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How the Big XII Gets Two, the SEC Gets None (And Why That's a Big Problem)

It is no secret that college football is one of my favorite sports to follow. Fire up those fight songs. I love the rivalries, the tailgating the traditions, and the unexpected results of fifteen crazy Saturdays leading up to bowl season. In my mind, the Bowl Pick'Em is up there with the March Madness bracket; a month of pure sport and household bragging rights. Sure, I wish the corporate names would ratchet back to tasteful and sane, but never-ending bowl watching my favorite part of the holiday season. 

The 
College Football Football Playoff is a step in the right direction. Halfway through year one, it has already taken the importance of the regular season from an 8 to a 9 1/2. This has only added more excitement to an already thrilling four months of football. But call me a skeptic on this inaugural committee and I'll explain why. Let me preface this by stating Ohio State always has been my school and the Big Ten — even though downtrodden and far inferior  is still my conference. That said, everyone knows the SEC is the NFL-ready minor leagues. There is SEC strength of schedule, a giant void, and then the rest of the conferences. 

Yet, there is a distinct possibility that the best record they can produce in 2014 is 11-2. I know the computers of the Bowl Championship Series were "wise" enough to value a two-loss SEC team over other one-loss contenders. I begin to get nervous about putting such decisions in the hands of a selection committee. Could they really rank an SEC out of the top four teams in the country for the first time since 2005? I am here to say "yes, yes they can." 


I will depict a very possible scenario where this all-mighty conference has none of their own playing in the first-ever College Football Playoff. It is like being denied access to a two-top table, r
ight as the restaurant owner pulls over two more chairs. Worse, the SEC has had a standing reservation at this table for decades. Cue up the apocalypse, i.e. the return of the BCS. [lady shrieks] 

More analysts think the conference will get two teams in than one, and I've yet to hear anyone, other than Danny Kanell, mention a zero SEC possibility. After all, Mississippi State is still undefeated (likely to remain at number one), Alabama survived a major scare in Death Valley (likely moving into that all-important fourth spot), and you can't rule out Auburn, Ole Miss or even Georgia. 


At least, you couldn't in the past. But for some strange reason 
— as more teams are now eligible for the National Championship  the phrase "Elimination Saturday" is getting tossed around awfully cavalier. Have the talking heads forgotten about the magic and parity that is college football, or just how many two-loss teams have played in post-New Year's Day bowls in recent years? 

Perhaps they are simply surveying this year's landscape and notice just how many good, but not great, teams are out there. Week 11 is in the books and there are eight one-loss teams among the power five conferences (and independents). At this point last season, there were six; only four on this date in 2012. It makes eight seem like a bit of a log-jam, even with an expanded postseason. With simple math, that second loss has eliminated teams already. There simply aren't enough seats at the table for all eight one-loss teams to come to dinner 
— not with two undefeateds still hanging out there. 

2014 could be the anomaly in the new committee system, but it sure feels like analysts are giving up on two-loss teams earlier than they ever did under the BCS.
Two-loss teams had more than a leg to stand on with the Bowl Championship Series; even greater than some big-name one-loss teams. In sixteen years of the old system, eight times a team with two losses finished higher in the rankings than a one-loss team from a power five conference. The 2007 Tigers not only played in the National Championship Game, they won the darn thing over my Buckeyes. 

Alabama (1999), Colorado (2001), USC (2002), Ohio State (2005), LSU (2006 
and 2007), Virginia Tech (2007), and Oklahoma (2007) would have all made a four-team playoff in their respective two-loss seasons. And they would have done so at the mercy of a one-loss Big XII, Big East, Big Ten, and Pac-10 school being left on the outside. 

It all really boiled down to conference supremacy. The pollster/computer combination routinely played up the conference that was subjectively more talented than the others. The BCS standings rewarded the trickiest regular-season schedule to maneuver. The computers valued the conference gauntlet, looking at nerdy things like opponent's opponents' win percentage. The balance to that was the human voting element. It freed up coaches to look at important things like how hot a team was down the stretch and whether or not that one bad loss happened on the road 
— without a team's starting left tackle. I hate to say I miss this system, but at least it got familiar. 

It understood that the National Semifinal could be masquerading as a Week 5 match-up in Baton Rouge. It gave teams chances for late-season rebuttals to earlier season losses, thanks in large part to the institution of more conference championship games. No school was ever labeled "eliminated" after ten weeks of play. 
The mystery behind the formulas had fans holding their breath when the new polls were unveiled. How did that team jump over that one?! There was drama in how teams with multiple losses could come out of the shadows when an upset struck down the pole-sitter. 

The BCS took into consideration the cannibalization of the best conference in the country. It never penalized the inevitable losses that mounted for a team whose toughest opponent was the annual home/road rotation. The best modern-day example is the Southeastern Conference. It is a broad ocean with no island to stop and refuel. Right as a middle-of-the-pack program rolls into the corner of Rebuilding and Scary Spoiler is when the SEC leader naturally comes to town. It is a trap game for the highly-ranked favorite, sandwiched between a top-10 team and an in-state rival. Meanwhile, in the Big Ten, the leader has a match-up with someone like Illinois or Northwestern 
— and doesn't even have the other division leader on their regular-season schedule. In the last few years, the Big Ten Champion resume and that of the SEC's third-place team were on equal footing. 

The jury is still out on how much the committee grasps this strength-of-schedule disparity. They obviously value it, but likely not at the rate of the BCS computers. The latter did a solid job at revealing the best teams in the country, free of geographical bias. Since it merely spit out data, fans could hardly gripe that one corner of the country was getting all the love. The numbers were what the numbers were. The challenge for this new committee, since humans are back calling the shots, is avoiding the favoritism. 


The original concept of the bracket was going to pull the best team from four regions, like college basketball does. This meant a four-team playoff that would exclusively consist of the champions from the top four conferences. The problem is that the quality isn't spread coast-to-coast like it is in men's hoops. Individual programs are good in weak conferences, but the depth and 30-game schedule are not there to really test them. These aren't divisions in the NFL; we are nowhere close to having evenness in talent nor quality opponents. The selection committee better not take the bait on going down that misguided road. 


But before we all get sappy about the extinct BCS, let's remember why it no longer exists. In 2011, the process somehow allowed the Alabama Crimson Tide into the title game 
— a game they won — after failing to even reach the SEC Championship. It set the precedence for what some are saying could reoccur this year, even with a change to a playoff selected by a committee. The best two teams in the country could come from not only the same conference (SEC), but the same division (SEC West). This allows one of them to sidestep the rigors of another game added to their schedule — one with all the fanfare of a neutral-site, primetime game against a tough opponent.  

The new system does not completely remove this loophole, but it does address it. Sitting on the couch in Week 15 might still get you in the playoff, but it'll take two hard-fought wins to earn that golden trophy. No computer technicalities can send a team straight to the National Championship any longer. 


What will this new system do if presented several two-loss SEC teams? Let's elaborate by looking at the remaining schedule of the current top 14 
— plus a sneaky Georgia team, laying in the waiting at number 20. Green is a predicted win, red a predicted loss, and the win-loss tallies on the far right are their hypothetical overall/conference records.  


Rankings as of November 9th - Click to Enlarge

There are some really interesting scenarios that come into play if my predictions hold true. Disclaimer: they never do. Ole Miss has been cast off in 2014. They were darlings early in the year, dropped two in a row (at LSU, vs. Auburn), and have fallen to fourth place in the SEC West. They're done.

To steal a line from Lee Corso: Not so fast! 

A bye, a win over an Arkansas team that is winless in conference, and a chance to host the Egg Bowl; they are sitting right where they want to be. They don't need a ton of help either. They paved their way to the Georgia Dome (site of the SEC Championship Game) back in October, with a 23-17 win against Alabama. This gives them the SEC West tiebreaker if both finish with the same record. A win against a one-loss Mississippi State team — on the final day of their regular season — would send the Rebels (and not the currently higher-ranked Crimson Tide, Tigers, and Bulldogs) to Atlanta. That is step one of the SEC getting shut out of the playoff. And it's not that unreasonable an outcome. 


Georgia is step number two. They are the linchpin of the whole projection. If they could somehow run the table, the opportunity arises for a two-loss team winning the powerful SEC. Remember, running back Todd Gurley comes back this week and they get Auburn at home; a team that was just handed a devastating loss to Texas A&M. The Dawgs bigger test will likely come with Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate (or Georgia vs. Georgia Tech). Ranked, in-state rivals are extremely dangerous, but like the Auburn game, Georgia gets the game at home.

So let's say the 2014 SEC Championship comes down to a 10-2 Georgia team against 10-2 Mississippi. Georgia would be winners of four straight two of which came against ranked teams  playing a virtual home game in the Georgia Dome, with one of the best rushing weapons in college football back on the field. It would be Ole Miss' first-ever SEC Championship Game (established in 1992) to Georgia's sixth. I would conservatively make the Rebels a nine-point underdog in that hypothetical game.  

There you have it. The Georgia Bulldogs are your 2014 SEC Champions. Big party, definitely in the playoffs, the whole spiel. Not so fast! 

Losing to South Carolina and Florida, who are now a combined 6-8 in conference play, will be the lead balloon affixed to their playoff stock. But is keeping them out of the playoff the right call? Is the SEC not the best conference in the country? Shouldn't their champion be "automatically" listed within the top four teams? 

Moreover, what do you do with Miss. State, Ole Miss, Auburn, and Alabama? They would all be sitting there with two losses, but could easily be among the best four teams in the country. We would never know. All spent some time in the coveted playoff rankings; showing the committee that they were better than (hypothetical) SEC Champion Georgia for most of the season. In my scenario, Auburn and Ole Miss would both fail to beat Georgia, but Alabama and Mississippi State would never get a chance to prove their superiority on the field. They would idly watch on December 6, punished for the fact that the championship rules are mandated East vs. West. It should be the best two teams dueling it out, regardless of division affiliation. In this case, that would be an epic Ole Miss vs. Alabama, Part II. For 2014, it is what it is; and that could very well be an SEC East team stealing the title. We'll table this debate for later when talking about the Big XII's shortcomings. 

The image [on the left] shows what the rankings would look like strictly based on win percentage, if the games finish they way I have predicted. Second disclaimer: they never do. The tiebreaker I used for differentiating same-record schools was a general perception of conference strength the committee has hinted at, through the first few weeks of rankings: SEC > Pac-12 > Big XII > ACC > Big Ten.

If Georgia somehow runs the table and creates this scenario, look at spots 3 through 6. What will the selection group value the most? If it is wins, then the nod goes to Ohio State. If it is the conference champion from the strongest conference, then it is clearly Georgia. But my sixth sense is telling me they will shut out both the Big Ten and the SEC; settling on a combination of record and conference strength. Enter the Baylor/TCU dilemma.


For starters, what does Baylor have to do to pass TCU when their records are equal and Baylor (oh, by the way) beat them? But the bigger issue I am bringing to the table pertains to their conference's lack of championship game. Every other power five champion has one additional game, like the "prove it" shot in a game of P-I-G. The Big XII participants are allowed to turn their homework into the selection committee, foregoing a final exam. 


That's fine with me. It works for the smallest conference in the country (10 teams), but they can't possibly earn an "A" if that continues to be their willing choice. Their regular-season records are permitted to hold up as good enough to compare with other resumes. If that's acceptable for the NCAA, all others should be graded by the same common denominator: their first 12 games only. 

The better solution would have been to require the institution of unilateral conference championships before this four-team playoff was enacted. They rushed to put the cart (bracket) out in front of the horse (Big XII realignment and championship). Blame Congress' desire to appease the masses. 
A more stable realignment is what lawmakers should have been working towards. Political proposals: glamorous exterior comes first, infrastructure later. The playoff was built on a cracked foundation; one that will show if the Big XII gets two teams into the playoffs. Here's my take on what needed to happen before we ever got our long-awaited four-team bracket: 


Big XII

North
Iowa State
Kansas
Kansas State
Oklahoma
Oklahoma State
Tulsa (formerly AAC)

South

Baylor
Houston (formerly AAC)
SMU (formerly AAC)
TCU
Texas
Texas Tech

American Athletic Conference
North
Cincinnati
Connecticut
Massachusetts (formerly MAC)
Navy (formerly Independent)
Temple 
West Virginia (formerly Big XII)

South

East Carolina
Marshall (formerly Conference USA)
Memphis
South Florida
Tulane
UCF

What you get out of this alignment is a more robust, and geographically- balanced, 12-team Big XII Conference. Not to mention, you get yourself a pretty darn good AAC out of it. You might even have a power six conferences. If this was "simply" assembled before the selection committee was created, we would never have a Baylor/TCU dilemma on our hands. The mediocre conference would never be able to get two teams into the four-team playoff. 


Baylor and TCU would likely be members of the same division, with only one allowed to advance to the Big XII Championship Game. If they finish with the same record, as many predict, the tiebreaker would be the October 11th head-to-head victory by Baylor. If it is good enough to stand for a conference tiebreaker, it has to start meaning something in the College Playoff Rankings. Let's say that the two were put into opposite divisions. They would still have that final game to show the world which one belongs. We all waited fifteen years for something better than the BCS. What was one more year to get it all set up correctly?


The Big XII is the only conference that boasts a full round-robin schedule. Whereas Ohio State can dodge a good Wisconsin team thanks to Mr. Schedule Maker, all Big XII schools must play each other every season. I will grant them that on the "pros" side of the ledger. They immediately lose me, though, when they drop the tagline "One True Champion" in all marketing. 


It is silly for the Big Ten to have fourteen teams, but it is something much worse when the Big XII has but ten. Both shouldn't teach small children how to count, but only one of them elates sympathy for sounding pathetically small; unable to fend off the pillaging of superconferences in the last four years. Their major acquisition: a school that is a thousand miles from the heart of the conference. If they want to be a part of something big — this protected class known as the power five — then the Big XII needs to go assert that power. Go get enough teams to have (2) six-team divsions and a championship game.


This segues nicely into the topic of division vs. division conference championship games from earlier. These games should pit the top two ranked teams against each other, even if they are in the same division. The Big XII and the ACC have already lobbied the NCAA for deregulation of this two-division mandate. After Alabama is denied a shot to play in the SEC Championship this year, Nick Saban will be leading the charge for that conference, too. Championship games have now become the National Quarterfinals, so they require more importance put on them. Going with West vs. East or North vs. South doesn't always paint an accurate picture, i.e. your 2014 SEC Champion Georgia Bulldogs.



The Big XII is what has college football stuck in a grey area; one foot is all-in with the playoff format, while the current rankings reflect a logic-defying BCS-era list. How can TCU be six spots ahead of a conference opponent that beat them?

The next ranking [left] is amended from the earlier iteration. It is the perfect storm for all those SEC haters out there. This is the way the Big XII gets two and the SEC gets nothing. The committee is in the business of reporting the rules as they currently exist. While they might not like the fact that TCU and Baylor don't have to play each other (or another Big XII team) in a championship game, it is not their task to penalize them. 


It is my educated opinion that  should the SEC schools subvert each other's chances  the committee would put both Big XII teams in. TCU would earn the 3 seed over its conference mate. Ultimately, the committee will overlook the three-point loss to Baylor, because the Horned Frogs' non-conference schedule was drastically more challenging than the Bears (dead last in FBS). Committee chair, Jeff Long, has also stated that head-to-head results will only be used in instances where the "body of work" is tied. 


If both schools win out, the preliminary rankings have shown this tiebreaker won't be needed; Baylor is (and will be) a step behind in their minds. But how far behind? If Georgia is somehow the SEC Champion  and Arizona State can't pull the upset over Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game  then the committee will put Baylor in. They will be the best one-loss team not yet in the playoff. 


The troubling side effect of Baylor's inclusion is a message to athletic directors to go schedule more FCS schools to stay undefeated longer. In reality, the committee should use their pedestal to address big issues and force change. Schedule tougher non-conference opponents and tell the Big XII brass to look into acquiring two more football members while they're at it. Of course, this committee won't get that political this early; no way they send a message like that. It is far easier to take both and avoid the controversy of having to choose.


This will be a tough pill for Ohio State to swallow. They get knocked for a weak schedule all the time, but Baylor probably will get a pass for theirs. It means the Buckeyes will be nothing more than the answer to a future trivia question: Who was the first team left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff? The loss to Virginia Tech is just too unforgivable, given the fact that they couldn't go out and change the rest of their season  making it more difficult. 


In the past, there would be no way to offset the bad. A computer would never be able to value the growth of J.T. Barrett nor how this team is practically night and day from that second week. Unfortunately, I feel that an 11-game win streak will only be good enough for fifth place and a spot in the New Year's SixNew rules and a human element, so maybe they have a better chance than I predict.    


If the committee's final rankings do play out as laid out in the chart [above], I would like to see spots 4, 5, and 6 invert. Any two-loss SEC team is better than the 12-1 Ohio State Buckeyes and the 11-1 Baylor Bears; even if that team lost to underwhelming South Carolina and Florida. Both of those combined losses are "better" than losing just once to either Virginia Tech or West Virginia. Or — spun another way  beating Clemson, Troy, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Auburn, Charleston Southern, Georgia Tech, and Ole Miss is more than the others can say. 

In a year where many fans would pay good money to see four SEC teams in the playoffs, it would be unspeakable to have zero representatives. Sadly, I don't think this committee has the right type of bright minds to prevent that outcome. If the future games end up as I have predicted, I promise they would go with two Big XII teams. The committee won't be able to pace itself when trying to undo the decades of built-up SEC bias. The pendulum will swing too far to the other extreme, shutting out the best conference in the country. No more 2007 LSU Tigers on their watch.  


As a sad reflection on our society, the decisions of this 13-member selection committee have become more important to Americans than that of the Supreme Court. If they would simply ask me, I think we would get it right for cheaper. If the remaining schedules play out as predicted (they won't), here's how I would arrange the top teams: 1) Florida State, 2) Oregon, 3) TCU, 4) Georgia, 5) Baylor, 6) Ohio State, 7) Arizona State, and 8) Mississippi.  


Funny thing is, I could see this hypothetical miracle run of the Georgia Bulldogs continuing through the playoffs. Decades of this College Football Playoff are going to prove that there is nothing scarier than a two-loss, four-seed SEC team. It would be a shame if, in year one, they never even get the chance. 


Georgia survived one "Elimination Saturday" (at Missouri) and laid an egg on another (home to Florida). It would be ironic — and a nice way to remind overhyping sportscasters to pump the brakes on absolute labels — if Georgia came back from "elimination", through the back door of the SEC Championship, all the way to a National Championship. Who could see that one coming? Maybe one of those old BCS computers. 

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