Wojo: CFP committee gives UM shot, sends message

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh shows his displeasure with a personal foul call against the Wolverines that nullified a big gain by RB De'Veon Smith late in the third quarter.

Michigan has a legitimate shot, that much now is clear. And I hate to tell you, but whether it’s a deserved shot, an earned shot or a long shot, it doesn’t matter. The college football playoff committee is making a statement, and if you don’t want to hear it, well, turn the channel.

If No. 4 Washington loses to Colorado Friday night, it sure looks like No. 5 Michigan (10-2) will get into the four-team playoff. That’s not definite, and if No. 6 Wisconsin (10-2) or No. 7 Penn State (10-2) pounds the other in the Big Ten championship game, one of them could jump in. That’s not definite, but if No. 3 Clemson also loses to Virginia Tech, maybe three Big Ten teams could jump in. (Pause for unrelenting howls of protest).

That’s far from definite, but it perfectly defines the point. The committee is done trying to assign orderly rules to the most chaotic sport in America. Chairman Kirby Hocutt is using one designation to set the field – “the four very best teams” – and removing all logistical barriers. This is a variation from the past, when conference champions were weighted higher.

So No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Ohio State are in, and Clemson and Washington are in if they win. But if Washington slips up Friday night as a seven-point favorite, the arguments will rage, especially because Michigan beat Colorado 45-28 earlier. Hocutt paved a semi-clear path for Michigan when he said the separation with Washington is “very, very small.” Anyone who watched the Wolverines lose in double overtime to the Buckeyes knows that difference is small too.

Two teams – Ohio State and Michigan – that didn’t win their conference or even their division could make it and nudge closer to an epic rematch, pitting a no-longer bitterly disappointed Jim Harbaugh against Urban Meyer. Historically, it doesn’t make sense. Logically and competitively, it might.

Ranking the criteria

It’s impossible to rank the criteria in a sport with unbalanced divisions in dissimilar conferences, but many want to pretend there are simple solutions. Hey, make it an eight-team playoff! Hey, make it a 16-team playoff! (No and no). Some omitted team will always have a complaint. But every team from a Power 5 conference that’s been left out had at least one loss, so it controlled its own fate.

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In the absence of stringent rules, fans wants to make up their own criteria. You can’t do it, not without looking silly.

Oh, only conference champions should get in? OK, so if 8-3 Florida stuns 12-0 Alabama in the SEC title game, the Gators are in and the Crimson Tide is out? The previous 12 games don’t count? And if 9-3 Virginia Tech beats 11-1 Clemson, the Hokies are automatically in? Oh please.

Wait, if you’re undefeated, you get in no matter what, right? Listen, everyone loves the story of 12-0 Western Michigan, and the Broncos deserve a spot in the Cotton Bowl if they win the MAC title game against Ohio Friday night at Ford Field. But let’s not suggest they’re on the same level as Alabama, Ohio State, etc.

This is not an issue of fairness – the committee has more tangible principles to follow. The playoffs last year were a TV ratings disaster, and with billions at stake in ESPN’s current deal, there’s no room for a cute interloper who would get crushed by Alabama. Yes, the ratings were hindered by playing the semifinals on New Year’s Eve, but that’s the date again this year. And of course Michigan State deserved its spot, despite the 38-0 loss to Alabama. The Spartans were 12-1 and beat every top opponent.

You can’t say the same about Wisconsin and Penn State. Now here comes the refrain: So Ohio State and Michigan get to sit at home munching popcorn, and both still might get in despite watching Wisconsin and Penn State settle it on the field?

“Settle it on the field,” another favorite phrase. A fine measure, all things being fairly equal. On the field, Ohio State beat Wisconsin and lost to Penn State in close games. On the field, Michigan beat Wisconsin 14-7 and crushed Penn State 49-10. If the decision comes down to the Wolverines and Nittany Lions, will everyone just pretend that game never happened?

Uneven divisions

Some conferences are split into uneven divisions, lessening the chance of matching the two best teams in the title game. I actually have a solution for that – get rid of all divisions and just have regular standings, 1-through-14 in the Big Ten. The top two play in the championship game. Better yet, get rid of the conference championship games, which are either irrelevant (Alabama-Florida) or already non-existent (Big 12).

But the games make money so the committee has to act like they matter, and the Pac-12 title game matters greatly to Washington. I doubt Colorado (10-2) can reach the playoff, but it sure can repay Michigan for its infamous Hail Mary in 1994.

No one can definitively declare the four best teams but you must use all evidence, not selected evidence, not just recent evidence. Why should games in November count more than games in September? That was the old system, when polls decided everything, and didn’t we agree it was kind of dumb?

Based on performance against the top teams on its schedule, Michigan has a playoff-worthy resume. It’s the only team that’s 3-1 against the top eight, and its two overall losses came by a combined four points at Iowa and Ohio State.

Could the Wolverines have taken care of business by hanging on instead of falling to the Buckeyes 30-27 in a controversial double overtime? Sure they could have. But does a game decided by inches on the next-to-last play destroy your credentials? It shouldn’t.

The simple truth is, it’ll never be simple or completely fair and objective. Impossible, unless you have a 128-team playoff (shut up). Washington played a horrible non-conference schedule, take that into account. Michigan played eight home games, take that into account. Penn State was injured when it lost to Michigan, take that into account. Michigan’s Wilton Speight was injured against Iowa and slowed against Ohio State, take that into account.

Take it all in, breathe deeply, and acknowledge there’s no perfect formula, not even close. If Washington and Clemson win, it’s pretty much set. If one of them loses, Michigan’s long shot becomes a decent shot, and the closer you examine it, the more you understand why.