You’re wrong about the College Football Playoff

This is the historical moment all of humanity has dreamt of: the Selection Committee has chosen four teams to compete in the first-ever College Football Playoff. Now we’re not stuck wondering whether the truly top team will have a chance to hoist some thingamajig while its fans riot, as had been our frustrating experience year upon year since shortly after galaxies coalesced. Now we’ll know, which is so important.

But you’re not satisfied. You think that the committee has omitted “deserving” teams from the candidacy for Valhalla. These teams, TCU and Baylor, being from Christian schools, have quietly taken this opportunity to better understand the martyrdom of Jesus. Yet you remain vexed. And why?

It’s because they might be better than Ohio State, which did get chosen.  I say “they” because, even though TCU and Baylor played each other and then had eight other opponents in common, nobody can say with certainty which team is better. It’s impossible to know that, so it’s even harder to know whether they could beat Ohio State, which played different teams. So perhaps, you think, we really need a six-team playoff or, better yet, one with eight teams.

That’s bad thinking. The point of the playoff is not to determine the fourth-best team in the country. The point of choosing four teams instead of two is to ensure that one special team gets into the tournament: THE BEST. There are three (okay, really two) serious candidates for this lofty title, and they are Alabama and Oregon. (To state the obvious: Florida State has to be included simply because it hasn’t lost a game, even though we all know their comeuppance will come up soon.) There’s no controversy about including Alabama or Oregon. Ergo, trusting the wisdom of the crowd, we know one of them is likely to be the champion, and the committee did its central job of including all (both) serious candidates for the championship.

There’s more: including a greater number of teams reduces the likelihood of crowning a deserving champion. Why? Because playing more rounds of a tournament means more flukes can occur: a key player gets injured or plays better than usual, a bizarre weather or traffic event throws a team off kilter, an illness makes the rounds of one locker room, and so forth. Intuitively, you know this from the example of the NCAA basketball tournament, which routinely crowns a champion that isn’t the best team. It might be more exciting, but I’ve yet to see someone advocate a football playoff that will crown a lucky team on a hot streak.

You want the best to win. Given the current setup, chances are good they will.

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