One of the great truths of a bracketed championship format like the NCAA Basketball Tournament, and now the College Football Playoffs, is that no matter how many teams you choose to include, there will always be teams on the bubble who miss the cut. Last week, as the CFB Playoff Committee sent formal invitations to Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State to play in the inaugural national championship bracket, it was TCU and Baylor who were relegated to spots 5 and 6 and left asking loudly, “why not us?” It’s a fair question.
When all was said and done and the games had been played, only one team stood undefeated and that was Florida State who drew the third seed. Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, TCU, and Baylor all finished with identical 11-1 records. The experts will say it came down to strength of schedule, and maybe it did. That’s the benefit of being able to feed all the data into a computer to “objectively” determine each team’s strength of schedule. All six teams had their hard games. But they all also had at least a couple of patsies. Consider these blockbuster matchups from this season’s schedule:
Alabama vs. Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss
Oregon vs. South Dakota and Wyoming
Florida State vs. The Citadel and Wake Forest
Ohio State vs. Navy and Kent State
Baylor vs. Northwestern State and Buffalo
TCU vs. Samford and SMU
Anybody the least bit concerned about the outcome of these games? Probably not. Most of them were paycheck games and all the schools have them. I’ve heard lots of critics cite weak non-conference matchups as the reason certain teams got in and others were left out. I don’t think that had anything to do with it.
Ultimately, there were four slots and six teams. Of the six, there were three dynastic programs (Alabama, FSU, Ohio State), one that’s dominated its conference for a decade (Oregon) and two underdog, challenger brands (Baylor and TCU). At the end of the analysis, with all other things being generally equal, it was the underdogs—Baylor and TCU—who found themselves on the outside looking in. Why? Because their brands weren’t as big as the other four.
And therein lies the lesson.
When you’re a challenger brand, or an underdog, you don’t have the luxury of losing.TCU Coach Gary Patterson said it in his reaction to the playoff selection. “If we wanted to control our destiny, we needed to be undefeated.” Category leaders have the luxury of not always having to be at the top of their game. If they take a play off, the brand isn’t going to crumble. But for underdogs, competing and winning means being perfect. It means knowing who you are, what your difference is, and leaning into it with everything you’ve got. It means giving the consumer a reason to believe you’re better than the category leader. Without that, consumers will default to the bigger, more established brands they’ve heard about for years.
Just ask Baylor and TCU.