Since their inception however many decades ago, college football rankings have been inherently flawed. They've been constrained by everything from the "watch habits" of their constituency to their early-season release leading to uninformed narratives.
We always thought to ourselves, "Man, wouldn't it be nice to have a college football poll that started at least halfway through the season and had a constituency that was mandated to watch at least some of the games?"
Not coincidentally, we've also been clamoring for a college football playoff for decades as well.
Well, guess what? NOW WE HAVE BOTH!
I mean, what an era we live in, huh, kids? Not only do we now have a four-team college football playoff, and not only is it actually called the College Football Playoff (proper-noun status), but the poll that essentially decides it wasn't released until October 28, with a couple months worth of actual data to evaluate, and actual conference calls to discuss the rankings, and actual diversity and informedness among the constituency of voters (for the most part, not you, Ty Willingham).
Pretty glorious. Who knew college football could get this right? (To be fair, it won't be totally right until we go to an eight-team playoff with the five "power" conference champions and three at-large teams. Perfect dynamic, optimal inclusion-exclusion ratio, TV-friendly, bowl-season-friendly, just too perfect.)
By the way, if you haven't familiarized yourself with the committee assembling these rankings or their process, and if (like me) you've spent your entire adult life frazzled by college football polls, you should go to the playoff's website. They're taking the process pretty seriously and are doing this with a fair amount of transparency.
Okay, so let's take a look at the first College Football Playoff rankings for the 2014 season. Here's the top 25:
1. Mississippi State (7-0) 2. Florida State (7-0) 3. Auburn (6-1) 4. Ole Miss (7-1) 5. Oregon (7-1) 6. Alabama (7-1) 7. TCU (6-1) 8. Michigan State (7-1) 9. Kansas State (6-1) 10. Notre Dame (6-1) 11. Georgia (6-1) 12. Arizona (6-1) 13. Baylor (6-1) 14. Arizona State (6-1) 15. Nebraska (7-1) 16. Ohio State (6-1) 17. Utah (6-1) 18. Oklahoma (5-2) 19. LSU (7-2) 20. West Virginia (6-2) 21. Clemson (6-2) 22. UCLA (6-2) 23. East Carolina (6-1) 24. Duke (6-1) 25. Louisville (6-2)
Okay, my first-blush forensics on this poll:
1. Go ahead and draw the line on teams with a truly viable shot at getting into this thing in between #14 Arizona State and #15 Nebraska (I'd caveat that a Utah win over ASU this weekend could move them above that line, but that loss to Washington State is bad for the Utes). Arizona State still has three games left with teams in the top 17 (Utah, Notre Dame, at Arizona) and a potential Pac-12 title game with potential "by then slotted for the playoffs" Oregon. Essentially, a one-loss ASU versus a one-loss Oregon for the Pac-12 title would get treated like a play-in game. Guaranteed.
Now, it won't matter because Notre Dame is beating Arizona State in a couple of weeks, which brings us to...
2. Notre Dame at number 10 is probably the best example of a theme in these rankings -- it's way more important to have good wins than it is valiant losses, and you know what? I have no problem with that. Notre Dame has the best loss of the season (cringing calling losses "good," but you know what I mean), a controversial road loss to #2 FSU that came down to the final play. But the Irish have beaten nobody, really, other than unranked Stanford. They still have some decent games (at #14 ASU, vs #25 Louisville, at USC), but the Irish need help.
3. Digging into the one-loss teams, you can see the trend I outlined with Notre Dame, beginning with #3 Auburn, which has wins over LSU and on the road at Kansas State (the most impressive win of the one-loss teams). On top of that, their only loss is to #1 Mississippi State on the road. Auburn actually hits both touch points (good wins, loss to good teams), which is why they're the top one-loss team.
4. The easiest way to do the rest of this may be to list the one-loss teams (that matter) with their quality (current Top 25) wins and who they lost to:
* #3 AUBURN -- WINS: vs #19 LSU, at #9 Kansas St, LOSS: at #1 Mississippi State * #4 OLE MISS -- WINS: vs #6 Alabama, LOSS: at #19 LSU * #5 OREGON -- WINS: vs #7 Michigan State, LOSS: vs #12 Arizona * #6 ALABAMA -- WINS: vs #20 West Virginia, LOSS: at #4 Ole Miss * #7 TCU -- WINS: vs #18 Oklahoma, LOSS: at #13 Baylor * #8 MICHIGAN ST -- WINS: vs #15 Nebraska, LOSS: at #5 Oregon * #9 KANSAS ST -- WINS: at #18 Oklahoma, LOSS: vs #3 Auburn * #10 NOTRE DAME -- WINS: None, LOSS: at #2 Florida State * #11 GEORGIA -- WINS: vs #21 Clemson, LOSS: at South Carolina * #12 ARIZONA -- WINS: None, LOSS: vs USC * #13 BAYLOR -- WINS: None, LOSS: at #20 West Virginia * #14 ARIZONA ST -- WINS: None, LOSS: vs UCLA (blowout) * #15 NEBRASKA -- WINS: None, LOSS: at #8 Michigan State * #16 OHIO STATE -- WINS: None, LOSS: vs Virginia Tech * #17 UTAH -- WINS: None, LOSS: vs Washington State
Another message to take away from the list above -- a good loss won't really help you as much as a bad loss will kill you. What's up, Ohio State?
5. Speaking of the Big Ten, unless Michigan State wins out, there is virtually no chance of the Big Ten having a rep in the playoff. That weekend early in the season when Ohio State was losing to Virginia Tech and McNeese State was coming within an Ameer Abdullah miracle of winning in Lincoln, it all just still sticks too closely to the entire league. I mean, the two teams I just named are the second and third best teams in the conference! So look for Michigan State to get plenty of referee favoritism the rest of the way in their Big Ten games.
6. Head to head at least appears to matter more to the committee than it does to the voters in the coaches poll (which used to be a huge part of the BCS equation). The coaches poll this week has four instances in the top 18 of one-loss teams ahead of the teams that beat them head to head:
1. #3 Alabama ahead of #9 Ole Miss 2. #5 Michigan State ahead of #6 Oregon 3. #6 Oregon ahead of #15 Arizona 4. #10 TCU ahead of #12 Baylor
The CFP committee flipped the first two of those around and narrowed the gap on the third one. The only one that widened the gap was TCU and Baylor, clearly showing that Baylor needs to beat somebody if they're going to make a move. (This is where Oklahoma's having two losses hurts Baylor. The game next week was labeled a "de facto playoff game" before the season.)
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7. Finally, my "controls their own destiny" list looks like this:
1. MISSISSIPPI STATE: Stay undefeated, they're in 2. FLORIDA STATE: Stay undefeated, they're in 11. GEORGIA: Win out, win the SEC Title game, SEC champ will go (in my opinion)
(NOTE: The tiebreaker for a multiple team tie in the SEC is the difficulty of your interdivisional games, so it's complicated right now for Auburn, Ole Miss and Alabama, which is why I'm refraining from saying they "control their own destiny." Hell, right now Vanderbilt and Tennessee could control their destiny! Yeah, there are still some glitches in the matrix.)