Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Big 12: Think (Hard) Before You Act

The worst thing the Big 12 can do is going for the quick fix. When no such "fix" is needed.

Sure, the conference rightfully feels it got screwed by the selection committee after being the only Power 5 conference left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff. But before the Big 12 runs out to hastily extend an invitation to Cincinnati or BYU or whomever to join the conference - or arrange a title game between its top two teams - it needs to ...

Stop. Just stop.

The Big 12 got left out not because it didn't stage a conference title game or because its conference champion didn't play a 13th game. It got left out because the selection committee proved to be no more discerning than the average fan who watches too much ESPN.

The fact is that if you replaced TCU with TEXAS, the Big 12 doesn't lose that final playoff spot to Ohio State and the Big Ten. Or if you replaced OHIO STATE with ILLINOIS, then the Horned Frogs would be on their way to New Orleans to face Alabama in a national semifinal game.

The Big 12 lost out because the schools it had in contention were small, private, Christian colleges, not college football behemoths like the four teams that made it. And in no small part because that's the way ESPN wanted it.

Did you see Kirk Herbstreit in the last three weeks proselytizing on behalf of his alma mat ... uh, Ohio State? Even as the Buckeyes labored to beat Big Ten also-rans Indiana and Michigan, Herbstreit claimed that they were "gaining momentum" and without fail, put Ohio State in his own Final Four week after week.

With the majority of college football games televised by ESPN's networks (not to mention all of the playoff as well as all but one of the 39 bowl games), it's natural for the 12 members of the committee - at least some of them - to fall under the spell of the "Worldwide Leader." When Ohio State blasted Wisconsin, 59-0, with its preseason third-string QB in the Big Ten title game, the committee fell hook, line and sinker.

The committee got reeled in the same way the AP and coaches poll voters did. Despite its struggles against Indiana and Michigan, Ohio State steadily picked up votes during the final weeks of the regulars season, finally vaulting past both Big 12 teams at the end.

And because of that, the simulated BCS standings showed that Ohio State would've been the No. 4 team, seemingly justifying the committee's decision. But the truth is that since the polls accounted for two-thirds of the standings, the voters' inability to keep clear heads from the ESPN-driven media narrative played a key role.

As it turned out, the committee members were no better - or smarter - than these voters.

That's why the Big 12 should not beat itself up over its exclusion from this year's playoff. It's college football, where money always speaks the loudest. ESPN wanted brand names in its tournament and that's what it got. If ESPN had its way, the four-team field will always include Alabama, Ohio State, Texas and USC every year (and Notre Dame if it finally ditches its NBC contract).

TCU was the best team in the Big 12 this year, a fact that's acknowledged by commissioner Bob Bowlsby and every conference coach besides Baylor's Art Briles. The Horned Frogs were better than Ohio State and should've been in the playoff. But since TCU and Baylor shared the conference championship - with Baylor having won head-to-head - that made it convenient for the committee to discard them both.

Would it be any different had Baylor lost another game and therefore made TCU the outright Big 12 winner? Perhaps, but probably not. As one of college football's nouveau riches, the Horned Frogs were basically told to wait for their turn. And this isn't their time yet.

A conference championship game or a 13th game wouldn't have changed that. What would help the Big 12 more is to tell Texas and Oklahoma to get back up to speed, pronto.


Nick said...

I really don't think it's fair to Ohio State to say they only made it in on their brand. The Buckeyes won 12 games against FBS opponents, nine of which are going bowling. TCU won 10 games against FBS foes, six who are in the postseason. Those are metrics that the committee has used from the start; those rules have not appeared to change during the process.

A 13th game, even in a rematch against Baylor or Kansas State or however you draw it up, could have gone a long way in boosting that resume for a Big 12 champion over the Big Ten winner. I agree that expansion is a Band-aid solution. But a conference title game will help more than it hurts.

Demosthenes said...

I think it's fairly clear that the selection committee has a bias against the Big XII. What the basis is I don't know...perhaps it's because they see teams playing twelve games instead of thirteen, perhaps it's something else. But it's there.

No major-conference champion had a higher-quality win this season than Baylor. Are they in the playoffs? No. The Bears will be sitting out despite having a better record against the Sagarin top 30 than Ohio State.

No major-conference champion had a higher-quality loss than TCU. Did that matter to the committee? No. The Horned Frogs were jumped by Ohio State, despite the Buckeyes' loss against Virginia Tech and struggles against sub-par Big Ten teams.

Look, Alabama was always going to get in, because the SEC champ was practically guaranteed a spot. Oregon had the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy and had avenged their only loss of the year -- in. Florida State, the undefeated defending national champions? No way are they getting left out. So it came down to a team with a strong brand, guaranteed to sell their playoff tickets, who had the advantage of a thirteenth game...versus two teams that are building (or in TCU's case, rebuilding) their brands, with fanbases that are not as strong, and who weren't allowed a rematch. The outcome was a forgone conclusion.

That's what TCU, in particular, gets for thinking that a season-long body of work might matter to the committee. Obviously it doesn't when they can drop from 3 to 6 in a week despite winning handily. Ohio State had better be thankful that the committee's motto seems to be "You're only as good as your last game."

Oh, yes, and one more data point to support that bias. The committee was obligated to take #20 Boise State for one of the twelve slots. The other eleven went to teams that the committee ranked #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10...and #12. And who was the team that got passed over for a committee selection at #11, in favor of a team that the same committee ranked below them? Why, Kansas State, of course.

matt said...

I'm usually not one for conspiracy theories, but I have to agree that brand recognition played a huge role in getting Ohio State into the final playoff spot ahead of two small private universities that have not been historically good at football until the recent past.