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The College Football Playoff’s Best vs. Most Deserving Debate Doesn’t Matter

Oklahoma secured the fourth and final spot in this season’s playoff. What does the Sooners’ selection teach us about what really matters to the selection committee?

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It’s our fifth anniversary with the College Football Playoff selection committee. As is the case with so many couples, this fifth anniversary is the one where we look at each other and say “Oh hey, I guess we’re still together?” and try to figure out why. While the playoff itself has been an indisputably wonderful addition to college football, the committee which decides on the involved teams has been a frustrating partner: After five years together, the committee’s maddening inconsistency has left college football teams and fans unclear on exactly what it takes to be included in the playoff.

This year’s decision, announced Sunday morning, was pretty simple. The committee took three undefeated teams (Alabama, Clemson, and Notre Dame) and Oklahoma, the one-loss team with the best résumé. However, there was plenty of chatter surrounding 11-2 Georgia, which lost a barnburner SEC championship game to a Bama team that seemed unbeatable all year. Georgia’s two losses seemingly made the committee’s choice easy. But some argued that Georgia, which ended up fifth, looked better than Oklahoma and sixth-ranked Ohio State throughout the season, only ending with a poorer record because of the difficulty of its schedule. This led to a debate: Was the committee supposed to pick the four best teams? Or the four most deserving?

Don’t waste your breath engaging in this discussion. The committee has changed its mind on what it cares about from year to year. In 2014, the first year of the playoff, the committee argued that conference championships were massively important by including 12-1 Ohio State instead of 11-1 TCU and Baylor; in 2016 and 2017 the committee ignored conference titles to include Ohio State and Alabama, respectively, despite the fact neither won its division; in 2018, apparently conference championships are important again.

Through the five years of the playoff, there have been three rules to which the committee has stuck to every time. They’re not listed alongside any of the committee’s official criteria, but it’s clear that these three factors are all it cares about. Two are pretty good rules, I think. The third makes college football significantly worse. Learn them, and you’ll understand most of the committee’s decisions.

Don’t Lose Two Games

There’s a strong case to be made for Georgia as one of the nation’s four best teams. It’s the only team to make a historically great Alabama team bleed. It’s ranked no. 3 in S&P+ and its only two losses this season are to Alabama, the obvious no. 1, and LSU, currently ranked 11th by the committee.

But two losses are too many. In five years, the playoff committee has selected six zero-loss teams, 14 one-loss teams, and zero teams with two or more losses. In each of the past three seasons, a two-loss team has been ranked fifth: in 2016, it was 11-2 Penn State, which won the Big Ten. Last year, it was 11-2 Ohio State, which also won the Big Ten. This year it was 11-2 Georgia, which played well in the SEC championship. There are a lot of differences between those three teams: Penn State’s losses both came in September; one of Ohio State’s losses came in an aggressively scheduled nonconference game against an elite Oklahoma team; Georgia lost its 13th game of the year, a league championship game.

There is only one common thread between the three teams’ résumés: They lost two games. For all the chatter and discussion of what the committee values, it feels like their biggest factor is being able to count to two. I don’t know why the committee includes athletic directors and retired military generals when 3-year-olds can understand the criteria used on their toughest decisions. Hire toddlers instead. It would be cuter.

Don’t Get Your Ass Kicked by a Nobody

Last year, Ohio State was the fifth team in the four-team playoff picture. It won the Big Ten, but suffered a 55-24 beatdown at the hands of unranked Iowa. The committee made the decision to include Alabama instead of OSU because of the magnitude of the ass-kicking the Buckeyes suffered at the hands of a no-name.

This year, Ohio State was the sixth team in the four-team playoff picture. It went 12-1 and won the Big Ten, but that one loss was a 49-21 beatdown at the hands of unranked Purdue. The committee made the decision to place Ohio State below Oklahoma and Georgia, because of the magnitude of the ass-kicking the Buckeyes suffered at the hands of a no-name.

There is nothing consistent about the decisions to put Ohio State below 2017 Alabama, 2018 Oklahoma, and 2018 Georgia besides the games Ohio State lost by four touchdowns to unranked teams. Last year’s Alabama team missed the SEC championship game after losing to Auburn in the regular season; this year’s Oklahoma team won its conference championship game; this year’s Georgia team lost its conference championship game to Alabama. The only constant is that in both years, the Ohio State teams in competition with Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma both lost by four touchdowns to midtier Big Ten West teams.

The 20 teams to make the playoff in its five years have lost a combined eight games to unranked teams. Seven of those losses came by one possession; four came by three points or fewer. The only multi-score loss to an unranked team by any playoff team was Ohio State’s 35-21 defeat at the hands of Virginia Tech in 2014, a loss the committee felt was mitigated by the fact it was the first start for quarterback J.T. Barrett after an injury to starter Braxton Miller.

I think it’s safe to say that the committee considers blowouts at the hands of unranked teams disqualifying. Don’t worry about out-of-conference scheduling, and don’t worry about whether or not your team makes a conference title game (or whether you win that game). Just worry about not getting wrecked by Purdue.

Be in a Power Conference

For the second season in a row, UCF went undefeated. Twelve games, 12 wins, no losses. The Knights haven’t lost a game since the 2016 Cure Bowl. They beat every team they played by double digits—their closest game was a 31-30 win against Memphis, but UCF got a rematch in its conference title game Saturday, and pasted the Tigers 56-41 despite an injury to starting quarterback McKenzie Milton. The Knights did everything asked of them.

And yet again UCF wasn’t even discussed as a potential option by the playoff committee. Committee chair Rob Mullens said that Georgia, Ohio State, and Oklahoma were all in the mix for the fourth and final spot, but UCF wasn’t even in the top six. The Knights didn’t even get a polite explanation for their exclusion. They weren’t even considered.

The committee might be inconsistent in many things, but it has been steadfast in systematically depressing the rankings of teams from outside the five power conferences. (This shouldn’t come as a surprise because, after all, the committee is run by the five power conferences.) If a team can win 25 games in a row and not even be top six, it’s clear that there is no conceivable path for a non-power-conference team to make the playoff.

This sucks. One of my favorite things about college football is the sheer variety; there are 130 FBS teams that have their own idiosyncrasies and quirks. And the committee has made it clear that from Day 1, roughly half of these teams can do nothing to make the playoff—even if they win every game this year, and even if they win every game next year. Non-power-conference teams are in perpetual purgatory. The sport would be more interesting if every team had a chance to play for the title, but the conferences that organize the playoff are too scared by the possibility of splitting their pie with the have-nots to even allow UCF to be considered. They have let their cowardice and greed supplant what is best for the sport. I hope UCF wins its bowl game and continues to win every game for as long as it takes for the committee to give up the sham.