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out
To nobody’s surprise, the present four-team playoff system is proving to be at best a Band-Aid to stop the bleeding until a real solution is in place to crown a national champion in Division I-A football. Right or wrong, there seems to be a semblance of consensus over the top three teams, but it’s a train wreck of disorder at the number four spot.
Even before teams hit the field for the first championship series, coaches are in favor of changing to at least an eight-team format. One coach is even in favor of a 64-team playoff. (You have to hope he isn’t serious.) But for now, the four-team format is what we have, and the perils and pleasures of a four-team playoff is the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.
1. The first peril – Buying into the SEC Superiority Myth. Human consideration is an improvement over the garbage-in/garbage-out computer programs that told us that you could come to objective conclusions based upon subjective input. Four teams having a chance is better than two teams having a chance, and at this point the Oregon Ducks are the primary beneficiary of the new system. Under the old system, it would have automatically been the SEC champion against an undefeated but unimpressive Florida State. Four teams is a major improvement — especially for Oregon — but the fact remains that the selection process still considers placing a second SEC team in the final four at the expense of two entire conferences.
It isn’t that everybody is afraid of the SEC. It’s just that every team in the SEC has a chance to win the national championship by first winning the SEC championship. The runner-up team will have had its chance and it will have blown it. So why give it a second chance before you give other conferences’ champions a first chance?
This makes as little sense as deciding that the World Series should be between American League powers Kansas City and Baltimore, because somebody thinks they’re better than anything the National League has to offer. Congratulations on winning the National League, Giants. Too bad you didn’t make the cut.
It is bad enough to leave out a champion from one of the power five conferences, but to leave out two starts to take the “National Championship” flavor out of the whole thing.
2. The Second Peril – The Dog Show. In the next two weeks, the entire top ten could end up shuffled. But for now it’s all about the number four spot, and the arguments for whom that spot should go to demonstrate just what a dog show it is. Mississippi State, Ohio State, TCU and Baylor are all arguing it out, and if a Pac-12 South team slips by Oregon in the conference championship game, it will join the fray.
No matter what happens, there are some teams that are not going to get the opportunity to settle it on the field, because the illustrious panel of judges is going to say “Poodle” instead of “Terrier.”
So the lobbying has begun, with arguments ranging from feeble to sound. One of the feeblest arguments – if not THE feeblest — is from ESPN’s ACC Blog’s David Hale, who seems to be trying to pump up the ACC by promoting Ohio State, whose only loss came to ACC also-ran Virginia Tech.
Hale makes the argument that Ohio State should be on equal footing with Oregon, largely on the basis that Va Tech (which beat Ohio State by 14) is on equal footing with Arizona (which beat Oregon by 7). Therefore, Ohio State is on equal footing with Oregon.
Va Tech (5-6, ACC) = Arizona (9-2, Pac-12)? Why? Because Arizona has had four narrow wins and Virginia Tech has had four (Oops, make that five now.) narrow losses, and Narrow = Narrow.
Lost somewhere in Hale’s logic are the facts that four close wins are better than
four five close losses … That 9-2 in a tough conference is better than 5-6 in the wussiest of the five power conferences … That losing by 7 to a ranked team isn’t as bad as losing by 14 to an unranked team … That the Big 10 has stunk it up pretty regularly in nonconference games against Power 5 foes.
If there has ever been a case of selective memory skewing the marginal-to-start-with transitive property, this is it. But as long as it’s a dog show, we’re going to have this sort of argument, and it is a pity.
3. The Pleasures. For now, Oregon fans can take joy in the fact that the Ducks are on the inside track and have only themselves and whomever they face on the field to concern themselves with. Nothing is a given, but for now Oregon has a relatively attractive path to the championship game, though with everything except this weekend’s showdown against Oregon State subject to change.
If UCLA makes it past Stanford, for the Pac-12 Championship Game the Ducks will face a team they’ve already beaten in a new stadium where they are the only college team to win a game.
As things now stand, Oregon’s first round game would be the Rose Bowl against Florida State, again in a stadium (and time zone) familiar to the Ducks, but unfamiliar to FSU. And despite holding the nation’s longest winning streak, the Seminoles have been living on borrowed time all season, eking out one narrow win after another against teams that the Ducks would easily take down by four or five touchdowns.
However it ends for the Ducks, what a season it has been! It’s a classic story line – everything’s fine at the start, things get turned upside down, and then the good guys battle back. We still don’t know how it ends, but here it is late November and the Ducks are still in the running for both a Heisman and a national championship – and while we want it all, that in itself is cause for joy.
Top photo by Craig Strobeck