There’s a lot of talk these last few days of how horrible it would be if, for example, Penn State wins the Big Ten championship but doesn’t make the college football Final Four playoff. This would happen if, say, Washington (the current #4) loses to Colorado in the Pac-12 championship. Presumably, then, Michigan (now currently #5) would move up into the #4 slot, leaving the Nittany Lions crying into their Wheaties.
Why would this (ostensibly) be horrible? Well (the argument goes) you’d then have two Big Ten teams (Ohio State and Michigan) in the playoffs who didn’t even win their conference. Some people think this would be a travesty.
I disagree. Winning (or not winning) a conference is essentially meaningless. That’s because it’s entirely possible to win the conference with a shitty record.
First, we have to discuss how the Big Ten champ is chosen. There are 14 teams in the Big Ten, not 10. (We’re already in Twilight Zone territory here). 7 of the teams are in the West division, and 7 are in the East. Each year, each team plays 4 non-conference games, and 8 conference games; of those 8, 6 are in the same division, and 2 in the other division. The winner of the West will play the winner of the East to determine the Big Ten conference champ.
Suppose, in the East, Michigan, Ohio State, and Maryland all post 11-1 records; each losing only one division game to one of the other two. Based on arcane tie-breaks, one of these (presumably) good teams will be invited to the Big Ten championship. Let’s say it’s Maryland.
In the West, however, imagine that all 7 teams have identical 3-9 records. They achieve this by losing all non-divisional games, and splitting their West division games 3-3. One of these (crappy) teams will go to the Big Ten championship game by tie-break. Let’s say it’s Iowa.
So it’s Maryland (11-1) vs. Iowa (3-9). Maybe Iowa wins on a fluke (Maryland’s QB gets the flu, or a ref gives the game to Iowa by awarding a 5th down…these things happen). Despite this head-to-head result, is anyone really going to rank the now 4-9 Iowa Hawkeyes over the 11-2 Maryland Terrapins? Of course not.
Here’s the mathematical reason that conference championships are meaningless: all they tell you is that you’re the best team out of a subset of teams. And that doesn’t really tell you much at all.
Suppose we had a tournament for BIG COUNTRIES. Who would you rank among the top BIG COUNTRIES? My top four would be Russia, Canada, USA, and China. “But wait!” says Algeria. “I won the Africa division! And the USA is smaller than Canada and so didn’t even win its division!”
If we want to pick the BIG COUNTRIES, then being the biggest country in your continent is meaningless. Similarly, if we want to find the best teams, finding the best teams in conference divisions is meaningless.
One way to mitigate this problem is to eliminate conference divisions entirely. In the hypothetical scenario mentioned above, if the Big Ten just had one 14-team division, then Iowa would stay home and Maryland would play Michigan (say) for the conference title. Still not perfect, but we’d definitely know then that a good team had won the conference.
I’m not lobbying for any sort of change in the NCAA playoff selection rules. I have every expectation that the committee will do the right thing, regardless of whether Washington wins or not. Their ranking Ohio State #2 despite not even going to the Big Ten title game is indicative of that. What I am advocating for is for people to shut up about conference champions.
Hey, Algeria: just because you’re the biggest country in Africa doesn’t make you a top-4 country.