The College Football Playoff era began in a very real way last night with the first unveiling of the selection committee’s rankings.
What has struck me over the past few days has been the outpouring of opinion against the committee’s plan to release continuous rankings. Smart people — people I highly respect in the profession — just don’t think it’s a good idea. This doesn’t make me respect them any less; it’s just a curveball for my brain. I wasn’t expecting such pushback in response to what seems like common sense.
Joe Giglio, the excellent sportswriter for the Raleigh News & Observer, doesn’t like the weekly rankings, and if you click on the actual link to this tweet, you’ll see that Bomani Jones and Student Section columnist Allen Kenney also don’t like the idea, either:
I got into sportswriting when I was 19, in part, to argue about college football. But I have a bad feeling about these weekly rankings
— Joe Giglio (@jwgiglio) October 28, 2014
Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com is also on the side of those who don’t like the weekly rankings:
I dislike public rankings each week. But college football has managed to produce the most anticipated mock draft in sports history.
— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) October 28, 2014
Giglio, Jones, Kenney, Solomon — these are four whip-smart commentators on the college sports scene and beyond. They regularly add to my own understanding of the landscape and would always be welcome at my discussion table if I needed to have a conversation about topics of significance in collegiate athletics. Yet, they don’t like the weekly rankings.
It gives me pause, and it leads me to explore a basic question: “What is it that people are most worried about with respect to this selection committee model for college football?” This exploration will lead to an even simpler question at the heart of this whole process… and how it can already be improved for 2015.
The problem that has always dogged college football through the decades is that if you put 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 different people in a room, you’re going to get dozens of different opinions on what should lift one team over another in the rankings. Everyone has a different opinion in a sport where each conference is its own separate island, and there are minimal policies governing the structure and composition of the three or four non-conference games on a team’s slate. There are so few scheduling rules in college football that it’s extremely hard to prioritize in a comparison of similar resumes, and with teams playing only 12 to 13 games during the regular season — only eight to ten in their conferences — there just isn’t enough of a sample size to make complete comparisons in most cases.
I’ve said this for the past several years at my prior college football writing home, College Football News, but with the playoff rankings having been announced last night, it’s worth it for me to say it again to my new audience here at Bloguin and The Student Section: The main problem with college football is not the way the back end of the season (playoffs/bowls) is structured. The problem is the way the front end (the regular season) is structured.
One point that often slips under the radar in discussions of college football’s national championship race is that the composition of a non-conference schedule matters not just in terms of the teams one plays, but when a team plays them. Teams are very different in November compared to where they are in September. Yet, if you remove season-ending rivalry games (typically between teams from the ACC and SEC), there are very few high-profile non-conference games played in November.
The perfect proving ground for a playoff — something which would provide a tremendous amount of clarity for the selection committee and the fans and pundits who follow the sport — would be a BracketBuster-style set of non-conference games in early November each season. The recent round of conference alignment, not to mention the just-finalized playoff television deal, obviously represent substantial changes in the college football industry. For this reason, it’s understandable that schools, conferences, and TV partners would all want to take a deep breath for a few seasons. However, in 2017 or 2018, it should be well within ESPN’s power to stand athwart college football and re-order the season such that featured non-conference games among ranked teams could be played in early November, with the rest of the schedule being adjusted to accommodate that reality. If we were to get that kind of a change to the current situation, so many playoff arguments would be settled on the field, which is what fans and lovers of the sport (that includes the pundit class) ultimately want.
However, we’re not there yet.
The question becomes, “How do we make do with these manifestly imperfect circumstances, which make it very hard to come up with a consistent annual approach to the playoff and national title debates?”
It is therefore necessary to reiterate what was said above: Everyone in the room will have a different opinion. It has historically been impossible for this sport to agree on ordered, structured criteria. Picking the “best team” (or the two best teams, as in the BCS, or the four best teams, as in the case of the College Football Playoff) points to a criterion, but not a very ordered or structured one. Why? Everyone will have a different opinion of what it means to be the “best team.”
See how this process becomes so circular and frustrating? It has always been this way in college football. HOW DO WE BREAK FREE OF THIS?
It is important to make a key distinction at this point.
In officiating, everyone — fans, coaches, players — can agree on one thing: “Just be consistent.” If balls and strikes are always called a certain way, everyone knows what to expect and can adjust.
In college football, though, the unique nature of every season — combined with a small sample size and a lack of adequate non-conference competition among top teams — makes it hard to come up with a “balls and strikes” simplicity in evaluating teams. Since we don’t yet have a November BracketBuster, what can the sport do? This is where the weekly rankings — and objections to them — come into focus.
In attempting to understand why very smart college sports commentators do not like the idea of weekly rankings from the committee, the foremost reason I can identify is that any shifts in the rankings will be seen as a response to public or media pressure. This will therefore create the idea that these 12 people are vulnerable to little more than a political campaign each autumn. I can see why that would perpetuate a lot of concerns. Fair enough.
However, I would respond to my esteemed and more credentialed commentators by saying the following: Doesn’t the release of a weekly ranking add to transparency and openness? Shouldn’t we want to be able to track sets of rankings and therefore have a greater understanding of this process from week to week?
This is where we really get to the heart of the matter, more specifically, one of the two biggest problems with the selection committee model as it is currently constructed: The committee’s weekly votes are not open ballots made known to the public. This is no better than the Coaches’ Poll, in which ballots were not disclosed until after the final vote of the season. What is (or was) so enlightened about a non-disclosure policy until the season ended? How could any of those coaches be subjected to corrective pressure or any educational mechanisms or forces? At the very least, coaches’ next-to-last ballots needed to be made public so that they could be grilled and held to account by the public before their final (decisive) vote. Yes, the Coaches’ Poll shouldn’t even exist; frankly, it never should have been allowed to exist in the first place. (Again, a different conversation for a different day.) Yet, if one was going to bother to have a Coaches’ Poll to begin with, ballots needed to be made public during the season, not just at the end of it.
The selection committee should be making its ballots public whenever it votes. This lack of transparency is what makes it hard for skeptics (and skepticism is precisely what should be brought to this process…) to think that weekly rankings are a good idea.
We arrive at a contradiction of sorts: Having weekly rankings offers a form of transparency. Yet, not making ballots public works against transparency. The point emerges: It’s not a matter of whether a process contains a certain virtue or attribute; it’s the degree to which the virtue is present, the form which the attribute acquires.
To go back to the officiating example, when balls and strikes are being called, everyone in baseball wants consistency.
Selecting College Football Playoff teams is not as simple as calling balls and strikes, however. Therefore, “consistency” is an elusive thing. One can’t just desire consistency in itself; it’s the kind of consistency which matters most.
THIS problem — not having the right kind of consistency in its playoff or bowl selection processes — is an even more precise way of identifying what has plagued college football throughout all our lifetimes, no matter how old or young we might be.
I have three final things to say to the long list of (smart and appropriately skeptical) commentators who think this system won’t really work that well:
1) I agree with you that it probably won’t work that well.
2) If committee member ballots were made public, and if an ordered hierarchy of requirements for playoff inclusion was created — ideally, with strength of schedule as the number one component — you would probably be much more comfortable about the idea of weekly rankings.
3) Let’s allow this process about which we’re all (appropriately) skeptical to run its course, and then see exactly how we can correct it for 2015 and beyond.
What’s that very, very simple question I referred to above, the simple question which cuts right to the heart of this process and how it needs to be tweaked in future years?
We, as college football followers — whether as working journalists (I’m not one), editorial commentators (which I am), or fans (which I used to be before I become an editorial commentator) — so easily get caught up in the “WHAT” of things: the teams that get picked; the conferences that are better; the games that are bigger or more valuable, et cetera.
However, the fairness (or lack thereof) in a college football playoff or bowl selection system has always needed one question more than “WHAT?”
That very simple question: “HOW?”
HOW do you decide on the top teams?
HOW do you arrive at an ordered criteria for inclusion or exclusion?
HOW do you disclose votes during the season and make your committee open to exchanges of new information and context?
HOW? That’s the question we should always ask in college football, even as the “WHAT” of things catches our eye.
There’s one final point to be made, and one final officiating analogy to present to you:
Games are decided by what athletes do with a ball. Fans watch the ball. This is the “WHAT” of sports. Fans are happy when the ball goes through the hoop or sad when a ball flies wide of the upright. These are “WHAT” concepts.
Officials, on the other hand, are trained to look at the “HOW” of sports — did the tennis player hit that ball after the ball bounced a second time? Did the release of that game-winning shot occur before the red light went on? Did that tag at second base involve obstruction with the runner’s attempt to get back to the bag? Officials are trained to look away from the ball, at the process, in addition to the ball itself.
The results — the WHAT of college football — will occur one way or another. If you’re able to ask “HOW?” on a consistent basis, you’ll be a better skeptic of this system, and a better judge of how the contending teams will stack up on the morning of Dec. 7.
Let’s hope that in future years, public ballots from the selection committee and ordered, structured criteria become parts of this process. Then, smart people will have less reason to be skeptical about the release of weekly rankings.