Greg Cote

Greg Cote: First playoff rankings will continue debate – and college football is winner

Marshall QB Rakeem Cato throws a pass against FAU on Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014 in Huntington, West Virginia.
Marshall QB Rakeem Cato throws a pass against FAU on Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014 in Huntington, West Virginia. AP

I had always been a proud member of the sports equivalent of the Flat Earth Society, standing brave among the few other determined crackpots who thought college football was fine as is and didn’t need a playoff. I thought the annual late-season debate and arguing was invigorating – a lifeblood of the sport.

I worried the onset of the College Football Playoff would change all of that as our Saturday religion homogenized itself and fell obediently in line. Happily, that no longer is a worry. With the first CFP rankings coming out Tuesday, there is every indication the new, long-clamored-for playoff will not mute any of the outrage or rancor leading up to it. Not by a decibel.

If anything the line of schools waving “We Wuz Robbed!” placards will only grow as the selection committee hopelessly attempts to funnel a dozen or more worthy teams with about the same record into a final four. If the new era was supposed to replace debate with consensus, it has splendidly failed before it even begins.

All of this is particularly pertinent in South Florida, of course, because the University of Miami has 11 times finished in the top four of the final Associated Press poll – and theoretically will be in the College Football Playoff mix before long. And also because the Orange Bowl is one of six bowls in the rotation to host playoff games, with the first at Dolphins stadium scheduled not this season, but next.

Basketball’s March Madness picks 68 teams, so you don’t hear a lot of wailing from excluded schools. But football choosing only four makes it the toughest, most exclusive ticket in all of major sports.

Anybody recall when the group Three Dog Night once sang that one was the loneliest number?

No more.

The loneliest number is five now – at least in college football.

Four teams making the playoffs means the odd team out that misses most narrowly will be the most successful biggest loser in sports.

All of you haunted and utterly forgotten Olympians throughout history who finished fourth and were denied the podium and a medal by a hundredth of a second … the No.5 college football team will now feel your pain. Oh so close, but oh so who-cares.

(Quick aside: I wonder how much NCAA branding strategy and test marketing went into calling this thing the “College Football Playoff”? That’s some creativity right there! It’d be like Ford rolling out a new car model called the Midsized Sedan).

The new playoff will feel like an actual playoff when the two semifinal games determine, on the field, which teams reach the Jan.12 championship game.

But determining the four teams that get the chance will be the same flawed, arguable, ripe-for-second-guessing opinion of human beings it has always been.

The biggest difference that I can tell is that Condoleezza Rice is now involved.

I’m not sure how a former U.S. secretary of state gets to be a college football expert. I just hope it’s not a reciprocal deal and all of a sudden Lou Holtz is deployed to tamp out terrorism as an envoy to the Middle East.

Rice and her 12-person selection committee will issue their initial CFP Top 25 to televised trumpets and fanfare Tuesday evening, a weekly ranking that will be superfluous by 21 teams. The only ranking that matters will be the last one, on Dec.7. Meantime, starting now, the AP and coaches’ polls go the way of the manual typewriter as the only opinions that matter are by Condi and company.

The dozen voters are told to not consider those two major polls, but of course that’s like a judge instructing jurors to disregard that the defendant just threw a chair at the bailiff. Of course voters will consider the polls as a framework; what we’re about to find out is how much.

Mississippi State, Florida State, Alabama and Auburn would be the four playoff teams right now if the first CFP rank mirrors the polls.

Somebody else could sneak in perhaps above Auburn, though. Think Oregon, Texas Christian, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ole Miss or Georgia.

Don’t think Marshall, which is 8-0 and ranked in the 20s but hamstrung by its association with second-tier Conference USA. To the selection committee, the Thundering Herd will be the Thundering Unheard.

Do not expect from the CFP committee the radical thinking that would involve vaulting a team such as Marshall into the final four.

That’s as unlikely to happen as a first College Football Playoff that includes four teams everybody agrees on, but that’s a good thing.

Agreement can be dull. Argument seldom is.

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