NCAA Football Playoff: Get It Right

There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Disraeli

 

If you think that the incessant arguing on sport’s TV is bad now, wait until the beginning of December of 2014.

That, of course, will be the time that the NCAA will announce its first “final four” playoff teams in the inaugural “tournament” to decide the college football national champion once and for all.

With the BCS shown the door, this will be a mega-bucks, three game showdown to determine the best of the best in NCAA division 1 football.

The four teams selected and their fans will be elated, no doubt, and the players will square off in Pasadena or Miami or wherever for a chance to travel to the Super Bowl of college football.

Teams No. 5 and 6? Maybe in a new bowl game—The Snub Bowl—played somewhere far away in a place like Wales or Mexico City.

It is essential, then, that the NCAA gets this right. The four teams chosen have to have impeccable credentials, with great seasons, quality wins, conference titles, etc, and be clear choices to be in the final four.

That we have clear choices will never happen, of course, so we are going to be relying on a committee to decide the four teams. That committee has yet to be envisioned, but my guess is that it will be largely modeled after the basketball committee that selects the teams in the NCAA tournament.

That committee uses records, quality wins, strength of schedule, RPI, conference strength, conference record, and many other parameters to decide who to invite to the tournament. The members are well respected and hail from all areas of the sport. What they do is essentially what the football committee will do—rank and seed the teams according to what they consider to be their relative strength.

Now, basketball is a different sport than football, and the basketball tournament has 68 teams and there are many upsets (although football has many upsets as well, maybe as many percentage-wise as any other sport).

We are not talking here about the tournament itself, though, but about choosing the best four teams. And the basketball committee does that, and has been doing that for a long time using all those statistics, and they name what they believe to be the best four teams in the country. They are the regional #1 seeds. The football people will be asked to do the same thing, although their ranking will be final.

The cool thing about the basketball tournament is that we get to see just how accurate the seedings were.  How often, with all this information and all these qualified people, have they been right?

The numbers are revealing. In the last 10 years, of the 40 teams that were seeded #1 in their regional—essentially thought to be one of the best four teams in the country—14 advanced to the final four. So fewer than half the teams that were thought to be in the top four actually made it into the top four.

There were 10 #2 seeds, who would be placed from five to nine in the national rankings, six # 3’s, and seven #4 and # 5s. And an 8 and two 11s.

Interpret those numbers as you will, but the committee did redeem itself in the finals. Of the last 10 champions, six were #1 seeds, one was a #2, and three were #3s. 2008 was a great year for the committee because all four teams in the final four were #1 seeds in a tournament won by Kansas.

2011, on the other hand, was not a good year. The highest team to make the final four was UConn at #3, the team that eventually won it, and it was joined by a #4, #8, and a #11. None of the teams proven to be playing the best at that time were indentified.

What does all of this mean for Football? Not much, probably, if we realize that whatever teams the committee chooses will all be more than qualified and a product of endless number crunching and wrangling among the various factions in the room.

What we will get is a no-questions-asked, definite, winner of the committee’s final four. With only four teams selected, there will be lots of teams out there that could win it but had an early stumble or injury that blocked them. That’s the way it goes in college football where a loss or two is usually the end for title hopes.

The best team? The basketball people predict  it six out of ten times, not bad, so football can do just as well, maybe better, we hope. But there will be lapses.

And think about the selection shows. An hour at least, for just four teams, with 55 minutes taken up with talk and seven or eight video clips each played about 35 or 40 times, in case we missed something. Then—bam!—right at the end, team A will play team B and team X will play team Y. Cut to commercial.

Let the arguing begin.

 

 

 

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