Chaos and the College Football Playoff Are Constant Companions

Chaos can be spectacular. And sublime. It is responsible for the solar system and for George Clinton’s entire look. Chaos reminds us that entropy, a tendency toward disorder, is the natural state of things. Chaos mocks the hubris of man and, hopefully, occasionally humbles him.

Chaos has once more infiltrated a college football season in November to the chagrin of many and the delight of we few. Alabama, the only undefeated team among the Power 5 conferences, is No. 1, but what then? The conundrums are manifold.

Many observers believe that USC, which has three losses and opened the season by falling 52-6 to the Crimson Tide, has evolved into one of the nation’s top four teams. In the Big Ten, the race to the December 3 conference championship game in Indianapolis resembles a blizzard-addled pileup on Interstate 80 as four schools vie for a berth. Meanwhile a fifth, Ohio State, could glide past the wreckage in the HOV lane, and qualify for the four-team playoff. Pittsburgh (7-4) is likely to be the only school other than the eventual national champion that will be able to claim it defeated two of the playoff teams (Clemson and Penn State), but the Panthers have no shot at a playoff berth. And Oklahoma State would be 10-1 and have a compelling argument had the Cowboys not lost to Central Michigan on a Hail Mary play that (1) began with no time on the clock, and (2) should by rule never have occurred because the officials misinterpreted a fourth-down intentional grounding call on what should have been the game’s final play.

RTX2TCZ5 Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide are the closest thing to a sure thing this season. USA TODAY SPORTS

Isn’t it magical? The first rule of college football playoff is that there are no rules. ESPN’s Rece Davis, who each Tuesday night serves as the anchor above the rancor when the selection committee updates its rankings, is fond of stating that the mandate is to find “the four best teams in the country.” An estimable quest, that. However, just as the Heisman Trophy ostensibly recognizes the nation’s “most outstanding football player” but almost without fail limits its scope to quarterbacks and running backs, the quest to find the four best teams is subject to arbitrary metrics.

The playoff selection committee’s web site stipulates the following: “The selection committee ranks the teams based on conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, comparison of results against common opponents and other factors.” Such a statement is virtually absent of meaning. The phrase “and other factors” is deliberately opaque and as for the stated factors, there is no hierarchy of value. The statement is classic CYA (cover your ass), perhaps because it would appear hubristic for a 12-member committee to put in writing, “The selection committee ranks the teams based on however the hell we feel like ranking them.”

The most delicious quandary for those courting chaos resides in the Big Ten, a conference that has 14 members (See? Chaos is everywhere). Ohio State is ranked second in the nation but in its own division, the Big Ten East, the Buckeyes are only the third most likely team to advance to the Big Ten title game.

RTX2Q1JC Penn State shocked Ohio State in late October and inserted themselves into the playoff debate. USA TODAY SPORTS

To explicate: Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State are all 7-1 in conference play, but the former two are 10-1 overall, while Penn State is 9-2. The Wolverines visit the Buckeyes in Columbus on Saturday, while the Nittany Lions host 3-8 Michigan State. Assume Penn State wins. If Michigan were to beat Ohio State, the Wolverines would advance because both they and Penn State would be 8-1 but Michigan beat the Nittany Lions. If Ohio State wins, Penn State would advance because even though the Buckeyes would have the superior overall record, both would be 8-1 in conference and Penn State defeated Ohio State.

The Buckeyes advance to the Big Ten championship contest only if they beat Michigan and Penn State loses at home. The East champion would play either Wisconsin or Nebraska, but most likely the Wisconsin Badgers. If they win, they’re in.

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Why does all of this Midwest muddle matter? Because Penn State could win the Big Ten and have beaten Ohio State, but the Buckeyes, who would have one fewer loss but no more victories (11-1 as opposed to Penn State’s 11-2), would likely still be preferred by the selection committee over the Nittany Lions. How come? “Other factors.”

Then, assuming that the current No. 1 and No. 3, Alabama and Clemson (last season’s finalists, by the way) win out, the committee will need to render a difficult decision. Would a 12-1 Pac-12 champion Washington, which played by far the weakest out-of-conference schedule of any contender, be deemed more worthy than Penn State for the fourth and final slot? Would the winner of this Friday’s Oklahoma State-Oklahoma game, known colloquially as Bedlam, be more appealing than the Nittany Lions? Either the Cowboys or Sooners would be 10-2 and as members of the Big 12, the lone Power 5 conference that does not yet have a conference championship game, would be somewhat handicapped as opposed to a a Big Ten or Pac-12 champ.

RTX2O0YE USC was pummeled 52-6 by Alabama in its season opener and has three losses, but no one has played better over the season's latter half. USA TODAY SPORTS

The confusion is only beginning. Most fans and observers would at this point of the season claim that Oklahoma is more worthy of a final berth than Louisville, but both teams are 9-2 with a road loss at Houston. Each team’s other defeat is to a probable playoff team: The Sooners lost by 21 at home to Ohio State while the Cardinals fell one play and six points short at Clemson. So why are the Cardinals seen as less worthy?

Then there’s Western Michigan. The Mid-American Conference contender is 11-0 and went 2-0 against Big Ten programs, Northwestern and Illinois, back in September. Hillary Clinton held her “victory” party in a ballroom that had a glass ceiling, while the Broncos have been playing beneath one all season.

No matter what transpires this Saturday and next, some purportedly inviolable law of selecting the nation’s four best teams will be transgressed. A school that won a head-to-head matchup, or another that won a conference championship, or yet another that went undefeated, will be excluded. Fans and more than a few pundits will stump for an eight-team playoff or for a less haphazard way of selecting worthy teams (“automatic berths for conference champions” is currently in vogue) as if the sport should follow Robert’s Rules of Order.

Cluttered as the picture looks right now, favorites will fall over the next two weekends, bringing some clarity. And all of these arguments, many of which will be rendered moot by the games this Saturday, are half the fun. There is simply no objective way to narrow a pool of worthy teams to four (or, for that matter, eight) and designating conference champions as more worthy is no less arbitrary (Alabama won the national championship in 2011 without winning its own division, the SEC West, and few tears were shed).

Chaos is not the obstacle. In college football, chaos is the fans’ reward. Embrace it.

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