Those dudes out there on the College Football Playoff selection committee clearly aren’t slackers. They do all the hard thinking necessary for an impossible sport.
Five of the 13 members — 12 for the first rankings of 2017, released Tuesday, as one was sick and unable to travel — are retired coaches, and while coaches might have called the wrong play every single time for decades, they do know how to work, beyond even the usual unhealthy American degree. They study film even of practices, a miserable existence which, alone, might justify their salaries.
It’s odd, then, that coaches have spent a good chunk of American history — the college football chunk — as such lazy, lousy poll voters. Just this past weekend, the weekly coaches’ poll placed Miami (Fla.) at No. 6 and Notre Dame at No. 8, probably because the former is 7-0 and the latter is 7-1, even though the latter has demonstrated oodles more prowess than the former this season.
A worst case of coach-voting howls from 1996, yet it does relate to the committee’s decision Tuesday that Georgia (8-0) could sit at No. 1, above No. 2 Alabama (8-0). Just thinking of the daunting 1996 case can make one grateful the republic survived it.
Nebraska was the two-time defending national champion, and its 1995 team was inarguably the best team in the modern history of the game. (All college football arguments should contain the word “inarguably.”) On Saturday night, Sept. 21, 1996, No. 1 Nebraska went to Arizona State and got dominated, 19-0. Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost, who obviously would never amount to anything in football, completed 6 of 20 passes and played a supporting role in each of Arizona State’s three safeties.
On Monday, Sept. 23, members of the media, able to read “19-0” lit up on a scoreboard, adjusted, lifting Arizona State from No. 17 to No. 6, and dropping Nebraska from No. 1 to No. 8. Coaches, however, lacked the basic reasoning skills to decipher 19-0, so they moved Arizona State from No. 22 to No. 12, while keeping Nebraska five spots ahead at No. 7. From there, for three more weeks, a one-loss Nebraska remained ahead of an unbeaten team that had crushed it. The coaches didn’t even notice, their brains filled grimly with practice film.
In their laziness — which might have included having somebody else in the athletic departments do the polls for them — the coaches factored in something that has no business getting factored: reputation. The College Football Playoff selection committee, which has spent three-plus seasons as an improvement, omits reputation as best humans can. What you did last year, or 10 years ago, or in 1950, doesn’t matter. This held true even in 2014 with Ohio State, despite rumblings to the contrary.
The football at Alabama has been so impressive for so long that we come to think of Alabama as No. 1 as part of national identity. If the committee arrived to the meeting room in North Texas, and found little sheets with Alabama inked in at No. 1, so it could go ahead and start working on Nos. 2-25, many of us might nod and say, “Of course.” Of the 20 rankings the committee has spat out, Alabama has held down No. 1 in 10 of them. Half. One program. Half. Of the three playoffs thus far, Alabama has appeared in three. It’s otherworldly.
Before the first rankings of 2017 on Tuesday, many pundits had Alabama at No. 1, and while that wasn’t even close to irrational, you had to wonder how many of them did factor in reputation. Alabama must be the best. Further, if Alabama played Georgia this coming Saturday, Alabama inarguably would win. (All college football arguments should contain the word “inarguably.”)
The 13-member committee, however, deciphers nothing but nine weeks chockablock with evidence. Unlike the traditional polls, it doesn’t have a preseason poll to which to adhere, with a No. 1 in August that becomes hard to dislodge if it doesn’t lose. It has no September polls to structure things. It barely had any October polls this year. It doesn’t even observe other polls, according to its chairman.
Georgia, coming off an 8-5 season in the debut year of Kirby Smart, who spent nine seasons at Alabama alongside Nick Saban, began the year in the Associated Press poll at No. 15, making for thick climbing once the football began. Yet once the football did begin, Georgia fashioned the finer CV, by a notch.
It has beaten two current top-25 teams to zero for Alabama. It beat one of those, Notre Dame, on the road, and then Notre Dame surged to No. 3 in the playoff rankings, with its own three decimations of top-25 teams. Mississippi State stands at No. 16 with its 6-2 record, but that record was spotless until it went to Georgia and took a 31-3 right mauling. Alabama’s commendable turn of nonconference scheduling, against then-No. 3 Florida State in the season opener, lost its oomph with Florida State’s plunge to 2-5.
That’s not Alabama’s fault, but it has to count in a sport so imperfect.
With that kind of thing, and with the stashing of unbeaten teams Wisconsin and Miami (Fla.) at Nos. 9 and 10, behind six one-loss teams with better CVs, the committee has marked a leap upward from previous methods, and a spaceship trip upward from the wasteland of 1996. This crew, with its upgraded set of voting coaches, keeps sending a message: We’re not thinking about this anymore in the same, ancient, antiquated ways. Probably wasn’t a coach who came up with that.
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