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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

For Big Ten and SEC, Devil’s in the Details

The Big Ten is trying “not to put a stake in the ground” when it comes to the league’s stance on the developing postseason discussion, according to Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman. Nonetheless, based on comments from both the Big Ten and SEC, it’s clear that college football’s two biggest power brokers remain apart on several key components of a future playoff plan.

But the two parties are in agreement on one significant point: a four-team playoff, if enacted, should select the four best teams in the country — regardless of whether one or more of these teams do not win their own conference. But the Big Ten still has significant issues with the details of this point, with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany very skeptical about the viability of college football’s current ranking and selection system.

Delany, and by extension the Big Ten, does not have faith in computer ranking systems or polls doing the best job of selecting the top four teams in the country. Only now, with a playoff system on the horizon, is a power conference commissioner questioning B.C.S.-era ranking tools.

And despite agreeing with the SEC that the four best teams should be involved in a playoff system, the Big Ten remains adamant that such a plan sits low on its list of options. During this afternoon’s teleconference, Perlman indicated that a four-team plan ranks third on the Big Ten’s list of postseason preference.

First, believe it or not, is the “status quo.” Second is a plus-one game rolled into the current system; in this scenario, the current bowl system would play out as in the past, with a bonus game played at its conclusion.

How would that work? Using this past season as an example, a plus-one plan would have pitted Alabama and Oklahoma State for the national title. There would remain several factors to parse through if a plus-one plan is the choice — for example, would L.S.U. have met Alabama, or would the Tigers have played Stanford while Alabama played Oklahoma State with the winner meeting in the plus-one game?

You can eliminate the status quo from the conversation. There’s no way that the F.B.S. doesn’t universally decide to make some sort of change, especially when given the money that would be left on the table with a continuation of the current postseason plan.

There’s no support for the status quo outside of the Big Ten. As noted by Bryan Fischer of CBS Sports, Oregon State president Ed Ray said on Sunday that “no one is talking about the status quo; I just don’t hear anyone talking about business as usual.” For the Big Ten, talk of the status quo is bluster, a feint meant to illustrate to the SEC that the conference is examining any and all options at its disposal.

The Big Ten must know that a four-team playoff is on the horizon. Hence Delany’s comments today that touched on the four-team plan, even if his comments did touch on the proposal’s weaknesses — questioning how the four teams would be selected — rather than its many strengths. Delany is clearly indicating that when it comes selecting the four teams for a playoff, the process should begin and end with a committee, not with polls or a computer system.

If the talk of a status quo and a plus-one is just bluster, and if the Big Ten simply is illustrating its desire for a selection committee, then perhaps the gap separating the league from the SEC is not as wide as it seems. Simply put, all the SEC might need to do in order to pull the Big Ten into its camp is ensure that a playoff plan uses a committee to pick the four teams.

I doubt that the SEC would hold out on that point, should the two power conferences agree on the plan’s major points. From there — if and when we get there — the focus will turn to Larry Scott and the Pac-12; as Fischer noted on Sunday, the conference wants the four-team plan to include only conference champions.

“I know three that people keep coming back to,” said Ray. “Within that set, we’re looking for things that honor conference champions getting appropriate consideration as national champions and that honor our unique relationship with the Rose Bowl.”

First one battle, then another. In reality, the Pac-12 remains farther removed from the SEC’s four-team proposal than the Big Ten. But in the big picture, each conference seems amenable to the idea of a playoff system. The devil’s in the details: selection committee or polls; best four teams or conference champs.

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  1. schedule nit says:

    You can’t stop progress!

  2. [...] Paul Myerberg believes the sides might be able to coalesce around a selection committee.   Not exactly what [...]

  3. Dave says:

    “…best four teams or conference champs.”


    The two need not be mutually exclusive. Any poll, selection committee, or computer algorithm should at least consider whether a team won its conference or not. Should not be 100% dispositive, but should not be ignored, either, or else the importance of the regular season gets further diluted.

  4. SixWinSeason says:

    It amazes me how, on the verge of finally getting what we have been begging for for years, it feels less like the little guy has a shot than ever before. Somehow, the power conferences are even diluting the playoff to make more money.

  5. vaudvillain says:

    I think a selection committee solves a lot of problems. Just using rankings is problematic, because if the BCS taught us anything, it is that rankings are flawed. If we don’t like the computer formulas of the BCS to pick two teams, why should we like it to pick four? Insisting on conference champs can be problematic, because some conferences are better than others, and the champion of a mediocre conference might not be a “Final Four”-quality team. Insisting that an “at-large” spot must be held for a non-conference champ can be problematic, because sometimes, the best four teams will all be conference champions. A selection committee might also give the “little guy” more of a chance (slightly) than one of the more formulaic approaches above. A team from outside the Big Four pretty much needs to go undefeated, do so in impressive fashion, and have one (or more) of the “Powerhouses” stub its toe. But then again, that’s the way it is now. A televised selection show could also help add transparency to the process — if done right (I could also see a selection show turning into a schlocky nightmare).

  6. DMK says:

    @ vaudvillain


    Computers must go. And I’d be happy to keep the big pool of voters so long as there was a half-hour tv special during which we could see their pictures and how they voted. (And get their SS#’s and home addresses if they vote wrong!)

    There’s nothing wrong with tallying opinions as long as everything is transparent.

    Top 4 as selected by experts.

  7. Dave says:

    Selection committee has to be non-biased or the whole thing is a farce. Nobody with a vested interest – certainly no head coaches.

  8. nevarious says:

    Personally, I have no problem with doing a 4-team (or 8-team) playoff based purely on computer rankings. It’s humans (polls and selection committees) that are bound to be biased. Every person has some teams that they are more familiar with, that they expect to be the best based on pre-season hype or program history, or just teams that they are exposed to more due to proximity or through the national media coverage. Nobody can watch every game.

    Any criteria that a person would use to evaluate teams (record, strength of schedule, victories over quality opponents, margin of victory, etc.) can be put in an algorithm and applied evenly to all teams. That will be the definition of what it means to be a good football team. The only reason to have humans in the loop is to override the computer rankings if we don’t like how things are turning out (and that’s like changing the rules of the game at halftime based on the score).

    I would let all the FBS coaches vote on how much weight to put on each of the criteria that goes in the algorithm and then use the average.

  9. DMK says:

    Sports — especially college football — is always beauty contest or any-given-day. Fake math should be kept out of it. Completely.

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