The College Football Playoff selection committee is tasked with selection the four best teams to play for the national title. But that responsibility comes with a clear question: How should they define “best”?
Does “best” mean the top teams based on their full résumés from the entire season? Comparing one team’s complete body of work to another seems like a reliable framework in which to determine the most deserving teams for the playoff.
Or does “best” mean the teams that are playing the best at end of the season? The playoff is, of course, played at the end of the season so shouldn’t team that are looking their best in the final weeks get priority? Shouldn’t the “hot hands” like Ohio State last year get preference even if their early-season work wasn’t as stellar?
It’s a debate currently playing out for the playoff committee and one that will likely rise every year. So should the committee give more weight to how a team is playing right now or keep an even perspective to results from throughout the season? SI’s college football experts weigh in:
Andy Staples: Stronger finish as a tiebreaker only
The full body of work should be more important. If it isn't, then why bother playing games in September and early October? They all count. But if two teams have relatively equal résumés, I have no problem with the committee breaking the tie by choosing the team that is playing best now.
Pete Thamel: Full body of work
The committee should be evaluating the entire body of work. By bowing to ESPN to put on this weekly rankings show, the committee is getting a reputation for being overly reactionary. This could end up forcing schools to backload their schedules.
Brian Hamilton: Stronger finish as a tiebreaker only
Playing well at the end of the year is no guarantee of how a team might fare in the playoff. It's a better indicator than blowing out teams in September or even early October, though, and it's an effective tiebreaker. Teams typically are who they are in late November. It shouldn't be a substitute for assessing the body of work as a whole; if we're talking about the best teams, then yes, quality early wins must carry a great deal of weight. A multi-loss team might be playing as well as anyone by the end of the year—cough, Oregon, cough—but that doesn't mean early failures can be discounted. However, in the case of two very similar teams, the one playing discernibly better at the end of the year should get a bump. Picking the playoff teams always will involve guesswork. Going with the hot team at the end of the year is as good a guess as any.
Lindsay Schnell: Full body of work
Theoretically, I think the committee should be focused on a team’s résumé over the season, but realistically, it's about how a team is playing right now—that's why we have different rankings every week. That's fine with me because the last rankings are what matter and I think a season's worth of work goes into those. That being said, there's always a chance a team crushes its final opponent and makes a big impression, a la Ohio State in 2014.
Zac Ellis: Full body of work
Great teams usually get better as seasons progress. I understand this. But if we aren't looking at a team's entire body of work, why are we playing all the games? Surely it's not unreasonable to expect a playoff-caliber program to look like a playoff team for most of the season. Every data point matters in the race for the national title, not just "what have you done for me lately." If you're truly a top-four team, earn it all season.
Joan Niesen: Best teams right now
For me, this one's simple. This mindset better takes stock of injuries, suspensions and whatever other weird twists the college football season brings. And let's be fair: Isn't the goal here to have the closest, most exciting slate of games? Taking the What have you done for me lately? approach gives us the best chance of that. I'd even go so far as to say that if a top-ranked team were to suffer major injuries to several key pieces and look terrible while winning its championship game, perhaps it should be seeded even lower. I'm all about the best competition on New Year's Eve and in January, and this is what comes closest to ensuring that.
Ben Glicksman: Full body of work
The answer is really both, as ideally the playoff selection committee would choose to include the teams with the strongest résumés that are playing the best right now. But since that isn’t always possible, I’d prefer to reward the teams that have played at the most consistent level all year. Late-season hot streaks should be taken into account, but only to an extent. Otherwise, Oregon—now 8–3 after rolling to five straight victories—would still be in the playoff picture. As with everything else, balance is key: The system shouldn’t disregard important early results (Notre Dame’s 41–31 win over USC on Oct. 17, for example), but it also shouldn’t be so rigid that it can’t adjust to late developments (a major pitfall of the BCS).
Colin Becht: Full body of work
This is my problem with the committee moving Oklahoma ahead of Notre Dame, as the playoff committee did this week. If ranking based on the full body of work without any recency bias, then theoretically a team would earn the same ranking no matter how you reordered their games. If the Sooners entered Week 12 at 10–0 and then lost to Texas, there’s no way be ranked No. 3. Based on Oklahoma’s rise and Notre Dame’s plateau, I’d pick the Sooners to beat the Fighting Irish in a head-to-head matchup right now. But the playoff should award teams on everything they’ve done—not just what they’ve done lately.
Chris Johnson: Consider how a team is playing right now to an extent
Teams should be able to elevate their standing in the eyes of the committee by improving from September to November. For example, they could bounce back from an ugly loss to an inferior opponent by rattling off a long winning streak. But that improvement should not invalidate the loss. It’s up to the committee to assess teams’ whole résumés while taking into account whether they’ve gotten better or worse. It’s not a simple task—and the selective application of certain criteria, such as wins over better-than-.500 opponents or the dreaded “eye test”—only makes things more complicated. But I do think the committee should stress the importance of teams’ entire bodies of work. The upside for fans is this could compel teams to schedule more intriguing nonconference matchups. Apparently Baylor didn’t get the memo.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: Only consider "hot hands" if the playoff expands
It's inevitably going to be weighted heavily, but the “hot hand” evaluation will coincide with the team's national profile. The committee made the right choice in picking Ohio State last year (when it theoretically could have omitted Florida State on those same guidelines). Both teams are longstanding powerhouses and guarantees for big ratings, so they both got in. TCU's hand was plenty hot last season, but the Frogs were left out anyway. When the committee has a chance to choose between a traditional powerhouse with a national fan base and a regional upstart, the blue blood will win out. It's fair to assume Alabama-TCU wouldn't have drawn the numbers Alabama-Ohio State did.
The problem is that weighing streakiness isn't the fairest way when only four teams get spots. Excusing an early-season loss is reasonable when evaluating teams like Oklahoma and Stanford, but it's hard to square that argument when Iowa never had that slip-up.
The Sooners appear to be a better football team than the Hawkeyes right now, but Oklahoma has a significant stain on its résumé that Iowa doesn't. The Sooners are a more marketable team to get people to alter their New Year’s Eve plans, so there's a much greater chance the committee rewards them.
If “hot hands” are going to be ranked above teams with better records, then expand the field to six or eight teams. Alabama and Oklahoma are ranked above Iowa simply because they appear to be playing better football and have national followings.
The committee may be right to rank the Tide and Sooners at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, but Iowa is getting shorted by the “eye test” and the fact that it isn't a national brand. If Notre Dame beats Stanford and gets in despite its trudging play of late, then it's all but confirmed that the committee is chasing ratings.
Ben Estes: Full body of work
I understand including teams playing well right now leads to a more entertaining playoff (and ultimately more revenue on both sides of the TV equation), but the whole point of the current system is to get the four most deserving teams. A résumé is a résumé, and it’s irrational to give favor to more recent results over earlier ones. If a team’s overall case for making the playoff is sound, it shouldn’t be penalized if it played better earlier in the year vs. later. To have that happen is simply unfair. What’s the point of playing a whole season if parts of it are going to effectively be marginalized?