The first official college football playoff committee rankings for 2015 were unveiled Tuesday, and the results are perfect for the ESPN mantra of embracing debate. In particular, the inclusion of Alabama at #4 has been described as “the most buzzed-about and controversial moment of the unveiling“; that puts the Crimson Tide, who lost at home to Ole Miss in September, ahead of five unbeaten teams from Power Five conferences plus every other one-loss team.
The rankings at this point really aren’t that relevant to who winds up in the playoff, as there are so many vital games still to be played, and there have even been good arguments made for boycotting the release shows. As debate fodder, though, the first week’s rankings in general and the inclusion of Alabama in particular are perfect for ESPN. They provide the talking points of SEC bias, strength of schedule, defense versus offense and much more. It’s too strong to say that this is all an ESPN conspiracy, as it’s not actually Bristol coming up with the ratings, but the general idea of releasing these results this early (and doing so on a full show on ESPN, no less) was always going to manufacture some drama. This week, the committee’s just given ESPN perhaps the most unnecessarily drama-heightening result possible, which should be a godsend for a week of debate.
Elevating Alabama this high at this point in time feels unnecessary for anything other than debate, as it should largely be sorted out on the field this weekend when the Tide host second-ranked 7-0 LSU. If Alabama wins that game, they’d probably be in the playoff discussion regardless of where they were ranked before this. If the Tide lose that game, they’ll have two losses on the year and their playoff case gets a lot harder (although a two-loss champion did happen even in the BCS era). As SI’s Andy Staples writes, this result is “only correct if the committee is working in a strictly predictive capacity, which is not what it’s supposed to do.” However, it’s unquestionably a great result for ratings and buzz college football discussion this week, and a lot of that discussion happens to take place on ESPN.
Again, ESPN isn’t directly making these rankings; they’re made by a 12-member selection committee that’s mostly current and former college football coaches and administrators. However, that doesn’t remove the discussion of how this benefits ESPN. As USA Today’s Daniel Uthman writes, these rankings (and their explanations) raise plenty of questions about the committee’s methodology. In a lot of ways, these particular rankings seem designed to be “best” for college football overall, which means boosting hype about the sport, boosting power schools, and boosting broadcaster ratings. That means ratings for ESPN, both in game broadcasts and in debate and selection shows. It may not be ESPN’s hand on the tiller, but the committee’s doing ESPN a big favor with their ratings so far and the debates those ratings have created. We’ll see if it continues to play out that way over the course of that season.