The most important question regarding the crowning of college football's champion has always been whether the system got it right. In the poll days, it was a question of whether the votes were cast correctly, during the BCS era, whether the polls and computers combined to determine the two best teams for a Championship Game and now in the playoff era it's whether the committee has selected the four best. Unfortunately, this question is also the most ambiguous and difficult to answer objectively. While proponents of teams one through four surely believe the committee has done a spectacular job, fans from teams five and on are likely less enthusiastic about the results. The committee's current report card is below, and next up we'll be attempting an objective discussion on whether the committee got it right.
The Four Best Teams
The Selection Committee's stated mandate is to find the four best teams to compete in the college football playoff. Whether picking the four best teams is preferable to the four best conference champions remains debatable, nevertheless, "best" is the stated goal of the Selection Committee.
In the first two season of the playoff era, however, the four best seems to have given way to the four most deserving.
In the first season of the Selection Committee, Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State made the cut. The two Big 12 co-champions, TCU and Baylor, were shut out of the post season playoff, despite being statistically superior teams than Florida State. This goes back to the previous discussion of the Seminoles getting a boost from their Past Championship, but is worth examining closer.
If the mandate is simply to find the four best teams, the most literal translation of this is the four teams that would be favored in games over every other team. There are numerous statistics that are used to identify this, and as the successful enterprise that is Vegas bookkeeping can attest to, they are quite accurate. Some of these statistics include FPI, F/+ and Jeff Sagarin's rankings, all of which held TCU in the top 6, while Florida State's highest metric was 14th.
Even the essence of subjectivity that is the "eye test" demonstrated clearly that Florida State struggled terribly to close out the season while TCU was playing some of its best football.
The argument can be made that because Florida State was an undefeated champion of a Power Five conference that they deserved to prove themselves in the playoff, and it's a solid argument to be sure. But again, that is not the mandate of the committee.
The four best.
That's what they claim to be looking for, and it is the phrase that had the SEC thinking they might sneak several teams in the door when all this was first being debated. Despite the push for only conference champions, the objective remained open ended, the four best.
And yet, despite the fact that TCU was also a conference champion, or at least a co-champion, and was statistically a better team than Florida State, the Seminoles made the playoff, as what can only be described as one of the four most deserving teams.
Numerous articles have been written with regard to how the committee ought to be selecting these teams, and there are strong points to be made about conference championships, undefeated seasons and teams that are more deserving due to strength of schedule or conference difficulty. While these are all fair points, we can only evaluate the committee based on their own stated objective, which is finding the four best teams.
In this past season, a similar situation occurred. In this case Michigan State, despite being ranked outside of the top ten in FPI, F/+ and the Sagarin Rankings, was considered one of the four best teams. Meanwhile Stanford, a team who sat within the top ten in all of these statistics, was left out. Stanford's two losses compared to Michigan State's single loss was likely the difference here, but if the goal is to find unequivocally the four best teams, the penalty of a loss shouldn't be as severe as the benefit of a far more difficult strength of schedule.
The Committee could have considered a common opponent, Oregon, in this situation, who the Spartans beat early in the season and Stanford lost to towards the end, if not for the massively important Vernon Adams factor, the Ducks star quarterback who was injured for the game against Michigan State.
As evidence of the discrepancy in the ability of these two teams, the Cardinal proceeded to overwhelmingly thrash Iowa in the Rose Bowl 45-16, the same Iowa team Michigan State went to the final minutes with in the Big Ten Conference Championship and edged out 16-13, while the Spartans served as a doormat for eventual National Champion Alabama, to the tune of 38-0.
Again, while it can be argued that Michigan State's one win better record made them the more deserving team, the committee should recognize that four most deserving and four best teams are not the same thing.
Stanford certainly cost themselves a shot in the playoff by inexplicitly losing to Northwestern the first game of the season, but that doesn't change the fact that they were one of the four best teams at the end of the season. Upsets happen, and when they do, they should have an impact, but the committee should also be clear and straight forward about what they are looking for.
While both seasons had one questionable selection, it is one out of four, so the success rate has been fairly good overall, and there will always be controversy near the cutoff line, it's one of the best aspects of the sport. The Committee, however, has not been particularly challenged in the past two seasons. We have not had a season that has multiple undefeated Group of Five teams, Notre Dame as a national power or a combination of Power Five Conference Champions that should not be overlooked as well as two from a single conference that are overwhelming. These seasons have occurred in the recent past, however, and are sure to spring up to challenge the committee in the years to come. It should be interesting to see how they react.
If college football is searching for the four most deserving teams to fill the playoff, the Committee has succeeded both years, if they are looking for the four best, they have failed.
Four Best: B-
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