Straub: As Frustrating As They Are, College Football Playoff Rankings Are Inconsistent Because They Have To Be

November 19, 2014

Last night was the first time college football and college basketball intersected this fall. The weekly college football rankings were unveiled, and college basketball held its now yearly Champions Classic, which pits four of the best programs in history against each other at the end of ESPN's day-long basketball marathon. The two main event games aren't as much about who wins, as the season's truly big games are months away, but they are a good chance to see some of the country's best players and start to figure out who to follow for next year's draft. 


Fans of college football that are experiencing the work of a selection committee for the first time, however, have been becoming more connected to college basketball all year. Watching the frustrating results which come from trying to use subjective analysis to rank college football teams is fascinating to someone who has followed a selection committee in basketball try to do so for years.


What happens in March is both easier, since most deserving team get in, and in some ways harder. There’s much more to figure out besides who gets in, from seeding to balancing the brackets among the four regions to avoiding matchups which violate the tournament’s rules (a step occasionally missed). The college football bracket is simply supposed to be the four best teams.


Sounds easy, right? Think again.


There are so many things which go into ordering teams it’s nearly impossible to do without someone having an objection. The main problem is teams coming from different conferences with different strengths and different schedules, making it impossible for the same criteria to be used to evaluate every grouping.


Don’t believe me? All we have to do to prove my point is try and figure out who's No. 1. To me, the undefeated team from a power conference which also happens to be the defending champion should be No. 1, but the committee doesn’t agree. Others will argue previous seasons don’t play any role in this year’s rankings, but trust me, as someone who has watched a similar committee for years, it does. You don’t think Duke gets preferential treatment in basketball, or an extra bump based on who they are? Trust me, they do. 


The thing I’d like to know about Florida State is this: are the Seminoles considered by the committee as one of the top three teams in the country and just dropped from No. 1 because of their schedule, or does the committee believe  the ACC is so bad that putting Florida State in the top four at all is the preferential treatment I think they deserve? 


Whatever reason the committee used to drop Florida State,  Alabama is the top team in the land. The Tide’s resume in recent years speaks for itself, and they now sit above the rest based on “the eye test.” This is something I’ve often suggested should be used more, and why I was so upset at the selection committee in basketball last year for underseeding teams like Kentucky. But if we’re using schedules as our reasoning to put the Tide ahead of Florida State, then we need to figure out just how good Alabama’s wins are. Its only good non-conference win is over West Virginia, which isn’t a pushover but isn’t a ranked team either. They beat Florida, which fired its coach, lost to Ole Miss, barely beat an Arkansas team which has one SEC win in two years, and routed Texas A&M, which is below .500 in the league. They did win a great game over LSU, but the Tigers have one good win since August and are a four-loss team overall. And they beat No. 1 Mississippi State, which we’ll get to in a second.


I know, the SEC fans will say .500 in the SEC is better than being unbeaten in another conference. And I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t. But the conference doesn’t have many wins over other leagues. So you’re basing the SEC’s dominance on what it does against each other. Which brings me to the Bulldogs. They were ranked No. 1 because they were unbeaten in a great conference, but you could poke the same holes in their schedule you can in Alabama’s. How many No. 1 teams are eight-point underdogs for an away game? I’m not saying we let Las Vegas pick the teams, but it’s certainly interesting to consider how little Vegas thought of the Bulldogs against Alabama.


What if we try and combine the eye test with schedules? Should Ole Miss, who like Alabama tried to schedule a solid opening game, and has two of the most gut-wrenching losses you’ll ever see on its slate against strong teams, be ahead of its rivals from Mississippi State, which has one loss against an arguably weaker schedule and was down two scores until the final minutes in its only loss?


And how do we compare teams from other conferences? Oregon put a tough game on its schedule against Michigan State and won, but does a slip up in the (at least perceived to be) weaker Pac-12 against Arizona count against them more than a single loss in the SEC for Alabama and the others in that league? Clearly it does, since Alabama is ranked No. 1 and Oregon No. 2. 


Heck, the committee has a hard enough time figuring out rankings between teams in the same conference. TCU is ahead of Baylor right now because the Frogs have played more of the Big 12's tough teams and Baylor still has to face them. So they’re clearly using strength of schedule there, since Baylor beat TCU in an incredible game. The theory there, apparently, is TCU’s bad fourth quarter shouldn’t take away from its body of work. I can't wrap my head around this one. The teams have the same record and played on the field. The winner should be ranked higher. 


To figure any of this out, we have to decide what matters. Will it be head-to-head? Strength of schedule? Non-conference schedule? In a perfect world, we would rate what matters most in list form the way the NFL does playoff tiebreakers and just go from there.


The world, however, is not perfect. In comparing different teams, certain factors won’t be able to be applied, meaning different things will have to be taken into consideration for each matchup. To me, this is why having a human selection committee is so much better than the computers. Not every schedule is the same, and how the slates are formed should be considered when the strengths are equal. Are you playing good teams to build your resume, like Oregon, or because the league made you, like Mississippi State? Not all losses are the same. Did you lose because you deserved to, or did you lose on a bad call or because your wide receiver fumbled when his leg broke?


I won’t lie, the point of this column isn’t to figure it all out for you. My hope is the games over the next few weeks do so and the four best teams make the playoffs. My goal here is to show just how hard the committee’s job is and to get some of the heat off them. The committee can try to apply the appropriate questions to the right teams, where a computer can only crunch numbers without weighing other factors which should be considered.


My hope is, whether or not we agree with the four teams chosen at the end, the arguments aren’t about inconsistencies in the selection process. As we’ve covered here, there’s no way to make things consistent, even among teams which play the same schedules.


Personally, I love brackets. I love trying to guess them. I read bracketology every week during the basketball season and try and figure out how I’d make my own. For those who don’t watch much college basketball, however, just how hard it is to do is becoming clearer to the masses. 


Making a bracket is fun, but it can be incredibly frustrating and wildly inconsistent.


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