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The College Football Playoff can top the NCAA tourney’s recent reform

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The College Football Playoff isn’t perfect, even after a season in which the two best teams were placed in opposite semifinals and met in a classic national title game.

Yes, this is miles better than the Bowl Championship Series. Yes, staging a title game just one and a half weeks after two teams’ previous games reduces rust and creates a game situation far more conducive to high-quality football. There’s a lot to like about the playoff, even in the shadow of the Baylor-TCU debacle from 2014.

Yet, this system can use tweaks, and by tweaks, I’m not referring to a move to eight teams — that would be more than a tweak; it would represent a fundamental shift. (A good one, but far bigger in scope than a mere procedural adjustment.) Before we arrive at a point in college football’s evolution where the move to eight teams gains critical mass, let’s keep our focus on making granular improvements to the four-team format we have.

Today’s piece at Today’s U aims to make one such addition to the current playoff system.

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My buddy here at Today’s U, Joseph Nardone, loved the NCAA Tournament’s recent decision to give the No. 1 overall seed the right to choose its opening-round location for the Big Dance. I also love it — partly for the reasons Joe eloquently expressed, but also because the decision of a team’s preferred site can become a television event which increases national interest in the sport.

A TV special on “The Decision” — not one made by LeBron James — could change the minds of casual fans who are inclined to view any college basketball played before the NCAAs as “less than fully important.” Impressing upon the casuals the value of being great in the regular season could enlarge viewer interest in college basketball in January and February. It’s a forward-thinking move with plenty of upside and no downside.

Television-fueled interest might be the larger goal of the NCAA’s plan for March Madness, but even if that doesn’t pan out, college basketball has still achieved something important: It has given added value to being a No. 1 overall seed. In a bracketed tournament, the top seed should receive more advantages and protections. Being the highest seed in a tournament is supposed to create an easier path; it is supposed to carry an extra benefit or six.

This is where the College Football Playoff discussion comes into play.

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Being the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff needs to matter more. Obviously, with only two playoffs in the books, the sample size isn’t large enough to make sweeping conclusions about the format. However, we have already seen — quite clearly — that the playoff committee lacks transparency in terms of ranking and ultimately seeding the football equivalent of the final four. In 2014, “game control” became the phrase of the moment. In 2015, “body clocks” became a part of the football lexicon. There remains no firm and (this is the key) ordered, hierarchical set of criteria for ranking teams.

Because of the vague methodology (if one can even call it that) the committee has used to seed the playoff in each of the first two seasons, it is hard to deny the claim — an opinion, but a strong one — that the semifinal matchups are made for TV.

The committee hides behind its vague process to satisfy ESPN.

January 1, 2015: RB Dalvin Cook (4) of the Florida State Seminoles runs the ball during the Florida State Seminoles game versus the Oregon Ducks in their College Football Playoff Semifinal played in the Rose Bowl Game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA.

January 1, 2015: RB Dalvin Cook (4) of the Florida State Seminoles runs the ball during the Florida State Seminoles game versus the Oregon Ducks in their College Football Playoff Semifinal played in the Rose Bowl Game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA.

In each of the first two playoffs, one seeding has been egregious. The worst seeding placement occurred in the first playoff (2014), when unbeaten Florida State was seeded third. Going unbeaten in a college football regular season is one of the hardest things to do in sports. As long as a team isn’t in Conference USA or even the Mountain West and plays at least someone with a pulse in the non-conference portion of its schedule, it should always get the benefit of the doubt over any one-loss teams. The Seminoles should have been the top seed in 2014, which means they would have played in the Sugar Bowl instead of the Rose Bowl, a far easier commute for them and their fans.

In 2015, Alabama — while undeniably the best team after the tumult and the shouting had subsided — still shouldn’t have been seeded second. Maybe you could argue that the Tide deserved to be ahead of either Oklahoma or Michigan State, but not both. The SEC was relatively mediocre last year — that assertion might even be considered generous by some — while the Sooners and Spartans stacked up high-end wins.

Alabama beat LSU, Florida and Wisconsin, none on the road (one home game, two neutral fields). Solid, but hardly spectacular. The Tide beat Tennessee at home.

Oklahoma beat Baylor (albeit with BU’s No. 1 quarterback out) on the road. The Sooners also beat Oklahoma State on the road (by a million points) and TCU (without Trevone Boykin) at home. Oklahoma beat Tennessee on the road.

Yes, Oklahoma’s loss (Texas) was much worse than Bama’s (Ole Miss), but Bama played an FCS team and — with an eight-game SEC schedule compared to the Big 12’s nine-game slate — threw in an extra cupcake (Louisiana-Monroe).

That’s the OU-Alabama case.

What about Michigan State?

The Spartans probably had the better argument to be seeded above Alabama and should have been No. 2 in the final (pre-playoff) 2015 rankings.

Michigan State beat Oregon, the best non-conference win of these three teams. The Spartans then won at Michigan and Ohio State on the road before beating Iowa on a neutral field. That’s four fat poker chips, more than Bama’s and OU’s collections of three apiece.

Similar to Oklahoma, MSU stubbed its toe against a losing team (Nebraska), but the high-end wins were better and more difficult than Alabama’s. Like OU, Michigan State did not schedule an FCS team. Air Force and Western Michigan (WMU on the road, a rarity for Power Five schools) represented good uses of non-conference game slots. Central Michigan was, however, a cupcake-rich overreach by Mark Dantonio.

Alabama over Oklahoma? I personally did not agree with that seeding, but I could see a rationale for it. OU played multiple teams with injured quarterbacks, a plot twist which could reasonably affect one’s evaluation.

Alabama over Michigan State in terms of seeding (before the semifinals)? Nope. Nuh-uh. No way. Not happening. Alabama had the better loss… and that’s the only argument the Tide brought to the table. Michigan State had at least three strong claims over and against the Tide, if not five.

05 December 2015: Michigan State Spartans running back LJ Scott (3) reaches out over the goal line to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter of action during the Big Ten Championship Game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Michigan State Spartans at Lucas Oil Stadium, in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

05 December 2015: Michigan State Spartans running back LJ Scott (3) reaches out over the goal line to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter of action during the Big Ten Championship Game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Michigan State Spartans at Lucas Oil Stadium, in Indianapolis, IN.
(Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

I can’t look at either of the first two seeding arrangements from the College Football Playoff and conclude that the committee ignored television ratings as a primary consideration. The first two sets of semifinal matchups clearly came across as products of a desire to create the most TV-friendly games, not the results of a legitimate attempt to properly rank the teams, one through four.

Yes, this is a small sample size, but to me and many others, the College Football Playoff is 2 for 2 in terms of manipulating the semifinals for television.

That’s a problem, and if there’s an easy way to fix it, why not?

We return to the NCAA Tournament’s decision to empower the No. 1 overall seed to choose its opening-round location. College football can offer its own answer with its own set-aside TV special on its own version of Selection Sunday, the first Sunday of December.

The College Football Playoff’s tweak wouldn’t be the choice of location — not centrally, at least. The No. 1 seed in the playoff should be given the right to choose its semifinal opponent.

We’ve all seen college recruits stage press conferences with three or four caps before picking up the one with the logo of the school the recruit is attending. Imagine the theater and drama of seeing Dabo Swinney last year, with Alabama, Michigan State, and Oklahoma caps on a table in front of him. He’d disclose on the playoff announcement show which team Clemson would play in the semifinals, thereby creating the other matchup as well.

First, this would create an arresting, compelling television moment each year.

More importantly, it would empower a No. 1 overall seed and do what the NCAA Tournament has done. Most importantly, however, this move would easily and instantly limit the committee’s influence in arranging the semifinal matchups. The committee would get the right to pick the four playoff teams and the No. 1 seed, but the final call in terms of the semifinals would rest with the head coach of the No. 1 team.

It works for television.

It reduces suspicions about a rigged system. (Wonder what Bernie Sanders thinks about that…)

It empowers a No. 1 seed and rewards that team for what it accomplished during the regular season.

Your move, College Football Playoff. The NCAA Tournament’s inspired decision can enable you to improve your four-team football festival.

The College Football Playoff can top the NCAA tourney’s recent reform

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