The college football selection committee has released the first playoff rankings of the year. These rankings matter much more than the AP and Coaches Poll – these rankings directly affect which teams will make the College Football Playoff (CFP).
This season has arguably been one of the craziest seasons in recent college football history, and that is reflected in the rankings. The committee is tasked with determining what teams deserve a chance to play for a national championship, which is no easy undertaking. The current playoff format has led to controversy every year as teams outside of the top four question what more they have to do to earn a playoff spot.
With this first set of rankings, those questions didn’t get quieter. These initial rankings spoke volumes about the committee’s priorities when selecting four competitors for the CFP.
What We Learned From the First CFP Rankings
playing the games does not matter
The most apparent takeaway from the initial playoff rankings is that playing the game of football does not matter. College football has always differentiated itself from other sports by maintaining the idea that teams need to be perfect to compete for a national title, or relatively perfect compared to the rest of that season’s teams. By only having four teams enter the CFP, there is an extra level of emphasis put on the importance of the regular season. This is one of the benefits college football has over the NFL, because every game played means something when the landscape is so competitive.
Losses need to mean something, but the committee has decided that it will give exemptions to that “rule” when it sees fit.
Oregon making the top four is baffling on all accounts of the word. The Ducks upset Ohio State in Columbus, but they also suffered an embarrassing loss to unranked Stanford, which is currently sporting a 3-5 record. That loss has to matter for something, especially when you have the teams ranked No. 5 through No. 12 nipping at Oregon’s heels for a playoff spot. I’d argue that an early-season win over a young Ohio State team means less compared to a humiliatingly loss to an unranked Stanford team, and Oregon should pay the price for that.
Many people were surprised to see Alabama crack the top four, let alone stand at No. 2, and this is where the glaring issue with the current playoff structure really begins to take center stage.
Alabama’s only loss is to 6-2 Texas A&M, which the committee ranked at No. 14. The Crimson Tide also have wins over two teams in the CFP rankings – No. 16 Ole Miss and No. 17 Mississippi State. Alabama has the hardest strength of schedule as well. This is enough for the committee to place Crimson Tide at No. 2.
But the committee also determines the rankings, and it goes from top to bottom. So, if you want to justify the ranking of a team near the top, all you have to do is put a few of the teams it played in the lower half of the rankings. Then, like magic, Alabama has two ranked wins, ignoring that Mississippi State is 5-3, lost to 4-4 Memphis, and narrowly escaped 2-6 Louisiana Tech at home.
The committee doesn’t care that the Crimson Tide lost a game, because it came up with other reasons to rank them highly. But this same benefit of the doubt wasn’t given across the board.
Teams need to face consequences for losing. There are so many teams that can make an argument for why they deserve a shot at a national championship. When those teams lose games, it has to affect them negatively.
In a similar vein, Wake Forest has been dominating the ACC so far this season but has not reaped the same rewards that Clemson did in years past. The playoff committee makes a valiant effort every year to state that it doesn’t include teams’ past seasons or the preseason polls in its playoff rankings, but it’s blatantly obvious this is not true. With the exact same resume, Clemson would be the No. 2 team in the nation, but Wake Forest doesn’t have the same prestige or years of success to back up its 2021 body of work, so the Demon Deacons have to settle for No. 9.
Oregon-Ohio State Opens Up Questions
Oregon beating Ohio State early in the year has made things more complicated moving forward. The Buckeyes were still trying to find their footing with a new quarterback and an entirely-new defense. This isn’t an excuse for Ohio State – Oregon won the game and deserves credit for that – but the context surrounding the game matters when evaluating both teams.
Theoretically, let’s say that both Ohio State and Oregon win the rest of their games. OSU would have ranked wins over Michigan State and Michigan, currently ranked No. 3 and No. 7, plus a win over a likely-ranked opponent in the Big Ten Championship Game. Oregon does not play another ranked opponent the rest of the way, and the winner of the Pac-12 South probably won’t be ranked for the conference title game either.
Does Oregon’s resume look better if Ohio State continues to win, or does Ohio State’s resume look better if Oregon continues to win? It’ll be difficult for the committee to jump the Buckeyes over the Ducks if both teams win out because of the head-to-head matchup, but if Ohio State has just gotten done taking care of three ranked teams in a short span while Oregon collects wins over teams slightly-above .500, then the committee will have to decide whether head-to-head or body of work matter more to it.
CinCINNATI CAN’T MAKE THE PLAYOFF
Cincinnati should have an opportunity to compete for a national title if it continues to win, but the committee made it clear that will most likely not happen, regardless of the rest of the season. This is a perfect example of how this system is flawed.
It can be difficult to justify including a Group of Five (G5) team in the CFP over a Power Five (P5) team due to strength of schedule alone. Here is a look at the current list of top-10 teams and their strength of schedules:
Cincinnati has the No. 43 hardest schedule, and I couldn’t imagine what that would look like if Notre Dame wasn’t on its docket. Eight of the other nine teams play harder schedules than the Bearcats.
Now, as previously explained, the committee makes its rankings from top to bottom, so to justify Cincinnati at No. 6 and ensure it doesn’t have much upward mobility, it simply needs to leave some of the best teams in the AAC out of its rankings. SMU, who is on Cincinnati’s remaining schedule and just lost the first game of its season to Houston, one of the other best teams in the conference, last weekend, is not in the CFP rankings. The Cougars, who aren’t on Cincinnati’s schedule but could reasonably be its opponent should the Bearcats reach the AAC Championship Game, are also not in the CFP rankings despite a 7-1 record. Both SMU and Houston are ranked in the AP Poll and Coaches Poll.
After the rankings were released, the chairman of the CFP Gary Barta gave an explanation for Cincinnati’s placement.
The same could be said for virtually every other team in the country, but this is considered a valid point in Cincinnati’s case.
Strength of schedule is important and should be taken into consideration, but it should not be the deciding factor. But to the committee, it is.
Sorry, Cincinnati, and sorry all non-power conference schools, the message is clear – you need not apply.
the committee only uses the “eye test” when it Wants
Every year, it becomes increasingly more difficult to understand what the committee means by “eye test.” The final score of a game doesn’t always represent the level of play on the field, and the “eye test” is used as a way to get around that. It can be a valid stance to take as teams can win games in commanding fashion, though it won’t always translate to the stat sheet.
There’s no question that Georgia deserves the No. 1 spot. The Bulldogs are outscoring teams 303-53. The college football audience would tell you that the “eye test” has shown that Alabama is not on the same level this year compared to in years past. The Crimson Tide appear to have a weaker team on all fronts but still found a way to crack the top four. All of the flaws that Alabama has shown this year don’t matter to the committee, because it feels that Alabama has passed its own “eye test.”
My own personal “eye test” tells me that Michigan State is not a top-four team in the country. I’ve seen the Spartans play live twice this year and was not overly impressed. Kenneth Walker III is clearly the Heisman frontrunner, but nothing else about the Spartans has impressed me thus far. Payton Thorne appears to be an average quarterback at best, the offensive line struggles with pass protection, and the defense has barely kept Michigan State in a lot of these games. The Spartans deserve credit as one of the few remaining undefeated teams, and that doesn’t come by accident. However, the committee feels their resume outweighs the “eye test,” especially when compared to other teams.
Oklahoma is also undefeated, sitting at 9-0. The Sooners have played some pitiful football this season, but the scoreboard doesn’t reflect that. Caleb Williams becoming the starting quarterback has certainly given some life back to this Oklahoma team, but the “eye test” has shown this may not be the Sooners’ year.
Cincinnati is also scrapping by some games by the skin of its teeth – Navy and Indiana gave it a run for its money. The Bearcats need to make up for their lack of schedule strength by blowing teams out of the water, and they frankly haven’t done that on a weekly basis. Anyone who has watched Cincinnati this year can tell you this team would not fair well against a Big Ten or SEC opponent.
While the “eye test” certainly plays a factor in determining a team’s worth, the committee has used it in a way to justify its own biases. In Oklahoma’s case, the committee decided it’s playing worse than its resume indicated based on the “eye test.” But Oregon has also not been playing dominate football, but the “eye test” is put to the side, because the Ducks beat Ohio State.
There needs to be more clarity on how the committee is justifying these rankings. The “eye test” can be a valid tool to help evaluate teams, but it’s become nothing more than a cop out for the committee.
The Initial Rankings Set the Stage
These initial CFP rankings set the tone for the rest of the season, and the committee is well aware of that. That is most apparent with Ohio State’s ranking.
The committee wants the Buckeyes to make the CFP because of recency bias and the “eye test,” and most people would agree that OSU is a better team now than when it lost to Oregon. Putting Ohio State at No. 5 ensures that it will jump into the top four if it beats No. 3 Michigan State, No. 7 Michigan, and gain another ranked win in the Big Ten Championship Game, regardless of the defeat to the Ducks.
The Big Ten’s strength makes it hard to determine how that situation will play out. I still believe Ohio State is the best team in the Big Tenand will be rewarded for that in the end. The committee has ranked Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan so high to justify including a Big Ten team in the CFP when chaos occurs among these teams. The Wolverines still have to play the Buckeyes and decent Penn State team. MSU still has Ohio State on the road and PSU at home. Ohio State still gets Michigan and Michigan State to prove its worth. Chaos is bound to happen, and the committee knows it. That’s why they’re all ranked where they are.
Alabama is also in an interesting situation. It still has to play some gritty opponents down the stretch, including No. 13 Auburn and No. 1 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. If the Crimson Tide lose just one of those games, they will immediately fall out of the top four. Alabama being at No. 2 also ensures that Georgia will still make the playoff even if it loses to the Crimson Tide in the conference title game.
If the committee had ranked Cincinnati in the top four right out of the gate, then there would be no situation in which the Bearcats would drop out, unless they didn’t win the remainder of their games. The committee wants to do everything in its power to ensure two Big Ten teams and two SEC teams duel it out in the playoffs, and these initial rankings made sure of that possibility, or at least getting at close to that as the committee reasonably can.