It’s November. The college football season is entering its final stage. For the past three weeks, the playoff committee has been releasing its weekly Top 25 rankings. Media outlets, mainly ESPN, supplant the “Top 25” they usually use, most likely the AP Poll, with those new rankings. The shift creates an inordinate amount of distortion. Outlets should stop doing this.
The committee rankings are worthless. Compiling them is busywork. Like the assertion that committee members are studying film on their tablets, the effort expended with these rankings adds neither value nor validity to the ultimate decision, which is the only reason for having the committee. Their weekly rankings are mostly breaking down teams and resumes no one needs broken down at this point.
Even if we accept that the committee must descend from its ivory tower every Tuesday beginning at an arbitrary point midseason, there’s no reason to use a poll. The poll is an unsound mathematical anachronism, dating back to the 1920s and wholly restricted to college sports. Even if we accept the poll, there’s no need for it to be 25 teams. There are no longer 25 teams under consideration for the playoff (if there ever were 25). The question is not what the committee thinks about a 7-3 LSU, but who cares?
The only apparent value of a committee Top 25 would be to goose the ratings of the preferred four resumes by slotting their opponents in at the back end for “Top 25” wins. We can’t prove the committee isn’t doing that because the process is opaque.
If the committee rankings are a promotional tool, they are a crappy one. People would be talking about the College Football Playoff and scenarios every week without the rankings. For all the buildup, the last two College Football Playoff finals have drawn almost identical viewership to the previous BCS title games.
The only sillier thing than compiling these rankings every week is using them as the ranking of record. Media outlets use Top 25 polls to provide clarity. The polls provide a framework for understanding the confusion of FBS football, alerting the audience who the best teams are. The committee rankings do not do that. They rank the 25 best incomplete playoff committee resumes. Is team No. 3 better than team No. 6? Or did team No. 3 play its toughest opponents earlier?
Ranking systems are judged by their predictive value. What does last weekend say about the committee? No. 1 Georgia got beat by 23 points. No. 3 Notre Dame lost by 33 points. Oddsmakers made No. 13 Ohio State a (-16.5) favorite over No. 12 Michigan State. The lower ranked team won by 45 points. Was that a fluke? Or was that an irrational conclusion based on the committee using incomplete resumes, not accounting for victory margin, and not accounting for Ohio State playing Michigan later in the season? These rankings are pointless snapshots in time.
College football has never made sense. That’s one of its charms. One could accept all the flaws in the system we have but for one factor. These rankings have no logical consistency week to week. What happens in Weeks 11-14 has no bearing on the only ranking that counts in Week 15.
The committee proved this in 2014, the only time in its history it had to make a contentious decision. TCU entered the final week No. 3 in the committee rankings. The Horned Frogs beat the opponent in front of them 55-3. What happened in the final rankings? TCU dropped to No. 6, out of the playoff. The decision made no logical sense. What happened was the committee could not make an impossible choice between Baylor and TCU, so it went with Ohio State. Most charitably, there was a startling amount of recency bias in that bland, alcohol-free conference room.
Media outlets should cover the committee rankings and pore over them with a speculum to enforce logical consistency. They should fight for both clarity and transparency. But don’t treat the cockeyed math from committee mandarins with more gravitas than it is due.
All Top 25 polls are flawed. However, the AP Poll is at least trying to accomplish what a Top 25 poll intends to do, offer a consensus ranking of the top teams in college football. Use that to inform the audience, not the committee busywork.