I’m typing this at halftime of the Ohio State vs. Clemson College Football Playoff Semifinal and it’s clear that the Buckeyes are one of the top four teams in the nation. The defense that looked less than championship caliber earlier in the campaign has settled down after two early Clemson touchdowns and contained Trevor Lawrence. Meanwhile, Justin Fields is playing through injured ribs and torching the Clemson defense with help from his tight ends and Trey Sermon, who is proving to be a certified stud at tailback.
That doesn’t mean that Ohio State belongs in the Playoff, though. You’ll never convince me that their six-game slate that was shortened by coronavirus concerns stands up against the fuller schedule played by teams like Texas A&M and Cincinnati, the latter of whom could have polished off a 10-0 season today if not for poor clock management and an incredibly clutch field goal by Georgia’s Jack Podlesny.
Yes, I believe Ohio State is good enough. Yes, I believe if Ryan Day’s team had played more games that it would have remained undefeated. The resume as currently constructed just doesn’t hold up, and its treatment by the committee raises major questions about our current system of selecting the top four teams.
The old BCS system had subjective elements, but it also contained a computer system that crunched hard data. The Playoff committee is just a bunch of people with opinions, and that should be scary if you’ve studied a little bit of psychology or have just interacted with humans in groups. There’s no way to get around the bias that comes with Ohio State’s past success. Of course the Buckeyes are going to pass the eye test. The committee sees them beat Penn State and it sees the same Ohio State that wins the division every year.
The committee just wasn’t ready to deal with a season in which teams from different conferences were all playing a different number of games. Before 2020, many fans suspected that small-conference upstarts like Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina would be held back despite undefeated records even if a worldwide pandemic knocked out half of Ohio State’s schedule. Now we have confirmation, and we need to take this chance to correct the process, because the committee will hopefully never be exposed like this again.
The Playoff can still be determined by committee, but we need a computer ranking system that is released alongside the Playoff rankings each week so that fans and the committee themselves can see where the human opinions differ from data-driven rankings. There are still too many subjective elements involved for a computer to determine the Playoff by itself. For example, humans have to decide what to do with teams dealing with key injuries and with games that aren’t as close as they look due to garbage-time scoring. However, adding a stat-driven measure will help keep biases in check and expose committee members who are treating worthy but non-traditional powers unfairly.
Just like in 2014, though, Ohio State is going from controversial Playoff competitor to serious national title contender, so maybe it’s okay that the committee messed up this time. Besides, we won’t see half a team’s season wiped out by a global pandemic for at least another century, right?