On Wednesday, the College Football Playoff laid out the criteria for its selection committee. For the most part, these criteria were expected:
CFB Playoff selection criteria includes: record, SOS, conference champIonships won, head to head and record vs. common opponents.— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) April 30, 2014
This all makes sense; essentially, it's a matter of resume. The teams with the most quality wins and best records will ultimately get invites. While the resume system certainly has its critics, that's been the bread-and-butter of the NCAA Tournament committee because it rewards teams who have taken care of business and scheduled appropriately.
But as it turns out, the NCAA might have resume-like criteria but not actually follow that type of system.
Jeff Long says it's not most DESERVING teams, but the focus is the BEST four teams that shall get into the bracket— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) April 30, 2014
It may seem like a technicality, but those words — "best" and "deserving" — are very different. For example, in a resume-like system that forces the committee to follow the criteria of record, strength-of-schedule, conference championships, etc., it would be very hard for, say, 10-2 Alabama to jump an 11-1 Washington team that has a better strength-of-schedule. But by allowing the committee to choose the team it thinks is the best, members have the freedom to say, "Well Washington has had a better season, but come on, we all know Alabama is a better team."
Basically, it lets the committee do this if they so desire:
Fixed that typo for you. MT @MattZemek: "Best," in CFB speak, is also a coded way of saying, "#SEC" Note: Matt did not really tweet that.— JB Long (@JB_Long) April 30, 2014
Idealistically, it's obviously favorable to have the best teams in the Playoff, and any selection procedure is going to be subjective to some degree. But the danger comes when the committee makes a decision based off a preconceived notion; when it just knows a team is better, rather than using evidence provided in the regular season.
Will the committee act that way? Who knows. But the wording of the criteria gives them license to.
There are a number of recent examples in which the most deserving teams could have been left out of the Playoff in favor of teams that the committee thought were better.
Florida State, Auburn and Alabama all had the resumes to warrant inclusion in the Playoff, but it's very possible that two-loss Stanford could have been voted in over one-loss Michigan State, Ohio State or Baylor. People made excuses for Stanford all year, despite the fact that the Cardinal had an inconsistent offense that cost them in losses to Utah and USC.
Even though Michigan State had fewer losses, an incredible defense and none of the bad performances that Stanford had, the Cardinal were favored in the Rose Bowl because common belief was that they were better. They lost that game to Michigan State.
Of course, one bowl game doesn't validate a decision, but it proves that it's very hard to say with any certainty that Stanford was a better team than Michigan State last year. But what we can say with at least a little more certainty is that Michigan State's resume showed the Spartans deserved a Playoff berth more.
The Playoff in 2011 would have been pretty cut and dry, but the decision to place Alabama in the BCS Championship Game over Oklahoma State showcased the bias of a "better" over "deserving" system. By the relevant selection committee criteria — strength-of-schedule and conference championship — Oklahoma State was the more deserving team. However, Alabama was selected.
Which team was the best that year? We'll never really know, and the voters certainly didn't know. However, the "Alabama must be better" mentality won over, meaning the one decision that could have at least used some objectivity was scrapped for the completely subjective, bias-influenced method. That same kind of thing could happen again if the committee chooses the team it assumes to be the best over the team that has proven it on the field.
The 2006 season is already shrouded in controversy because Florida jumped Michigan to land in the BCS Championship Game. However, the race for the fourth spot would have been even messier. 10-2 LSU? 11-1 Wisconsin? 11-1 Louisville? 11-2 Oklahoma? 10-2 USC? 12-0 Boise State?
LSU was ranked fourth despite having a much worse strength-of-schedule than USC, and a similar strength-of-schedule to Wisconsin (along with a worse record than the Badgers).
The College Football Playoff wants to give the committee an out for when it makes an unpopular decision, to say, "we didn't have to go solely by the numbers, because we're allowed to use our judgement on who is best."
The thing is, human judgement is very flawed. We may like to think we know which teams are the best, but the truth is, we can create a much fairer Playoff by choosing teams based on what we know, and that usually involves choosing the team with the better resume. That is, the one that deserves it more.