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The Playoff Has a Blowout Problem

By Jim Johnson
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At this point, it’s an anomaly when the CFP Semifinals are even worth watching past the third quarter.

One of the predominant themes on my Twitter timeline today was a bunch of people who were wrong, but don’t want to admit they were wrong, saying that the result of the College Football Playoff Semifinal between Clemson and Notre Dame, in the Cotton Bowl, should not be a referendum on the playoff committee, selection process, or selections themselves.

If Clemson’s 30-6 beatdown of the Irish were an aberration, that would be probably be true. It’s not.

It’s a trend. At this point, it’s an anomaly when the CFP Semifinals are even worth watching past the third quarter.

When the clock hit zeroes on Notre Dame’s misleading season, the nine final four contests to date had resulted in two shutouts, and seven games decided by 3+ scores. That’s a joke.

Not only is the playoff committee now annually robbing better teams of a shot at the National Championship, they’re robbing fans of a quality viewing experience. Granted, the job of the committee is not to try to create the best viewing experience, but they aren’t doing their job anyway. They would probably be better off doing that than whatever it is they’ve been doing.

They have, arguably, yet to accomplish their stated goal of selecting the four best teams, as opposed the four most deserving. The problem is, when their own self-established responsibility is to identify the four best teams, thos four teams are the most deserving. That’s the criteria, at least publicly.

In 2014, everyone knew Florida State was fraudulent. They were ranked 12th in ESPN’s FPI after the conference championship games, and finished the season 11th in FEI and 17th in S&P+. But they went undefeated through the regular season and won the ACC championship. Then, as anticipated, they lost by almost 40 points to Oregon while an obviously better TCU team sat at home just because the Big 12 didn’t have a stupid conference championship game, and then bludgeoned Ole Miss 42-3 a couple of days later in the Peach Bowl.

In 2015, Michigan State had negative win expectancies against both Nebraska and Michigan, and was played to within a score by the likes of Iowa, Purdue, and Rutgers (avg. S&P+ ranking of 79th), yet lost only one of those games and went on to win the Big Ten. Even though they finished the season ranked 8th, 14th, and 18th, respectively in FEI, S&P+, and FPI, it was enough to earn a playoff bid, despite clearly not being among the four best teams. They were shut out by Alabama, 38-0, while Ohio State, whose only loss came in a toss-up game with the aforementioned Spartans, was left out despite ranking in the top four of each of the above metrics. The clearly better Buckeyes would go on to dismantle Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Man, one game sample sizes are stupid… even head-to-head. So often the better team doesn’t win, and sometimes the better team that day doesn’t even win. Surely the committee would learn from this.

Sort of. At least by now they had so bastardized the original intent of their process that the subsequent two years worth of selections could be construed as acceptable. Washington probably wasn’t one of the four best teams in 2016, nor Oklahoma in 2017, but both were close enough that, by their own protocol, it was justifiable.

I’m not mad at Notre Dame. I wasn’t mad at FSU or Michigan State, either. It’s not their fault. They played their respective schedules, were decidedly not one of the four best teams in those respective seasons, and got boat raced, as anticipated. They did their job to the best of their ability. They shouldn’t have been there in the first place. That’s on the committee.

All of those people on that don’t want acknowledge that this game is, in fact, a referendum on the selection process are failing to concede that the selection process was supposed to have changed under this system. We don’t have to just superficially look at records anymore. We can, as a college football community, be better than that, smarter than that.

If everyone hated the BCS so much, then why do we still care about records? I’m not campaigning for a 6-6 team. One of the four best teams wouldn’t lose more than a couple, but one or two losses, sure. Records are not created equal, and, even against identical schedules, they can be misleading. It’s not about who you play, or the results, it’s about how you play. Or at least it should be.

Clemson didn’t play as tough a schedule as Notre Dame, but they dominated almost everyone that crossed their path. That’s often more telling than simply winning or losing.

It’s very simple. Like it or not, if you thought Georgia was better than Notre Dame, then you agreed with me. You might have thought Notre Dame was more deserving, but that's not the criteria.

If the process doesn’t change, these unbalanced semifinals won’t change either. That’s a problem.

As currently constituted, the committee is being intellectually dishonest. Do what you say, or publicly change the criteria to what you’re actually doing.

This is not the biggest takeaway from the night. This isn’t meant to diminish Clemson’s performance. These Tigers are probably an even better team than the one that took home the national title in 2016. It might be one of the four or five best teams of the past decade. That should, and hopefully will be the prevailing storyline from this game.

However, if we don’t simultaneously acknowledge that this is indicative of a systematic failure, we’re doomed to continue suffering through beatdowns like this for years to come.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP