Last night, another round of the College Football Playoff Rankings were released, and the CFP committee again showed its consistent inconsistency.
Not a ton changed at the top with all of the top seven remaining unmoved. That’s not too surprising – all of the top-seven teams won their Week 11 matchups. But the committee maintained is a double standard that illustrates it doesn’t utilize a uniform criteria, therefore leaving fans and teams alike in the dark on their actual methods.
The CFP Committee Is Consistently Inconsistent
On Oct. 30, Michigan State defeated Michigan, 37-33, in a high-stakes affair that went down to the wire. The Spartans ended Michigan’s hopes of an undefeated season and picked up a massive victory in the race for the Big Ten East and, theoretically, for a spot in the College Football Playoff. As a result, the CFP committee ranked MSU at No. 3, while Michigan sat at No. 7.
One week later, Michigan State’s perfect record collapsed after a 40-29 defeat at Purdue. The Wolverines finished off two-win Indiana, 29-7, to hand the Hoosiers their fifth-straight loss. For these results, the committee placed the Spartans at No. 7 and Michigan at No. 6, one spot ahead of them one week after losing to them.
That remained the same this week after both teams won their games, with Michigan holding off Penn State, 21-17, and Michigan State toppling Maryland, 40-21. With the two teams having just played one another only a couple of weeks ago and their records mirroring one another, people have wondered why the CFP committee ordered them this way.
Before we go any deeper, I have to acknowledge how insane of a thing this is to say. “Set aside watching the games” should never be something a member of a committee, let alone the committee chair, ever says in any capacity, ever. I shouldn’t need to explain why – I choose to believe we’re not yet fully in a bizarre world where sports fans need to be told why game results are important.
Ignoring the lunacy of Barta’s statement, let’s take it at face value. He’s right that the numbers do point to Michigan being the better team. Michigan is fourth nationally in overall efficiency, eighth in offensive efficiency, and 12th in defensive efficiency, according to FPI. Comparatively, Michigan State is ninth overall, 14th in offense, and 26th in defense. There is a clear gap between the two teams in their efficiencies, and so if that’s how you will determine the rankings, then it makes sense, even if I disagree with the methodology.
But here’s the problem – how the hell is Oregon ahead of Ohio State?
The Ducks beat the Buckeyes in Columbus, 35-28, on Sept. 11. The committee has had Oregon ahead of Ohio State in each of its rankings so far, and the reasoning has been that head-to-head victory from September.
The problem is, Ohio State is third nationally in overall efficiency, first in offense efficiency, and 39th in defensive efficiency. Oregon is 14th overall, 17th offensively, and 30th defensively.
To that same point, Cincinnati, which is sitting at No. 5 on the outside of the playoff and likely needing some amount of help to avoid being jumped by one-loss power-conference teams, is sixth nationally in overall efficiency, 21st offensively, and 13th defensively – collectively better than Oregon’s numbers. But Barta previously said this about the Bearcats, who owns one of the best wins in all of college football right now with their 24-13 victory over No. 8 Notre Dame, who hasn’t otherwise lost this season.
“The committee has great respect for Cincinnati,” Barta said on Nov. 2. “The win at Notre Dame was a really impressive win. When you look at who they’ve played after that, who else did they beat?”
So, for Cincinnati, it’s all about who they beat, other than, you know, that top-10 win on the road over one of the most successful programs of all time. For Oregon and Ohio State, it’s about one game from more than two months ago. For Michigan and Michigan State, it’s about the analytics, not the game they played two weeks ago.
That’s about as consistently inconsistent as you can get.
To me, the goal should be to determine who is the “most deserving,” not who is the “best.” You can come up with any justification for who is the “best,” as seen by the CFP committee coming up with vastly different explanations for its decisions. The games don’t matter, and it becomes a fantasy game of determining who would win a game instead of who did win a game. Michigan might be better than Michigan State – the stats say so, and it’s a reasonable argument to make. Worse teams beat better teams sometimes. But the game did happen, and there should be consequences for those results. Otherwise, what was the point?
But that’s not the main issue here. Even if the committee used criteria I don’t agree with, it would at least be more palatable if there was consistency in the evaluations of teams. But there isn’t. Sometimes the stats matter more than the games, sometimes the games matter more than the stats, and sometimes no real justification is made at all.
How am I supposed to trust that? How is anybody supposed to trust that?
People will say it will work itself out in the end, and I have two issues with that argument.
Firstly, no it won’t. Tell that to 2017 UCF, 2014 Baylor, 2014 TCU, 2016 Penn State, and 2017 Wisconsin, all teams with legitimate cases for inclusion that got locked out for one reason or another, some of whom were undefeated, won their conference, and/or beat a team included in the playoff. If Michigan State beats Ohio State this weekend, beats Penn State the next weekend, and loses in the Big Ten Championship Game, thus opening the door for an 11-1 Michigan (which would require a win over Ohio State) that didn’t have to play in the conference title game to back into the playoffs, is that “working itself out?” If Oregon wins out and presumably gets into the playoff despite it being reasonable that a one-loss, Big 12 champion of Oklahoma State or Oklahoma would have better stats, all while the Ducks are riding high on one head-to-head win from September that the committee decided is the one where head-to-head matters, is that “working itself out?” If Cincinnati, one of three remaining undefeated teams in the whole country, requires others to lose in an optimal way for it to get in, is that “working itself out?”
Things “work themselves out” from the paradigm set by the CFP committee. If Oregon had started the rankings behind Ohio State, it would have entirely shifted out things could work themselves out. If Alabama didn’t start at No. 2 in the rankings, it would have shifted how things could work themselves out. If Cincinnati didn’t start outside of the top four, it would have shifted how things could work themselves out.
The second issue with that argument is that these rankings now matter. They affect what people think of the teams, poll inertia is an absolutely real thing, and they offer a window into how the committee evaluates teams. If I can’t trust the CFP committee to show consistency in its rankings thus far, how can I trust that the final and most important one will be any different?