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Sorting out the controversy over who’s playing in the college football playoffs

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    College football will see its first-ever championship playoffs at the end of this season, but there’s already criticism about the new arrangement for selecting who makes it into the semifinals.

    The four top-ranked teams at the end of season made the cut. Yesterday, a selection committee, whose members include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, announced that first-ranked Alabama will play the number four seed, Ohio State. And number two, Oregon, will face third-ranked Florida State.

    Left out, TCU, which just a week ago was ranked third, but slipped because they played a week team this weekend, and Baylor. Baylor defeated Kansas State Saturday night. But its coach, Art Briles, wondered later if the new system would have rewarded him for running up the score.

  • ART BRILES, Head Football Coach, Baylor University:

    We’re on their 38-yard line. We have got an 11-point lead at home. We can take a knee or we can try to score again. And I’m looking over there. And I’m seeing coach Snyder on the other side, who I have a tremendous respect for and his football team. And I’m thinking, do I take a knee or do I try to score style points to give ourselves maybe a more convincing victory?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The playoffs begin on New Year’s Day.

    To help explain how this new system works, the anger over some of the choices, and the money connection, we turn to Mike Pesca. He is the host of Slate’s daily news and discussion podcast “The Gist.”  He’s also a contributor to NPR.

    Mike Pesca, welcome back to the program.

    So remind us, why was college football looking for a new way to end the season? What was wrong with the college bowl system?

  • MIKE PESCA, Slate’s “The Gist” podcast:

    Well, there was a couple of things wrong wit. For a number of years, there was no championship, and so writers, the AP writers would sort of get to decide who was the number one.

    Then they at least tried to pair the best two teams in a one-game playoff, a championship game. But if you pair what you subjectively think are the best two teams, quite often, the third or fourth team will have a complaint. So now they have expanded it to four teams. But guess what? The fifth or sixth team is going to have a complaint, because in big-time college football — let me demonstrate this — there are five power conferences, but there are four slots in the playoffs.

    You see? You see how there is one left over? And that’s either TCU or Baylor. And that’s what is going on. Someone’s going to complain.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, why not make it bigger? Why not go to six or eight teams?

  • MIKE PESCA:

    And maybe one day they will. And there’s so much money at stake, as you rightly mentioned, $12.3 billion — sorry — $7.3 billion over 12 years.

    Eventually, I think they will, because I think the experiment is going to show that Americans have such an appetite for football. These games will be terribly exciting. Even if an individual game isn’t a good game, just the idea of a playoffs. In sports, in American sports, we love playoffs. Not every other country has playoffs.

    The English soccer league doesn’t have playoffs, so that’s sort of an Americanism. And maybe in a few years it will expand to eight, and then we will be debating, oh, who’s the ninth team that was left on the outside?

    I do feel for Baylor and TCU, but there are good empirical reasons why they are not in, and it has nothing to do with one last touchdown against Kansas State, unlike what coach Briles there was intimating.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, what is the reason? Make it a little more transparent for us. Explain why this is a fair system.

  • MIKE PESCA:

    Oh, I’m not going to say that, but I will tell you why this is the best result they could have with four teams.

    You have an undefeated team, Florida State. They were the champion last year. So, of course the undefeated team had to be in, even though, weirdly, they’re ranked third. That’s not causing a lot of controversy, because once you’re in the playoffs, you have a chance to win. But they are ranked third.

    Then Alabama and Oregon are widely seen as just the best teams. So it comes down to a debate, really a debate between Ohio State and these two teams from the Big 12. Now the problem is the Big 12 — remember when I did my hands? I did that because I think numbers sometimes confuse college football.

    The Big 12 has 10 teams in it. The big 10 has 14 teams in it.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MIKE PESCA:

    By rule, you can’t have a championship game unless you have at least 12 teams in your conference. So, despite the name, the Big 12 doesn’t qualify to have that championship game, meaning it robs one of their teams of a chance to play and a chance to play against a good team.

    And I bet that if Baylor and TCU, if they were even two terrible teams in their division and they were afforded another chance to play last weekend, like Ohio State and Florida State and Oregon and Alabama had, if they were afforded that, they just might be in the picture.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    All right, now that that’s all clarified, explain for me — there’s a lot of complaints today that money is a part of this, how much money those schools can make. What do you think? How do you see that?

  • MIKE PESCA:

    Oh, yes, that’s always true. That’s always the undershot of college football. It’s all about the — it’s not amateurism. It’s professional football with unpaid players.

    That’s a totally separate issue. A big problem is, these are the big — the four schools that have made it sort of have the most momentum behind them, the most money behind them. Baylor and TCU, you can’t look at them as underdogs, but compared to the Goliaths that are these four teams that have made it, they could sort of — they could sort of consider themselves a little bit of the scrappy underdogs.

    That said, though, on a football basis, I don’t if their wins are as good comparatively as the other schools, though it’s a shame that a bunch of one-loss teams, two have to be left out.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, a lot of us are going to be watching right around New Year’s.

    Mike Pesca, we thank you.

  • MIKE PESCA:

    You’re welcome.

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