Does the College Football Playoff Really Want the 4 Best Teams?

Since the very beginning of the College Football Playoff, director Bill Hancock has doubled down on his statement that the CFP selection committee’s job is to select the four best teams to compete in the CFP.

He emphasized it many times, including here and here. It was the running theme in his reddit AMA, which he did before the season started.

The problem is that Hancock is lying. We know he’s lying. He knows he’s lying. More importantly, though, we want and need him to be lying. We just refuse to admit it.

There will be perfect examples of this over and over again. This year’s prime case, though, was the Ohio State Buckeyes.


Buckeye fans and supporters came out of the woodwork before Selection Sunday, campaigning for Ohio State to be selected. This has been the norm in college football for decades. Now the campaigns are just bigger with more teams to select. The campaign in support of the Buckeyes was an important one, because the claim was that Ohio State is honestly one of the best teams in the country.

That claim is probably correct. The claim that Ohio State deserved to be in the Playoff, on the other hand, is completely wrong.

This is the crux of College Football Playoff selection. It has been since day one, and it always will be. We don’t want the four best teams. We want the four teams who earn it. The proof is in the bowl games.

The campaigners for Ohio State’s Playoff case became very loud when Michigan State was blown out by Alabama. It’s hard to argue with, really. The Buckeyes almost definitely would have made a much better game of it. They even might have won. We’ll never know exactly what could have happened, but advanced statistics predicted the Buckeyes would have done pretty well (before the game). They also would have predicted Michigan State losing, by a lot.

Advanced metrics (like S&P and F/+) put Ohio State as the third-best team in the country and the only other team in the same ballpark as Clemson and Alabama. Again, if the sole interest of the Playoff is finding the teams most likely to win a bracket and provide competitive games therein, Ohio State was absolutely a necessary choice.

Here is the problem, though. Since the start of the BCS era, college football’s rallying cry has been “every game matters.” The truism extends through the history of college football. The sport has selected its champions by attempting to figure out which team is the best over the course of the entire season. That is obviously not easy to do, so the sport has moved into an era when we select the most likely candidates for that award and have them play for it.

However, we don’t want the team with the most talent. We don’t want the team that would win that bracket. We want the team that played every game to the utmost and earned that reward.

Ohio State lost to Michigan State. That happened. That cannot be ignored. Michigan State beat four ranked teams during the season. That cannot be ignored. Michigan State earned its spot in the College Football Playoff, the inability to beat Alabama notwithstanding.

Ohio State is the most talented team in the country. That much cannot be argued outside Tuscaloosa (and even then, Alabama doesn’t have that strong an argument). The Buckeyes are likely a few months away from shattering the record for the number of NFL draft picks by a single team in a single season. They have nine underclassmen who declared for the draft, all of whom expect to be drafted. Ohio State has more talent than any other roster.

All season long we heard about how the Buckeyes were underperforming. It was a mistake stemming from absurd expectations of the defending national champions. The Buckeyes played a few close games because the offense took a while to find a rhythm, but the defense was one of the best in the country, and Ohio State was still blowing out teams–just not by as much as expected.

Unfair human expectations can’t trick computers, though, and they won’t trick Vegas linesmakers. There is a reason Ohio State, even without its second-best defensive player, was favored to beat Notre Dame by more than No. 1 Clemson did. There is a reason the advanced metrics love the Buckeyes: Ohio State was really good. It’s because Ohio State was one of the best four teams in the country this season.

Nevertheless, the Buckeyes did not deserve to be in the Playoff. No unbiased evaluator thought the committee got it wrong by leaving them out (and a lot of biased people still agreed with the committee). The four Playoff teams were obvious–they were the four teams with the most ranked wins, the four conference champions with one or zero losses, and the four teams that earned it.

Ohio State had just one ranked win. Ohio State lost to Michigan State. It doesn’t matter that the Buckeyes would have been favored by close to 10 points if the two met again. The games were played. The games mattered. Every game matters.

The BCS understood this paradox of “best” versus “most deserving.” Its formula was always meant to account for that. The human voters ranked the teams and selected the “best” ones. The computer components were there to solely determine who was “most deserving.” A synthesis of the two produced the national championship game participants.

In the BCS era, it was rare that the top two teams would not also be the two most deserving. When you only have to pinpoint the top two teams, it is pretty easy to find the cream that rose to the top. Sure, there may have been cases where an inordinately talented team slogged its way through a season and could have won the NCG had it been invited, even if it didn’t deserve it (my favorite example of this is 2010 Alabama, but that is a discussion for a different time).

Now that we are looking for four teams, though, we will see this happen much more often. There will be teams that don’t play as well as they should in one or two games and cost themselves their shots at the Playoff, but those same teams would be more competitive than one (or more) of the four actually playing. If happened this season with Ohio State. It arguably happened with TCU or Baylor last season, but no one would have ever considered leaving out undefeated Florida State, Vegas lines and advanced metrics be damned.

Which, again, leads us to being honest with ourselves.

We don’t want the best four teams for the Playoff. Bill Hancock doesn’t want the best four teams for the Playoff. We want the best four teams who earn it most over the course of the season because we want the games during the season to matter.

We don’t want the four best teams.

We want the four most deserving teams.

It’s time for us to be honest with ourselves about it, at least.

About Yesh Ginsburg

Yesh has been a fan and student of college football since before he can remember. He spent years mastering the intricacies of the BCS and now keeps an eye on the national picture as teams jockey for College Football Playoff positioning.