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College Football Playoff Should Take a Page from Division I Hockey Post-Season

by on December 06, 2016 8:50 AM

I have a confession to make.

Outside of Penn State I haven’t really been paying attention to college football the last few years.

As a season-ticket-holder and member of the Nittany Lion Club and Quarterback Club who is known to enjoy tailgating and attended his first Penn State game on Sept. 30, 1972, I should admit that I’ve also been a little lax on keeping up with Penn State football.

But life marches on, and especially the last few years, as youth sports became a bigger part of our family’s life, the manner in which I spent my non-work hours changed. As a family we attended every home football game we could and found enthusiastic supporters to use our tickets when we couldn’t, but outside of my diminished focus on Penn State I was happily ambivalent to the rest of the college football landscape.

So as the events of this past Sunday rolled by I found myself caught up in the wonder that, as Penn State’s head football coach noted, the winner of what is being touted as the most difficult conference in the country somehow didn’t make this new-fangled College Football Playoff. But a team that was runner-up in Penn State’s division -- a team that didn’t even play for the championship -- did (that’s my observation, not his).  

I say new-fangled because I was aware that at some time in the recent past the college football powers-that-be had gotten rid of the Bowl Championship Series that had been determining the supposed national champion of the top-tier of college football for 16 years.

It turns out, according to the College Football Playoff’s website, the groundwork for this switch was laid in late 2011 with the major decisions being made in 2012. Somehow I missed this seismic shift.

Now I’ve been alive long enough to understand that touting yourself as a “national champion” in any sport at any level often comes with a bit of subjectivity and timeliness. Does it mean the best team right now, or the best team over all the competitions during the course of the season? Should conference championships count? And how, what and who makes those decisions?

Many sports then default to various end-of-season tournaments to whittle the number of competitors down so there can be one “true” national champion crowned. However, as we all know, the top-level of Division I football has always eschewed any sort of tournament or playoff, preferring instead to allow various polls to determine who would finish the year as the national champ.

As I’ve now caught up with history I learned the “various polls” method changed two years ago and we are presently entering the third year of the College Football Playoff, which consists of exactly four teams.  Four teams that are picked by a “talented group of high-integrity individuals.” Twelve of them, to be exact.

So we’ve gone from the days when 60 or more individuals voted for their personal preferences, and compilations of those personal preferences -- two of which still exist-- determined the national champ, to a jury of 12 who hold all the power in their hands. At least over the years the larger polls evolved to be transparent – you knew how each individual ranked teams – but this new version has returned to being opaque.

However, if the powers-that-be just took a page from one of their other Division I sports, I believe they could quickly provide a lot of their football fans with the comfort of a more certain, consensus national champion.

Hockey may be new to the Division I sports world here in Happy Valley, but Hockey Valley in the Pegula Ice Arena is now the third sport in Penn State’s athletic department to turn a profit and tickets are routinely sold out. It’s popular.

In addition, Division I hockey has been around for decades and has the most innovative method of any sport in determining its national champion. The innovative part of the method is how it balances the potential dichotomy between “who is playing the best right now” versus “who played the best over the course of the season.”

Sixteen teams make the NCAA hockey tournament at the end of the season. Each of six conferences receives one automatic bid which is given to the winner of their conference tournament. This covers the “who is playing the best right now” metric.

The other 10 teams are the 10 highest-ranked teams in the NCAA’s numerical criteria which include no subjective human input. In short, winning gets you a high ranking and winning over good teams gets you an even higher ranking. The U. S. College Hockey Online’s Pairwise Rankings mimics this criteria and is updated after every game. So at any point in the season every team knows exactly where they stand in the rankings. This covers the “who played the best over the course of the season” metric.

The only subjectivity comes in when the NCAA committee decides where teams get seeded in the tournament. The committee of humans doesn’t have to tell college student-athletes who was good enough to play for a national title, and who wasn’t. Every team controls its own destiny and knows what it needs to do to win that elusive No. 1 ranking.

Adjusting that system for five conferences and eight teams at the Football Bowl Subdivision level would seem easy and add only one additional game for the top two teams. The only problem is that this new College Football Playoff runs through the 2025-2026 season. I guess that’s another decade of subjectivity we’ll have to deal with. Maybe I’ll go back to paying attention to only Penn State.


 

 



John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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