How (Not) To Argue About The College Football Playoff

After the six top-25 games we witnessed on Saturday, a number of teams have either been eliminated from the College Football Playoff or consigned to the periphery of the chase. More urgently, though, the next college football Saturday is Nov. 15, marking week 12 of the season. It really does seem as though we’ve hit the home stretch. No team has more than four games left; most have no more than three. A few have two unless they’re ticketed for a conference championship game.

In other words, it’s late enough in the season to say that we’ve reached what I call argument season.

Therefore, it’s time for us to be clear about the process we’re going to engage in (often) over the next four weeks, up to Selection Sunday on Dec. 7.



Discussing Ohio State's loss to Virginia Tech is just one of many different components of this year's playoff argument. Handling early-season head-scratchers is an annual feature of college football's November debate parade.

Ohio State’s loss to Virginia Tech is just one of many different components of this year’s playoff debate. The way one treats early-season head-scratchers is an annual feature of college football’s November argument festival.

A constant problem with college football has been the sport’s inability to pin down a hierarchy of criteria in its end-of-season rankings, regardless of the “system” put in place to determine said rankings. Whether college football went with the poll-and-bowl model, the Bowl Alliance model, or the Bowl Championship Series, the basic problems have stayed the same.

Fans of Team A argue for head-to-head. Fans of Team B argue for strength of schedule. Fans of Team C argue that their team’s loss is better than any other competitor’s loss. Fans of Team D argue that their team’s best win is better than any other competitor’s best win. Put the same schools in different positions a season later, and see if fans adhere to the arguments they used the previous year.

You won’t find many.

What harms the process of determining the teams in the College Football Playoff (formerly the BCS title game) is that college football has failed to say which criteria gain priority over others. There are points of emphasis, but without a clear order — and not just under this new playoff model. The BCS was a mixture of votes and computer formulas, but there was no rulebook… certainly not for the voters. The only essential focus was to select “the two best teams.” Well, how does one define “best”? It was all quite subjective and particularly subject to politics.

We still have that in the College Football Playoff — it’s going to be up to 12 people to make their own determinations. They are not beholden to certain ordered criteria. They have guidelines, but they get to choose which factors matter more than others. It’s a situation made for arguments.

This is a bug, not a feature, in college football — let’s be clear about that. Yet, it’s the world we still live in, so let’s at least try to conduct arguments in a manner which provides more clarity, not less.


Texas A&M winning, or Auburn losing -- which matters more in evaluating the SEC? That's another topic to argue about in the days and weeks ahead.

Texas A&M winning, or Auburn losing — which matters more in evaluating the SEC? That’s another topic to argue about in the days and weeks ahead.

Here’s how one can argue about the College Football Playoff, with an occasional note on how not to argue:

Do you want to emphasize strength of schedule over 12 games? A head-to-head result out of conference? A head-to-head result within a conference? A conference championship?

You’re not going to be told that you can argue for only one of those items.

What you’re going to be told is that there are limitations to each of these argument points. There are limitations to just about every argument point. That’s part of how reasonable people argue.

If you want to emphasize strength of schedule, for instance, you can point to a best loss or best win, but an unstated presumption in such an argument is that the resumes are close enough in the other games to make game 12 a tiebreaker or — for purposes of this piece — an argument-decider.

This is a core principle which applies to College Football Playoff (formerly BCS) argumentation: You can choose your priority, but whatever it is, it must honor the full resume. Emphases on select games or teams matter, but they matter within that larger context, not apart from it.


Let’s dive into actual 2014 examples:

Start with the SEC West No. 2 team, with two losses, versus two-loss Oregon. This specific scenario is based on the Ducks losing to a specific opponent under specific circumstances: 11-1 Arizona State in a potential Pac-12 Championship Game.

Let’s move through this example by using each SEC West contender’s possible arguments. Mississippi State fans naturally hope to have no more than one loss (ideally none), but let’s say the Bulldogs lose to Alabama and Ole Miss. They’d have a win over Auburn and a win at LSU — those are the scalps one would most immediately point to. However, there are other details to compare:

1) The SEC East is lousy this season, so there’s no high-quality win to be found there. (This goes for other SEC West teams — they lack quality wins against the East as well.)

2) The non-conference schedule: Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama, Tennessee-Martin.

3) MSU’s win over Texas A&M now looks a lot better than it did before Texas A&M beat Auburn.

4) MSU’s win over Texas A&M still isn’t a top-tier notch in the belt, because of all the Aggies failed to do over the previous month.

When assessing a two-loss Alabama; two-loss Ole Miss; and two-loss Auburn, you would want to use the above points, with the details being slightly different. For instance, in the realm of the non-conference schedule, Ole Miss played Presbyterian, Boise State, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Memphis. Boise State is the best win, and ULL is a decent win. Memphis gained a measure of value with a win over Temple on Friday, but certainly not enough value to radically reshape one’s impression of a resume. (Had Memphis beaten UCLA earlier in the season, to cite a different example, this would be more of a talking point from an Ole Miss perspective.)

Let’s move to Auburn: The Tigers have a road win at Kansas State… but they lost to A&M at home. The Tigers can’t be seen on the same plane as Mississippi State — this is a good thing if you’re arguing for Auburn on some fronts, but not on others. This determines whether you emphasize certain arguments more than others, but you have to concede that a competitor has good arguments to make in other areas.


Let’s use a very specific example to flesh out this point even more, noting how arguments can and do change during the season:

Take Alabama’s non-conference schedule: Alabama beat West Virginia, but the Mountaineers have lost two straight games, so the way WVU is valued is changing, and not for the better from the Tide’s perspective. If you made a West Virginia argument in September, it wouldn’t have been a favorable one for Alabama. If you made a West Virginia argument in late October, it would have been a very favorable one for Alabama. A West Virginia argument right now has lost some value, but it can gain back a lot of value if WVU beats Kansas State on Nov. 20 (a Thursday night game).

What you do for a non-conference opponent such as West Virginia also applies to Oregon’s main non-conference opponent, Michigan State. It would also apply to the non-conference schedule of Oregon’s likely opponent in the Pac-12 title game, Arizona State. Why? The answer is simple: One would need to evaluate the quality of that loss if indeed the Ducks lose that contest and fall to 11-2. You would want to get a better feel for how good Arizona State is (and isn’t). Reinforcing the dynamic in play with West Virginia in its upcoming game versus Kansas State, any evaluation of Arizona State will shift based on whether the Sun Devils defeat Arizona or not on Thanksgiving weekend.


We’re almost done here with this primer, but before we close, one note about how NOT to argue:

You don’t get to say, “Anyone who loses to Virginia Tech (a reference to Ohio State) should automatically be eliminated.” What if another team loses a couple extra games? What if the resume outside of one very bad loss is exceptionally good? Stick with 12-game arguments.

The same goes for TCU and Baylor playing a 61-58 game. Plenty of people on Twitter will say (and have said to me over the past few weeks) that “Anyone who gives up 61 or 58 points should be excluded from a discussion.” Well… no. This kind of thinking allows someone from another conference to claim that “Anyone who plays a 3-0 game should be excluded, too.” No — you cannot argue like that.

Picking apart the characteristics of any individual game (other than the reality of a head-to-head win between similar teams) is an act of referring to the details of that game. There are 11 other games (12 other games for conference championship game participants) to compare. Arguments can start with single-game comparisons, but they have to lead to full-resume comparisons. What you choose to emphasize within your 12- or 13-game comparisons? That’s your right and your choice.


In the end, there’s just one thing to say: Keep re-evaluating everything that’s been mentioned above over the next four weeks. The worst flaw in any argument is one that ceases to be open to new facts or changes in the value of information when a competition has not fully run its course.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |