This story first appeared in the Jan. 9, 2017 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.
When the College Football Playoff replaced the Bowl Championship Series in advance of the 2014 season, no feature of the new system inspired more optimism than the selection committee. Gone was the opaque composite of human polls and computer algorithms that kept media members and fans in the dark until the BCS selection show in December. In its place would be a 12-member group composed of sitting athletic directors, former coaches and other well-informed college football observers that could look beyond data and provide more transparency.
But as the playoff nears the conclusion of its third season, it's clear the committee is not the magic elixir many envisioned. The committee has drawn criticism for, among other things, its addition of members with no playing experience and its consideration of obscure elements like body clocks and game control in its weekly rankings. But the biggest source of frustration is its inability to clearly distinguish between two important criteria: best and most deserving.
The committee purports to use the former as its guiding principle, but it often seems as if the latter is more influential. The committee chair (Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt this year, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long the previous two years), who must answer questions about the rankings after they're revealed each week, often references factors such as Top 25 wins, strength of schedule and head-to-head results to justify the order in which teams are ranked—indicating a focus on résumé. Yet on other occasions the chairmen have pointed to characteristics of team performance, such as offensive or defensive quality, which is more about who's better, regardless of record.
The lack of consistency creates confusion and invites allegations that the committee unduly punishes losses or unjustly awards other squads who pass the so-called eye test.
Consider USC. The Trojans lost three of their first four games, then with freshman Sam Darnold settling in as their starting quarterback, they ripped off an eight-game win streak, including a 26-13 victory at No. 4 Washington on Nov. 12. The committee slotted USC at No. 9 in its final rankings, even though it likely would be favored in a head-to-head matchup against some of the teams ranked above it, including the Huskies. The Trojans may have three losses, but by the end of the season they were playing like one of the top four teams in the country.
Or consider Iowa, which started 12-0 in 2015 thanks to a soft schedule. Even with that perfect record the Hawkeyes ranked 47th and 33rd according to metrics maintained by Football Outsiders and ESPN, respectively, but the committee put them fourth. The résumé seemed to outweigh their actual ability, a point that was reinforced after Iowa dropped its final two games, including a 45-16 beatdown by Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
Ranking college football teams is hard. Schedule strengths vary, Thursday- and Friday-night games curtail recovery time for some while bye weeks create extra rest for others. And 18-to-22-year-old males are inconsistent. The ranking process is never going to be perfect, but it should be defensible based on a plain, consistent set of criteria. That isn't the case with the selection committee right now.
To be clear, the committee is still an upgrade over the clunky BCS formula, but sometimes it feels as if their explanations breed more confusion than clarity. That will remain frustrating unless the group draws a clearer distinction between best and most deserving.