What are we doing? Why are we here? I don’t pose those questions in an existential, life-is-just-a-turtle’s-dream-in-outer-space fashion, more in an immediate sense. Why is everyone in college football crowding around a television to find out the nation’s four best teams on October 28?
Don’t get me wrong. I know exactly why. ESPN is underwriting the entire Playoff enterprise, and in return wants to drive ratings, both on Tuesday nights and through the rest of the week – “SATURDAY NIGHT! PLAYOFF NO. 5 VS. PLAYOFF NO. 8… ON ESPN!” – and because the selection committee wants to follow precedent the public has come to expect. The Associated Press has been releasing a weekly top 25 since 1936, so they’re going to release a top 25, too. The BCS released its first batch of rankings sometime in mid- to late-October, so the committee is releasing its first rankings in late October, too.
It’s interesting how that is the precedent they choose to follow when they have a much more apples-to-apples precedent they are choosing to reject. The NCAA’s basketball selection committee meets at several points throughout the year, but doesn’t release a peep to the public until Selection Sunday.
There is a great reason for that. They don’t want to defend their selection of Wichita State as a No. 6 seed in the Midwest Region with half a season still to play, because they’re not in the business of evaluating novels with half the pages still blank. Their Playoff colleagues disagree, and so they’re poised to strap on their Kevlar vests and tell the media why – for example – they have Arizona State six spots lower than the AP poll with six games still to play.
The committee has met 12 hours over the last two days (why in the world would people already working 80 hours a week devote two days of weekly travel to something that can be done in two hours over the phone is beyond me, but it’s their time to waste) to formulate their top 25. Maybe they’ll copy the AP and coaches’ polls, or maybe they’ll follow the computers’ path and roll out an all-SEC top four. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Not one bit. No one’s destiny is getting changed tonight. Take Ole Miss, for example. The Rebels probably won’t be in the top four tonight, but whether they’re No. 2, No. 12, or No. 20 their destiny still lies completely in their hands. Beat Auburn, beat Mississippi State and beat Georgia in the SEC Championship and they are in. Tonight doesn’t change that.
I don’t worry about the committee’s ability to do the job they were formed to do – picking four teams for a playoff, and filling in four games of filler around them – because the job will be simultaneously effortless and impossible no matter what method is used. Some in the media will criticize the rankings no matter how they stack up, but not me. If the season plays out like most others there will be three teams obviously in, and three others that are realistically impossible to distinguish from one another. Two of those hypothetical teams will be apoplectic, but that won’t be the committee’s fault – it’s a necessity of the evil when there are only four golden tickets in circulation.
I do worry about the committee undermining its credibility before the Playoff even gets off the ground. They’ll release 150 individual rankings – six different sets of top 25’s – before December 7. That’s 150 opportunities for critics to catch the committee contradicting its own intentionally vague criteria – and believe me, there are plenty who will make their living doing just that.
And I’ll admit part of my disappointment with with the committee releasing rankings so early in the process is purely selfish. I didn’t want to hear a syllable of communication from the committee until the semifinals had been picked, with chairman Jeff Long pulling logos out of envelopes David Stern-style. I wanted the Wizard of Oz to stay behind his curtain as long as possible. I want the drama.
Mostly, I’m just a fan of college football’s best-in-sports regular season, and view the success of the College Football Playoff as a necessary vehicle to defend it against turning college football into a miniaturized version of the NFL. And tonight’s event is just one big chance to crash this new car into a light pole before we even drive it off the lot.