College football still peddling fractional “tournament”

The road to a college football championship makes for a busy December. Some are busy playing games; others are busy talking.

Officials from the NCAA’s Division I playoff selection committee spent a good part of this month on the latter, assuring the sports world that the right teams have advanced to the Final Four.

In Division I, “advancing” to the Final Four involves doing absolutely nothing, apart from celebrating when the invitation arrives. Under the present playoff system that Division I tries to pass off as legit, a group of people acting as ad hoc scoreboards makes all the decisions about who’s better than whom.

Those who questioned the flighty nature of this system surely had their fears quelled by playoff committee chair Kirby Hocutt.

“Our charge,’’ he said going in, “is very simple: to come in and select the four very best teams for selection into the semifinals for the playoff, and that’s what we’ll do.”

How reassuring to have a committee so learned and prescient.

Meanwhile, the road to the Final Four in the less-evolved divisions of college football was decided on the field.

Champions emerged from the 28-team playoff field in Division 2, the 32-team lot in Division 3 and the 16-team field in the NAIA playoffs.

These longer and more inclusive college football tournaments managed to surmount the traditional copouts put forth by Division I: the season would become too long for the athletes – sorry, I mean “student-athletes” – or that time constraints make a larger playoff field untenable.

The lower divisions don’t stop playing games in November and pick up the season a month later, as does Division I football (and no other league or association anywhere). What a concept.

Most of the controversy in the wake of the announcement of the four-team playoff field centered on Big Ten champion Ohio State, which wasn’t picked, and Southeast Conference runner-up Alabama, which was.

Ultimately it was decided that Ohio State’s 55-24 loss to Iowa was too one-sided for a prospective heir to a playoff seat. Oklahoma, Clemson, Georgia and Alabama will vie for the title this time around.

Ohio State’s big loss to a 7-5 team was judged to be worse than losing by a little to a 4-8 squad, which is what happened to Clemson, and worse than Georgia’s 41-17 loss to Auburn.

Auburn, the only team with wins over two of the Final Four teams, will play Central Florida, the only unbeaten team in the lot, in a meaningless non-conference bowl game.

Then there’s Wisconsin. The Badgers went 12-0 before losing the Big Ten championship game to Ohio State, 27-21. For their efforts, they get to play a bowl game against Miami – in the Orange Bowl. An inconsequential road game is what Wisconsin has to show for a remarkable season.

Deserved or not, there is a bias favoring the good Southeast Conference teams over the good Big Ten teams. When Ohio State won the four-team tournament in 2015, its semifinal win was over 9½-point favorite Alabama. All of the smart ones knew that the Crimson Tide was better that year, until they played the game.

Upsets happen in college football, like when small-fry Boise State stunned Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. You never know how a game is going to go until it’s played, and it’s never clear which conferences are the strongest until the season ends. The meaningful non-conference games are played at the start of the season.

A loss in September will come back to bite you in December. So, the unfortunate lesson to take away from another year of a four-team playoff is this: Don’t ever lose. It’s smarter to forgo any competitive non-conference matchups and schedule cupcakes instead.

Alabama understands this. The Crimson Tide’s non-conference schedule next year includes home games with Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and The Citadel.

Not exactly giving it the old college try, maybe. But it’s a fitting, half-done approach to winning a half-done playoff.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at