Selecting a playoff based on “most deserving” rather than “best” is obviously a judgment call, and one that I honestly don’t think is a terrible idea in concept. Since teams play very different schedules every year, there will always be valid arguments to be made around the selection margins, and we don’t have (and may never have) a particularly egalitarian set of playoff-qualifying standards in college football. It’s one of the sport’s enduring … charms. I’m also more in favor of a selection committee process than a computer formula (or combination of formulae) determining the field, so long as the committee can be trusted to be well-informed and reasonably consistent in its deliberations and selections. The committee has new representation every year, and they are by no means infallible, but I think they’ve done a fair job every season in meeting that well-informed and reasonably consistent standard, especially as it relates to the playoff field itself.
Perhaps it’s unfair then to harp on the apparent inconsistencies with the 2020 selection committee rankings. Given the extraordinary disruptions to the typical schedule, and the cancellation of all but a few decent non-conference games, can we fault the committee for applying a different standard than in previous seasons?
While it’s striking to hear that coming from an advanced stats guru (and a guy I really respect), I do get where he’s coming from in the specific context of 2020. The pandemic, along with the bumbling we’ve seen from some of the P5 conferences, has made a hash of scheduling this season and that’s certainly made the selection committee’s job more challenging. Maybe you can make a case that some of the harsh criticism that’s gone their way is unfair.
All this being said, the term “most deserving” is a dicey one to use in a pandemic-plagued season, especially when teams were often not able to control whether they were able to play a given week, or even whether to start their season in August versus in late-October. I’m not really going to try to make an affirmative argument for Coastal Carolina to make a four-team playoff field over Ohio State, nor am I going to use 2020 data to make an argument for or against future playoff field expansion. I do think the committee’s primary faults are evidenced by their modest to severe suppression of the on-field achievements of Group of 5 teams. Wins against good teams, no matter how you define it, seem to matter more to the committee if they are won by Power 5 teams than if they are won by Group of 5 teams. The fact that the Big 12’s two-loss champion may squeeze into the playoff picture if chaos reigns this weekend, while the Sun Belt’s potentially undefeated champion will most certainly not, is the best evidence of this committee bias problem we’ve had in the playoff era.
This reinforces the point I made earlier this week. If anything, this season has only exacerbated the selection committee’s tendency — call it bias, if that makes you feel better — to favor the P5 over the mid-majors, because… well, you know why. But also, as I pointed out, that’s really played out in a way that doesn’t affect the bigger picture.
Chaos may yet reign this weekend, but we’re most likely to end up with a playoff field consisting of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Notre Dame when the dust settles. If this comes to pass, there will be little dispute that the committee “got it right” and selected the four best teams. But we should be willing to admit that measuring “best” this year is based significantly on our prior assumptions about the relative strength of teams and conferences.
I still strongly believe it’s in the best interest of the CFP to come up with a delivery system that does a better job of eliminating, or at least strongly reducing, the appearance of bias and conflicts of interest. But I’m not going to hold my breath that’s coming any time soon.