“Ranking football teams is an art, not a science.”
That quote comes directly from the CFB Playoff’s website, the first words of a document entitled “How to select the four best teams to compete for the College Football National Championship.”
It’s college football’s equivalent of “We the People.” Only in this case, the oppressed are throwing off the shackles of the BCS, not King George.
To access it, you have to go to the “About” tab, select “Selection Committee” and then look for a link at the top of the page called “Selection Committee Protocol.”
The one and a quarter page treatise does a good job of explaining how difficult it is to rank football teams, and, of debunking systems driven by mathematical equations.
What it doesn’t do is explain how it’s possible that a committee that operates under its stated guidelines could have picked Ohio State at No. 2 in its final rankings vs. Penn State at No. 5.
To be clear, this isn’t a discussion of whether Ohio State is a better football team than Penn State. It’s a conversation about whether or not the CFB Playoff Committee applied its own rules to its own decision.
In its “unanimously” adopted words, the CFB Playoff mentions the emphasis on “conference championships won” and “head-to-head competition” four separate times. It’s even bullet pointed in the body of the document.
When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable, then the following criteria must be considered:
- Championships won
- Strength of schedule
- Head-to-head competition (if it occurred)
- Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory)
Applying these four pillars to the case of Ohio State vs. Penn State – let’s objectively take a look.
Criteria #1: Championships won: On Dec. 3, (7) Penn State beat (6) Wisconsin 38-31 in the Big Ten Championship. The Nittany Lions earn one point.
Criteria #2: Strength of schedule: Though this point is subjective, many experts give the clear advantage to Ohio State. To be fair, we’ll use Phil Steele’s “2016 Toughest Schedules” rankings (which had the Buckeyes’ slate at No. 20 vs. Penn State’s No. 42). One point to the Buckeyes.
Criteria #3: Head-to-head competition (it did occur): On Oct. 22, unranked Penn State upset (2) Ohio State 24-21. Another point to the Nittany Lions.
Criteria #4: Comparative outcomes of common opponents. Both teams played Michigan, Maryland, Indiana, Rutgers, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Ohio State beat all six of these opponents while Penn State fell to Michigan, albeit on the road as opposed to at home. This gives the slight edge to the Buckeyes.
Theoretically, the committee is faced with a tie. That is, if all the criteria are weighted evenly.
What does the document say about breaking a tie?
Strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and championships won must be specifically applied as tie-breakers between two teams that look similar.
Comparative outcomes aren’t mentioned, giving Penn State a clear edge over Ohio State 2-1. By the CFP Playoff’s own formula, the Nittany Lions should be in the Playoff and the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl.
Again, that’s not to say that the Buckeyes aren’t the better team, or aren’t the team that proved themselves as more worthy over the course of the entire season. Instead, it’s to say that they fall short of the Nittany Lions in meeting the criteria of the selection committee.
If the aim of the CFB Playoff is to the select the four best teams in the nation to fill its coveted bracket slots, rather than tick the boxes of its own bucket list, it needs to revise its protocol to reflect that. If not, programs who have met the qualifications will continue to be disappointed. Dazed and confused, they’ll be forced to look delighted as they are shipped off to play in meaningless bowls.
If you think about it, Ohio State’s ascendancy to this season’s CFB Playoff mirrors many of the complaints spewed during former regimes charged with fielding a national championship game.
It almost seems like the system was, once again, magically tweaked so the powers that be could justify the most desirable pairings.
If you really like irony, take a look at another snippet from the CFB Playoffs “How to” guide for fielding a bracket. This one takes a shot at the BCS it was charged with replacing.
Under the current construct, polls (though well-intended) have not expressed these values; particularly at the margins where teams that won head-to-head competition and championships are sometimes ranked behind non-champions and teams that have lost in head-to-head competition. Nuanced mathematical formulas ignore some teams who ‘deserve’ to be selected.
Drop the mic.
Amy Daughters is a contributor to FBSchedules.com.