Later tonight, the College Football Playoff’s selection committee will unveil the the first look at how they are evaluating the college football season in 2017. The first batch of rankings compiled by the College Football Playoff’s selection committee will be announced tonight, giving college football fans across the country their first glimpse inside the minds of the committee, letting them know how valuable those wins and how detrimental those losses have been. While each college football season has written its own script with different results along the way the past three seasons, one thing remains consistent with the playoff rankings; people are going to overreact to the initial standings as if they mean anything.
In the grand scheme of things, tonight’s initial rankings are the second-most important rankings we will see. The only weekly rankings from the selection committee that matter are the final rankings that are used to determine which four teams will play in the playoff and which teams are heading to the remaining New Years Six bowl games. The final rankings have the luxury of evaluating conference champions following championship games in each of the power conferences (the Big 12 is returning to the conference championship game format this season). The final rankings are really the only reason a selection committee exists, but the contract between the playoff and ESPN has led to the creation of a weekly ranking show because content must be used to fill air time and inspire debate. To that degree, the weekly rankings have worked, because people will react to rankings like Pavlov’s dog. If there is a ranking being shown on TV, fans are going to react to it.
And react they have. It works every damn week even though time and time again the analysts covering the rankings and those watching still say these rankings mean nothing. So why do we keep tuning in? Because, why not?
The reason the first batch of rankings is the second-most important ranking is that it is the first litmus test for the selection committee. This serves as our first piece of empirical data to determine how this selection committee may view results we have sense on the field. We know from previous years that the logic in the following weeks may be adjusted because these rankings (supposedly) start from scratch each week and each week offers a new set of data to consider with more and more games being played. The top couple of picks may seem fairly straightforward to most fans that have been watching this season, but the selection committee rarely follows the same process that the conventional poll logic does. For example, Alabama may be the clear No. 1 in the traditional polls, but the selection committee may feel Georgia is more deserving of the top spot and could even have an argument to have Alabama No. 3 or No. 4… or lower.
And if Alabama is unveiled outside the top two spots, the phone lines to Paul Finebaum will be melting down tomorrow. And this, of course, is what ESPN wants. This is what the playoff wants. The goal is to promote discussion of the game, and nothing riles up fans than seeing their team be underrated in the rankings. We all know Alabama is the best team in college football, but the data could be used against them by the selection committee. But the data will change over the next month as Alabama plays Auburn and, potentially, Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. This is the most valuable lesson we have learned about this format the past three years. This thing is going to change each week and teams are going to have their opportunities to prove themselves to the committee if they have not yet. And this committee is known to show a desire to wait for some teams to really be challenged.
Take Ohio State in 2014, the first season of the playoff. The Buckeyes infamously lost a Week 2 home game against Virginia Tech and that forced them to have to slowly work their way back up the traditional rankings and the first-ever playoff rankings. A win against Michigan at the end of the season set the Buckeyes up to essentially win and get in with the Big Ten championship, and they did just that, much to the chagrin of TCU and Baylor fans.
In 2014, here is what the initial playoff ranking had in the top four:
- Mississippi State
- Florida State
- Ole Miss
Only Florida State made the playoff that season, with No. 6 Alabama, No. 5 Oregon, and No. 16 Ohio State ending up rounding out the field.
- Ohio State
This field was 2-for-4 in playoff teams with Clemson taking the top seed, followed by Alabama, No. 7 Michigan State and No. 15 Oklahoma.
And last year?
- Texas A&M
The top two seeds, Alabama and Clemson, went on to face each other for a second-straight national championship (although the seeds eventually flipped), and No. 5 Washington and No. 6 Ohio State made it, although not without some serious questions to be addressed as the Buckeyes were without a conference or division title (which were won by the only team to beat them, Penn State).
If you lost count, that is five out of 12 teams the initial playoff rankings have seen make the playoff that same season, and two teams ranked outside the top 10 ended up making it. This will change, and with college football’s November schedule full of statement opportunities, do yourself a favor and spend more time eating some Halloween candy and less time fuming about where your team is ranked in the initial playoff rankings tonight.