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How to actually enjoy talking about the Playoff

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Everyone talks about it all the time, but that doesn’t have to mean it’s exhausting.

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Minnesota Golden Gophers mascot Goldy Gopher Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society illustration.

For major college football’s first 144 years (or so), it didn’t have anything larger than a two-team playoff system. So it’s not surprising that when the Playoff came into existence in 2014, it quickly became the whole prism for lots of conversations about the sport.

Oh, a punchy non-power just shocked a blue-blood in Week 1? Maybe they’ll make the Playoff. (Disclaimer: they will not.)

Oh, Ohio State lost their annual game? Their season is a waste, because now they will not make the Playoff. (Disclaimer: we’ll find out on Selection Sunday.)

Oh, a typically mediocre team is having its best season since World War II? Cool, but what about the Playoff? (Disclaimer: the internet will tell you they haven’t played anybody.)

People have understandably gotten annoyed. Here’s a good example of why, from Allen Kenney at Oklahoma blog Crimson and Cream Machine:

Some of the best stories in college football history have played out outside the national championship race. Take Northwestern’s 1995 run to the Rose Bowl, for instance. Today, it would spawn innumerable segments on ‘College Football Live’ discussing the Wildcats’ worthiness of a spot in the playoff with a loss to Miami (Ohio) on their resume. Countless callers would be dialing up the ‘Paul Finebaum Show’ to moan about the strength of NU’s conference schedule. Columnists would be asking if the rise of a non-name brand was bad for the Big Ten’s playoff hopes.

This is, indeed, exactly what would happen if any of the great Cinderella stories from college football’s long history were unfolding during the Playoff era.

I’m here to offer a path to letting the Playoff enhance your enjoyment of the sport’s unpredictable nature, rather than hinder it. This guide comes from personal experience; it’s how I’ve come to enjoy every season as the Playoff has gotten older.

1. Remind yourself the Playoff has made the postseason more fun. Look forward to better subplots at the end of the year.

Think about how much lamer postseasons since 2014 would’ve been if we’d still been operating under the BCS:

  • In 2014, say hello to probably yet another Bama title, this time over FSU. Say goodbye to the legend of Cardale Jones and also to this all-time college football moment:
  • In 2015, sure, it would’ve been fine to skip right to Bama-Clemson.
  • In 2016, the title game would’ve been Bama destroying Ohio State, not Clemson beating Bama in an all-time classic that set up another rematch the following year.
  • In 2017, the classic Rose Bowl semifinal between Oklahoma and Georgia wouldn’t have happened. The hideous title game would’ve been Georgia against an overmatched Clemson. We would’ve missed Tua Tagovailoa replacing Jalen Hurts at halftime in the title game, setting up a historic comeback and setting the stage for the next couple of seasons.
  • In 2018, we’d have eventually had Clemson beating Bama, but we’d have missed some key things. Kyler Murray never would’ve challenged Bama’s defense in the semifinals, and we wouldn’t have gotten to watch Notre Dame lose. In fact, Notre Dame fans would have loudly argued for years about their exclusion. Do you want that? I do not want that.

Much more often than not, the Playoff has enriched the postseason. But that’s not all. It’s also enriched the rest of the season for you if you’ve let it.

2. Let your imagination wrap you up in ways it never could before.

The BCS’ computers were more predictable than the people on the Playoff selection committee, and those computers got to pick a field half as big as the current one. Now, your brain can run wild devising scenarios that might melt the season.

In 2014, you could’ve sat in your living room on Halloween and figured out that 6-1 Duke, ranked 24th by the committee, had a path to the Playoff.

You never could’ve done that with the 24th-ranked team on Halloween under the BCS, and certainly not when AP Poll voters just gathered ‘round to anoint the champion.

Is some non-blue-blood actually going to win the national title? No. Everyone knows this. But a couple of interlopers, 2015 Michigan State, 2016 Washington, have already made the field as the #3 and #4 seeds. (Do not ask what happened to them next.) Having four teams in the field affords a lot more chances. We call these dream seasons for a reason.

3. Learn a little committee-speak, and you can start to see the logic behind their terribly explained decisions, which become even funnier with context.

The BCS’ computers were endlessly tweaked, because the public was never entirely happy with what they spat out. The BCS provided a handful of surprises, like the time 2006 Florida leapfrogged Michigan to get into the title game.

But the formulas of that era did not lend themselves to chaos. Teams weren’t moving tons of spots without clear reasons (like someone losing, as that Michigan team did in one of the century’s many GAMES OF THE CENTURY to 2006 Ohio State).

For large changes to come to the rankings, berserk things had to happen on the field. The best example might be 2007, when heading into the last week of the regular season, the title game matchup was a done deal unless the top two teams messed up. Well, about that.

Where it gets fun under the Playoff system is that humans, not computers, pick the field. Have you met humans? We’re idiots. We change our opinions all the time. We make our decisions with ideological consistency, except when we don’t.

Would 2014 TCU have slipped behind Ohio State in the nick of time in the BCS? Well, it wouldn’t have mattered, because neither would’ve made the top two, but the point is figuring out the committee’s actions is hard. Members’ public explanations often don’t help.

For example, the executive director of the Playoff couldn’t describe the Ohio State-over-TCU (and Baylor) decision clearly, even when asked years later:

‘The committee doesn’t just say, “Well, here’s where they were the week before, they won so they move up.” That’s the old poll mentality,’ Hancock said. ‘The committee has a different mentality about it. Ohio State’s résumé improved. Baylor’s résumé improved with a victory over a good K-State team. And TCU had the misfortune of playing a team that would finish 2-10 on the last weekend. It helped people understand it’s a new day.’

So, TCU got boxed out because its schedule had a bad team in the last week? If you were just listening to the committee talk, then yeah, you’d think so!

But that final weekend in 2014 changed a lot of full-season math, making TCU look worse compared to other one-loss teams. A Baylor win against Kansas State (whom TCU had already played) cut into the Frogs’ strength of schedule edge and made TCU’s win over K-State look mildly less impressive. Meanwhile, Ohio State dominated Wisconsin, helping both its numbers and its performance in what’s often called “the eye test.”

Put another way: the committee made a reasonable decision that someone could’ve predicted. But the Playoff people made the situation worse by trying to explain themselves.

Over the years, clear themes have emerged in how the committee picks teams. If you want to become a Playoff-ologist, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to pick the top four accurately. After feeling creative earlier in the year, you can feel smart on Selection Sunday.

If you can’t figure it out, you can fairly point out that the committee’s occasionally just thrown up its hands and done what it wanted, or that you really can’t trust anything that comes out of the mouth of the committee’s public frontman. Or, if you’re on an Ohio State message board, you can just claim some decision is the result of an ESPN plot.

Either you’re a genius, or you’re able to publicly roast the grifters in suits. You win either way, much like Alabama any time the committee deliberates on rankings.

4. Discussing the Playoff race does not mean you have to ignore the wonderful stories of the teams that are in it.

In 2018, the chattering class spent most of the season telling anyone there were only two worthy Playoff teams. Nothing else mattered. Yeah, Bama and Clemson were way better than everybody else, as they (and particularly Clemson) showed.

But those people were missing a nice forest and only seeing the two tallest trees. There was nothing stopping anyone from getting pleasure out of the unusually great seasons at Army, Syracuse, Washington State, Northwestern, or, hell, Buffalo! Kentucky was in the football title race until losing to Georgia in Week 10, when CBS visited Lexington. If you wanted to find the fun, you didn’t have to look that hard.

In 2019, Minnesota started 8-0. The Gophers hadn’t done that since a few weeks before Pearl Harbor. A lot of people only wanted to discuss how the Gophers had gotten that far by playing bad teams and backup QBs — something that hurt their Playoff resume for sure, but didn’t mean you couldn’t celebrate them being unbeaten and high atop the Big Ten West.

If you only cared about the Playoff, the mention of Minnesota would prompt you to punch holes in their resume rather than appreciate a historically good season at the same time. The committee was skeptical, too. The Gophers were 17th in the year’s first Playoff ranking.

Then they beat #4 Penn State in their biggest game in generations. It was awesome. And it made a Playoff berth an honest-to-goodness possibility, which was exciting too.

For Minnesota fans, that was never the only goal. In 2017, right after the school hired P.J. Fleck, I interviewed him for the better part of an hour. He talked about how excited fans were when he spoke with them. What, exactly, were those fans thinking about?

I think one of the best lines they tell me is just, ‘Coach, just win a Rose Bowl before I die.’ I tell ‘em, ‘Well, how old are ya? How healthy are you?’

After Minnesota beat Penn State, our bowl projections put the Gophers in the Rose Bowl. The fans we heard from weren’t mad they weren’t slotted in the Playoff. They were elated to be theoretically ticketed for Pasadena.

If fans of a team at the center of so much Playoff hollering can keep their eye on a ball that isn’t the Playoff, you can, too.

5. We like to daydream that college football used to be blissful and uncomplicated, before realignment and the Playoff made it a corporate boondoggle in which everybody argues about everything. Nope!

The Playoff (and the broader business-ization of basically everything about the sport, including realignment) has changed a lot of things. Endless arguing is not among them.

College football fans have been arguing about championships since the 1870s. People found ways to enjoy the sport while the entire basis for a championship was sportswriters, team PR people, computers, and historians deciding who was #1, then arguing about which of those groups had ultimate authority. College football was great even when a season gave us multiple legit champs, which we argued about all throughout the next season.

No American sport is so big and messy as this one, and somehow, things have never been this tame.

Argumentation about who really deserves top billing is an eternal feature of the sport. It was a huge story when a team tried to just up and claim 2017’s title, but there are dozens of scantly supported title claims, and there could be more if schools weren’t so shy nowadays.

When the BCS brought about a two-team playoff, the #3 and #4 teams frequently had beef, too. (So did the AP Poll, which got mad at the BCS and forced the system to stop using its ranking in its formula.)

In 1969, the president (of the country, not any particular school) decided the champ. Many yelled about it.

Remember that 1995 Northwestern team that played three years before the BCS even existed? A New York Times writer bemoaned that “before the unholy bowl alliance took all the romance out of college football,” he could’ve figured out a national championship path for the Wildcats. He was mad the #3 Cats were being directed into a bowl where they’d play #17 USC instead of being sent to a de-facto title game.

We’re not at a unique point in history. We’re not even at the last point on this timeline. When the Playoff grows larger than four teams, history shows any amount of participants will still leave furious schools on the outside. (And then someone will become wistful for the tranquility of the four-team era.)

A cool thing about this sport is that success remains in the eye of the beholder. The Playoff only changes the standard if you let it.

Do you root for Alabama or Oklahoma? A championship is still the thing you’re worried about, just like it was throughout the 20th century. The only thing that’s different is you’re hoping for one of four slots.

But maybe you don’t root for one of those teams. Maybe you root for Army or Navy, and the success of your season comes down to beating the other. Maybe you root for Marshall, and you’d really like to win Conference USA and make a decent bowl. Maybe you root for Rutgers, and you’d just like your conference to stop whaling on you all the time.

Hey, maybe you root for a team that plays at a much more fun level and just want to explain to your FBS compatriots that big tournaments give each weekend great drama.

The Playoff can be a firm goal, a bonus, or something you don’t worry much about. Just like at any other point in this sport’s history, you’re allowed to choose your own adventure.