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Big 12 must consider fragility of College Football Playoff bids

As the Big 12 ponders expansion this summer, improving its chances of making the College Football Playoff every year has become a real thirst.

The playoff has indeed been a driving force in the Big 12’s self-evaluation over the past two years, ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich reported earlier this month. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has acknowledged that playoff hopes are an “important component” in these discussions. So he sought data.

That data, prepared by Navigate Research and presented to athletic directors and coaches on May 4, estimated the Big 12’s odds of making the playoff in any given year are 62 percent. According to Navigate, changes the Big 12 makes going forward could mathematically help its chances.

Adding a conference title game could push those odds to 66 percent, per the firm’s calculations. Going to 12 teams might make it 73 percent. Going with 12 teams and eight conference games -- a return to the Big 12's past format -- could put the playoff odds at 75 percent.

It’s easy to see why administrators could become enamored with those numbers. Keep in mind, though, that Navigate ran 40,000 simulations of an event that has only a two-year history. And that event is completely controlled by two things: subjective humans and unpredictable outcomes.

So let’s consider the fragility of a playoff bid.

It’s difficult for any data model to project the College Football Playoff decisions of 13 voters who each value different sets of criteria. Their reasoning, preferences and experiences vary. The people sitting in those 13 seats will change frequently over the coming years, too.

And as the first two seasons of the College Football Playoff era have reminded us, a team being deemed in or out can hinge on as little as one player or one play. Some of the little things that swung the inaugural playoff:

  • Ohio State moved from No. 5 to No. 4 in the final poll thanks to an unbelievable first career start from a third-string QB in a 59-0 Big Ten title game win over No. 13 Wisconsin. The fact Cardale Jones proved he could lead the Buckeyes, plus the margin of victory, put Ohio State over the top. Had he struggled, win or lose, might the Buckeyes have been left out?

  • Florida State deserved a spot as a 13-0 team, but that team was barely 13-0. The Seminoles won seven games by six points or fewer, including their final four leading up to the playoff by margins of four, three, five and two points. It’s not unfair to speculate FSU was a mistake or two away from being left out.

  • Don't forget Mississippi State was No. 4 in the CFP polls at 10-1 and certainly could’ve stayed in with a win over Ole Miss. The Bulldogs were in the playoff all the way until the Dec. 2 poll.

  • Of course, Ole Miss’ own playoff hopes were dashed in an instant by the devastating goal-line fumble against Auburn that ended a loss and Laquon Treadwell’s season. The Rebels were the No. 4 seed at the time.

  • TCU was essentially punished for playing 2-9 Iowa State on the conference title game weekend. That was an unlucky draw in the Big 12 schedule, one the league can try to prevent in future years. Baylor, meanwhile, got an extremely favorable Dec. 6 home matchup: No. 9 Kansas State. That helped the Bears jump TCU, but not Ohio State.

Those developments all shaped the first edition of the playoff. The committee and their process – how they judged victories, how they punished losses – was brand new. In year two they faced similar curveballs throughout the season. Any of these potential twists would’ve shaken up last season's standings:

  • If Notre Dame had defeated No. 9 Stanford on the road, the Irish might've been a CFP lock. They did lead 36-35 with 30 seconds left. An 11-1 Notre Dame team whose only loss was to No. 1 Clemson is probably not getting left out.

  • Stanford was one red zone fumble vs. Oregon away from its own legitimate claim for a CFP spot. That fumble -- from the Ducks' 14-yard line with 2:06 left -- was the difference in a 38-36 loss that sent them to an 11-2 finish. A 12-1 Pac-12 champ would’ve had just as fair a shot of getting in as Oklahoma or Michigan State.

  • Oklahoma's CFP bid could've been lost on a two-point conversion attempt. Who knows what happens if TCU coach Gary Patterson decides to go to overtime? We do know the Frogs had a receiver open for the game-winner before Steven Parker's deflection saved the day.

The “what if” game can go on and on. Yes, all of this is anecdotal. But that’s the point. It's real, more so than 40,000 computer simulations of what might happen to the Big 12 in the years to come.

Making big changes to chase a playoff bid is an understandable endeavor. But as Bowlsby wisely said a year ago, one year doesn’t make a trend. In this wildly unpredictable College Football Playoff system, neither does two.