Column: In college football politics, only selection committee’s vote matters

Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher is quick to remind everyone, especially ESPN audiences, that you play to win the game, which the Seminoles have done 27 consecutive times.
(Jeff Gammons / Getty Images)

The midterm, low-turnout, national elections of early November have given way to a season in which the political froth can’t be contained in its own moonshine jug.

We are two Sundays removed from a vote that will ultimately decide who will become champion of the United College Football States of America.

This is the time of year when the gloves come off and the rhetoric goes up.


Coaches who, weeks ago, preached confidence that everything would work out have fired their handlers and gone straight to the bully pulpit.

Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher is done thinking just winning games will secure a spot in the new four-team playoff.

He has watched support for his Seminoles, who have won 27 straight games, evaporate after a series of closely contested wins against highly suspicious opponents.

The College Football Playoff committee has already taken the unprecedented step of dropping Florida State, the only remaining undefeated team among the Power Five leagues, behind one-loss Alabama and one-loss Oregon.

Gary Danielson, the Southeastern Conference-CBS affiliated announcer, delivered the line of the weekend when he said of Florida State: “One more win and they could be out of it.”

It is actually unlikely Florida State, if it wins out against Florida and Georgia Tech, will be denied one of the four playoff spots.

It could not have been comforting, though, when the USA Today coaches’ poll on Sunday dropped Florida State to No. 2 behind Alabama.

Losing the confidence of the coaches is like, back in the day, losing Walter Cronkite’s trust.

You can see why Fisher is starting to get defensive.

His team, defending national champions who have not lost in two years, got overtaken by Alabama after its victory against lower-division Western Carolina (which held an early 7-0 lead).

Fisher grew incredulous after his team won another last-seconds win, this one over Boston College.

“We’re undefeated,” Fisher snapped. “We’re undefeated. We finish every game. Everybody else in the country has not finished at least one game.”

(Columnist interrupts coaches’ rant here to note Marshall is also undefeated.)

Fisher continued: “We’ve finished every one of them. Isn’t that the object? Isn’t that the object?”

You can always tell a coach is stumping when he starts repeating his sentences.

The networks, too, are intricately tied to the politics of college football.

Fox vs. ESPN is the Fox vs. MSNBC of sports.

The network operated by media maven Rupert Murdoch, who has launched yet another frontal attack on ESPN, leans to the causes of the conferences Fox broadcasts.

Fox announcers are more prone to talk up the Pac-12 and Big 12, while CBS and ESPN carry more water for the SEC.

It works like this: last weekend, a Fox announcer suggested Alabama (SEC) could “perhaps” pass No. 4 Texas Christian (Big 12) in the rankings if the Crimson Tide defeated No. 1 Mississippi State.


Alabama went by TCU like a race car by a dump truck.

This was after a CBS studio host, in a garden-variety highlight break, churlishly noted how lowly Kansas was leading TCU… “the team ranked ahead of the Tide.”

This weekend, Fox’s Big 12 political gunboats laid out all the reasons why Baylor deserved the playoff spot over Mississippi State.

This is terrific theater as long as you know, at all times, what company is signing the announcers’ checks.

The political football got hotter Sunday with polling information released by Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog, about as independent as you can get under the ESPN umbrella.

Silver made his name beating the pants off traditional political pollsters who used tools such as “gut instincts” to project presidential winners.

He leaned on the “science” part in political science and employed algorithms to clean his opponents’ clocks.

Silver has moved operations to ESPN to take on the gerrymandering of college football scheduling.

Silver confirmed what we have “gut instinct” projected for weeks: that a two-loss Pac-12 champion from the South Division has at least a coin flip’s chance of making the four-team playoff.

Silver calculates UCLA has a 50% chance of making the playoff if it wins the Pac-12 title, but it’s actually higher than that.

Silver shows a lack of understanding of the inner workings by wondering: “Would the committee take a two-loss UCLA team ahead of a one-loss Florida State team?”

The answer to that question is a resounding: yes!

Silver’s algorithms, based on 10,000 simulations of the rest of the regular season, give Alabama an 81% chance of making the playoff.

The Crimson Tide is followed by Oregon (76%), Florida State (59%), TCU (47%), Ohio State (42%), Baylor (33%), Mississippi State (33%) and UCLA (14%).

UCLA’s chances, of course, can increase dramatically because the Bruins are the highest-ranked contender left with a chance to beat a team as highly ranked as Oregon.

Silver’s projections low-ball the West Coast because he uses a model “based on an analysis of how games have historically changed in the standings of the Coaches’ Poll.”

Silver adds: “Perhaps the playoff committee will view things differently.”

The playoff committee already has, showing considerably more deference to the Pac-12.

The committee is packed with a disproportionate number of members with West Coast ties. The panel also lost a voice for the South, former Mississippi star Archie Manning, who had to temporarily step aside to address a lingering knee injury.

Two weeks ago, the committee ranked Pac-12 teams 17 total rankings positions higher than they were in the coaches’ poll.

Silver can process all the information he wants, but the only rankings system that counts on Dec. 7 is the proprietary property of the College Football Playoff.

Its committee has already demonstrated it is not afraid to leap a one-loss team over one that is undefeated. It stands to reason it won’t be afraid to jump a two-loss Pac-12 champion ahead of a one-loss champion.

This is a reason why UCLA fans should be encouraged and, maybe, why Fisher should be afraid.