The College Football Playoff system was created three years ago as a replacement to the BCS. The BCS was a computer based program that took different data points and compiled them to create bowl matchups. The system was easy to use when there were two teams that were clearly better than the rest, but when there were multiple undefeated teams or multiple teams with similar records, the system became controversial. The hope for the new playoff committee is that the process would be clearer and there would be certain categories that would objectively separate teams to help rank them. As we sit only a few days from selection Sunday, there are many ways that the final rankings could shake out, and many arguments for why certain teams belong in or out. This article will look at what the committee looks at and how they determine who’s in.

The Goals

In the selection committee’s protocol, they state that their goal is “to select the four best teams from among several with legitimate claims to participate.” What makes a team the best? What is a legitimate claim? These are the debates that the committee and college football fans have around the country. Is this best team the team that wins by the biggest margin? Is it the team with the most wins? Is it the team that is playing the best at the end of the season? It is not an easy process, but there is some guidance for the committee when they make their decision.

What to look at?

The protocol states that the “criteria to be provided to the selection committee must be aligned with the ideals of the (committee)…to honor regular season success.”  Additionally, the criteria must be flexible enough to allow for a non-champion or independent to be considered as one of the best four teams. So what does this mean? It means that the selection committee looks at a number of factors to determine which teams are worthy of the playoff.

This first level of selection includes looking at overall record, conference record, record against top-25 at the time of the game, record against current top-25, AP ranking and other general requirements. This process usually leaves the committee with about 15-20 teams vying for the playoff when the first rankings come out. Over time that number drops to about a half-dozen to ten teams that have a legitimate claim to participate. This is where we currently stand. According to fivethirtyeight.com, the teams ranked 10 and above in the current standings are the only teams with a greater than one percent chance of making the playoff. The committee has narrowed it down from 128 teams at the beginning of the season to ten teams now. The process for separating these teams is more complicated and involves different metrics.

Teams 1 and 2 can be separated from teams 9 and 10 pretty simply. It’s the teams in between that make things more difficult and lead to more argument. When splitting hairs among teams with similar records and similar resumes, the committee turns to so-called “tie-breakers” to apply to teams that look similar.

These tie-breakers include conference championships, strength of schedule, head-to-head results and similar opponents. Conference champion is easy: either you won one or you didn’t. Strength of schedule is how difficult your opponents are based on the season they are having: are you playing ranked opponents on the road (Ohio State) or are you playing FCS opponents at home (Washington). Head-to-head is self-explanatory as well: if these two teams played already, who won? Similar opponent is a metric used if the teams did not play each other, but similarly played an opponent (Oklahoma’s performance against Ohio State will be compared to Penn State’s for example.) These four tie-breakers are only used if the teams are comparable. Looking at these factors are useful for comparing Oklahoma State to Alabama, but they will help when comparing Wisconsin to Washington.

There are other factors that the committee does not “officially” consider, but they come into play nonetheless. They claim that margin of victory or defeat is not important, but rather game control. A team that wins 24-0 can control the game just as much as a team that wins 70-3. Each game is viewed in context, and just because you ran up the score, does not give you an advantage.

Additionally, because each game is viewed in context, the committee looks at how the game was played and any extenuating circumstances that may have hampered a team. Even though Ohio State lost to Penn State, they lost on the road in a very difficult atmosphere on a blocked field goal. Not the worst way to lose. Losing by two touchdowns at home: not a good look (Washington).

Connected to strength of schedule is strength of record. Just because you play tough teams does not mean you should be considered for the playoff. Strength of record is how your 11-2 record compares to another similar record. For example, would Washington be 11-1 if they played Wisconsin’s schedule?

Beyond looking at the games and their results, the committee also considers conference pedigree and competitiveness. If they thought the Big-12 was the best conference, then the Bedlam winner would be in the playoff. They do not think that, and therefore even with the win it is unlikely that Oklahoma or Oklahoma State makes it in. The committee looks at offensive and defensive efficiency and ranks to see if a team is talented and playing well and if their team has any flaws.

What’s the result?

Hopefully, the result is the four best teams in the playoffs. Everybody, including members of the committee, has opinions as to which factors should be considered more heavily and which teams are ultimately more deserving. This article should provide some more guidance into how the decisions are made in Grapevine, Texas. Ultimately, it will be up to the committee to make their decision and pick the four best teams and it’s up to the fans to complain and argue about it.

Who’s in your top four and why? Tweet @SST_WI and let us know.

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