Do the College Football Playoff Rankings do More Harm than Good?

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When the initial College Football Playoff rankings came out two weeks ago, some people were pleased, and some were…well, not. First there was one-loss Alabama coming in at number four—good enough where if the season ended then they would have made the playoff—above various other undefeated teams. Then there was the Big 12, which very similarly to last season, appeared to get snubbed as Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State all came in behind teams with a worse record.

Following the release of these rankings, Alabama’s head coach Nick Saban was asked about his reactions to the rankings and also the Crimson Tide’s rank despite having lost already. While Saban acknowledged the rankings, he had a clear message: with many teams having five or six games left, including potential Conference Championship games, the rankings don’t matter. The rankings might let teams know how they’re doing each week in the committee’s eyes, but at the end of the day, there’s a lot of football left to be played and the rankings don’t really matter as Saban eloquently put it. Thus, the question becomes why does the committee release the weekly rankings this early and often?

Alabama football head coach Nick Saban celebrates a win at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 9, 2013 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
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First, it appears the Football Playoff selection committee has the old BCS system in mind in this regard. Every season around the same time the BCS would release rankings alongside the AP and Coaches poll that gave each team’s ranking according to the BCS formula. Just as the Playoff committee’s motives are questioned today, these numbers came off as more fan-friendly (or unfriendly if you’re team got snubbed) than actually relevant to how the rankings would look at the end. As we learned a season ago under the playoff format, even if a team wins out (cough…the Big 12…cough), the rankings can change before the final selection.

An important question—one that Saban indirectly addressed—is what do these mid-season rankings accomplish? Sure, they fuel an already stoked fire in certain teams’ rankings, or lack thereof. But that’s all they do. Evidenced by the ever-changing nature of the rankings up until the final games have been played, they merely give a broad perspective of where teams would stand if the season ended today.

The NCAA did the right thing when it finally implemented a playoff. After all, the BCS system had various flaws and taking the selection away from a computer and giving it to physical people humanized the process. With four teams given a chance to compete for the coveted National Championship instead of just two, the Playoff gave college football more parity. This might all be true, too. Then again, undefeated No.25 Houston probably doesn’t think so. As any smaller school come March Madness will tell you in terms of college basketball, playing weaker schedules in a smaller conference doesn’t get you respect from the committee. It’s the big schools from the big conferences that get the bids.

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March Madness and the NCAA Tournament offer an interesting comparison in this regard. Imagine this: half way through the college basketball season or so, the selection committee ranked the top-64 teams in their eyes. Then every week or so they’d update the rankings and keep doing so until Selection Sunday. There’s enough uproar upon the committee’s one and only public ranking, though, that making it a weekly process would practically bring down the house.

Maybe the Football Playoff Selection Committee needs to take a page from the basketball committee’s book. Sure, football’s process might generate more fan interest—probably more money, too, which is evidently the end game for the NCAA in all regards for college football—but it doesn’t help the game in anyway. These weekly updates generate a lot more controversy: something the NCAA should be trying to shy away from. The rankings also further the perpetual “fairness” question between big and small schools—again, something this playoff format was supposed to mitigate.

Let’s be honest here. The NCAA has a Selection Sunday for football on December 7; i.e. trying to turn the football playoff into March Madness. Not a bad idea if only they followed that established formula. One ranking. That’s it. Fans and teams, alike, have the AP and coaches poll all season to give them a benchmark of where they stand. It’s not like a team on the outside looking in is going to play harder the next week because of their Playoff ranking. In his weekly press conference two weeks ago, Nick Saban rhetorically asked, “I don’t even know why they do them?” in regard to the mid-season rankings. He’s right.