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First College Football Rankings

by Noah Gould

Tuesday night the first college football selection committee made the first of what they say will be many Tuesday night top 25 announcements. In 5 years we might look back on this committee, the way we look at the BCS , as an obsolete atrociously terrible way to decide championships. We might look back at the four team playoff the way that as too few teams playing to decide too much similarly to how we view the BCS championship game right now. But this is what we have as our system for the 2014 season. And since it’s all that we have we might as well strive to understand it and to try to figure out how the upcoming 7 weeks will affect the final four.
The committee’s opening rankings clearly showed the criteria that they will use to measure these teams even if the committee didn’t come out and say what they are. The committee clearly values record above everything else. The top 2 teams are both undefeated. Teams 3 to 17 are all one loss teams and teams 18 to 25 are all 2 loss teams or one loss teams that haven’t beaten or lost to a single quality opponent. This process will be tested before the second rankings even come out. 3Auburn plays 4Ole Miss on Saturday. The loss for either team will be both a loss to a very highly ranked team and the team’s second loss. If the loser of that game drops all the way down to the pack of 2 loss teams it will clearly show that having a second loss is next to death for a team’s playoff chances. It will probably show that a second team from the SEC won’t make the playoff if it has 2 losses, and that a two loss conference champion has a slim chance of making it in unless some of the other conference champions also have multiple losses. It is impossible for 3 SEC teams to have less than 2 losses.
It is clear that the second most important piece of criteria right behind straight up record is who exactly a team has beaten. What is clear, based on the rankings is that who a team has lost to is much less important. For example Notre Dame’s loss is to the #2 ranked team on a last second debatable penalty call. Notre Dame is ranked 8th among one loss teams even though their loss is the least damning of any loss any team has. Who a team lost to or by how much doesn’t matter it’s who they beat that does. Michigan State and Notre Dame have a common opponent. They both beat Michigan at home by over 20, but Notre Dame’s margin of victory was 7 points higher. Michigan State lost to 5Oregon on the road by double digits. While that game was closer than the final score would indicate it was still not remotely as close as the Notre Dame Florida State finish. But there is a reason for Michigan State to be ranked ahead of Notre Dame. Michigan State beat 17Nebraska at home. Notre Dame has not won against a ranked team yet this season. That is the only logical reason why Michigan State could possibly be ranked ahead of Notre Dame. Alabama, Oregon, Auburn, Ole Miss, Kansas State, and TCU all have the same story. They have all lost to a team worse than Florida State by more points than Notre Dame lost to Florida State by. Additionally each team has more wins against ranked teams than Notre Dame does. It seems obvious that this selection committee has a system. Record first followed by number of “quality wins”. The system doesn’t account for the fact that the 30th best team is way better than the 60th best team even if both are unranked teams in power conferences. The system also doesn’t account for home/road games, margin of victory/defeat, or of course how good the team you lost to is. The system does have huge flaws but it easily explains almost all of the unexpected rankings.
The committee system focuses strongly on how good a team’s wins are. Now, it would make sense that if the rankings of teams beaten are being strongly considered that the rankings of the teams lost to would also be strongly considered. I mean the reasons that you would given to explain why who you beat is so important and the same reasons that you would give to explain why who you lost to is important. The two are intrinsically connected. By only looking at wins vs. ranked teams and not looking at losses or margin of wins or loses the committee is making its job easier and its system easier to understand and eliminating room for debate. You can’t argue that Notre Dame has beaten more ranked teams than 4Ole Miss, but you can still argue that isn’t the be all end all stat.
In a way this system punishes teams for playing against the creams of the crop and losing. It simultaneously rewards teams for playing against ranked teams in the 15-25 range. While it does seem a little unfair it probably will in the long run encourage ADS to created tougher schedules and more difficult matchups which would make the sport more exciting. Unfortunately the problem of teams making a tough schedule only to see traditionally good teams have bad years still can’t be solved.
These rankings by the committee make no sense and don’t consider at all that Notre Dame’s loss was in one of the best games of this century, on the road, and against the undefeated defending national champion on a 22 game winning streak. And that loss came on a bad penalty call.
It is unclear whether head to head results matter to the selection committee at all. Ole Miss is higher than Alabama and Oregon is ranked higher than Michigan State. On the other hand TCU is ranked higher than Baylor. So, the committee probably doesn’t value head to head results very much. This is contrary to the initial reactions of the ESPN pundits on the rankings show.
The powers that be have been saying for months now that conference championships will be valued. What has been unclear is exactly how much. Obviously this cannot be determined at all from this opening poll.  This will be very important for this season in particular because Notre Dame, the second best SEC West team and all the big 12 teams that are in the mix right now won’t have conference championships. What the conference championships will definitely represent is another game against a ranked opponent for each participant which is clearly important in this system.
There are 2 major things to look for in the next poll. The loser of the Ole Miss Auburn game will become the best 2 loss team. How far they drop will show how high 2 loss teams will be ranked by the committee and how the committee feels about these SEC west teams. Another thing that will be important to watch for is how much movement occurs from weak to weak. The polls generally don’t have much movement at the top from week to week, but this committee seems to have more of a defined system than the polls did.
It looks like we know the criteria and system that the committee will use to decide the first college football playoff.It is a simple ranking first by number of losses then by number of quality wins. It will be interesting to watch this season unfold. It seems likely that many of the current top 10 will lose. The committee will weigh in on the value of the conference championships and on the merits of putting in multiple teams from the same conference. History is truly being made this season and precedents are clearly being set. This could be the first of many committees. It could be the committee after which all committees are modeled or it could be the beginning of the end of the committee system and a punch line for decades to come.

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