Sports

The College Football Playoff Committee Is Always Right

Every year, fans and pundits fear the suits will commit a grievous crime. They never do.

Johnson tackles Harrison Jr., who is carrying the ball, as a ref and Michigan's coaching staff watch on the sidelines
Will Johnson tackles Marvin Harrison Jr. during the fourth quarter of the Michigan-Ohio State game at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 26, in Columbus. Ben Jackson/Getty Images

The College Football Playoff selection committee is not popular. Though the Playoff purports to have gotten internal polling data that indicates the public approves of the job the committee does, the notion that anyone likes the committee is at odds with the nature of its work. The committee is the final arbiter of a sport built on argument, which for decades let media members pick its national champion over the protests of anyone who didn’t like what reporters had to say. For whichever fanbase finishes fifth in the rankings ahead of the four-team event, the committee would poll as well as a urinary tract infection. But anyone with enough motivation can find something to get mad about in the committee’s weekly releases of its rankings, which begin in October and carry on through Selection Sunday at the start of December. The chair of the committee will often fan these flames by offering a weird explanation—here’s the latest fun example—for why something is the way that it is. The committee gets a lot of flak, pretty much every year, for giving short shrift to any team outside the Power Five Conferences. There is prestige in being one of the administrators placed on this panel, but there is not a lot of glory in it.

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Most criticisms of the selection committee are on the money. It does have a marked history of almost totally ignoring nonpower programs that have good cases to be considered for the top four. It does twist itself into rhetorical knots and poorly explain some of its most controversial decisions. Its members are living high off the airline and hotel points hog and did illustrate this point by meeting in person at the height of the pandemic so they could sit in a room together and feel important. If you think college athletic administrators are prone to grifting their way through life while athletes subsidize their lavish conventions, then the Playoff committee, once chaired by one of these guys, is the perfect example.

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And yet we reach a great irony and key truth of the Playoff committee: These suits are really good at picking the correct four teams. And when the Playoff expands to 12 teams in 2024, the selection committee will probably remain adept at the act of selecting. The latest data point in the selectors’ favor came this weekend, when the committee tamped down whatever temptation might’ve existed to insert a two-loss Alabama into the field of four and instead settled on a common-sense grouping of Georgia as the No. 1 seed followed by Michigan, TCU, and Ohio State, in the right order. The Playoff may or may not be competitive. It usually isn’t, really. But as always, its participants will be the correct ones.

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The upcoming Playoff, which starts on New Year’s Eve with two semifinals, will be the ninth. The committee ranks teams 1-to-25 and has made plenty of questionable calls in its near-decade. But it’s been shockingly good at its most important task. Most years, the committee’s work is more or less done for it, with no difficult decisions about the four seeds or their order. But because it is so easy to place expectations for football bureaucrats on the floor, people will raise fears every year that the committee is about to commit a heinous crime in building the field.

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Ultimately, it never happens. 2022 has had a dearth of great teams, and only Georgia and Michigan have gotten through 13 games unscathed. They were Playoff shoo-ins even before they won blowouts in their conference championship games on Saturday. Coming in third was TCU, which also turned out to have already punched its ticket before it lost in overtime to Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship. Ohio State leapfrogged USC when the Trojans took a second loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship. The team that did not leapfrog into the field was Bama, despite the deeply amusing groveling of Tide coach Nick Saban while his team was sitting at home on Saturday. There’s a school of thought in some pockets of the football world that Alabama’s Southeastern Conference holds special sway with the Playoff committee, owing to the SEC’s close relationship with ESPN, which airs all of the Playoff games (for now). But the Tide, with their two losses, remained boxed out, while the same Big Ten that just broke off all rights-holding ties with the Worldwide Leader got both Michigan and Ohio State into the field.

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Almost every season features a vocal set of skeptics who believe the committee is poised to commit a crime against football. In 2021, some thought the committee would jump No. 6 Notre Dame ahead of No. 4 Cincinnati on Selection Sunday, despite the Bearcats having no losses and the Irish’s only loss having come to Cincinnati. This was the fairest bit of conspiracy theorizing the committee has gotten yet, because Notre Dame is a massive TV draw and both the Playoff and its predecessor have a striking track record of not paying close enough attention to good teams from small conferences. But Cincinnati made it out of the American Athletic, because the committee never does the most egregious things that people fear it will do. (When the committee left out unbeaten UCF teams in 2017 and 2018, the overwhelming majority of computer rankings thought it was fair that they didn’t make it. The problem had been that the committee never appeared to be taking them seriously. That remains a fair knock.)

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A few times, the committee has had to make capital-D Decisions when the action hasn’t been neatly settled on the field. In those cases, it’s done pretty well. Weirdly, these have all involved Ohio State. 2020 was an odd year, and not everyone liked it when an Ohio State team that had only played six games made it in. But the Buckeyes looked like one of the best teams in the country and hadn’t lost any games, and they even won a semifinal over Clemson in one of the best games the Playoff has had so far. In 2018, Ohio State became the first one-loss Power Five team to not make the Playoff after winning a conference championship game, but most people thought that was cool, as their one loss had involved giving up 49 points to Purdue. In 2016 and ’17, the Buckeyes wound up on different sides of the committee’s consistently held precedents: favoring conference champions, but even more strongly disfavoring teams (like 2022 Alabama) with multiple losses. In 2014, the Playoff’s first year, OSU benefitted from what remains the most controversial call the committee has ever made: The Buckeyes used a 59–0 Big Ten Championship win over Wisconsin to jump ahead of TCU, which had been in front of OSU but didn’t get to play in a conference championship game, because the Big 12 didn’t have one at the time. Many people didn’t like the committee’s move, but Ohio State vindicated it by winning the national championship. The Big 12 added a title game in response.

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In this sense, 2022 was a normal year. Ohio State was in proximity to the biggest controversy of the year, getting into the Playoff despite its last game being an embarrassing destruction at the hands of Michigan. But the committee got the Playoff field right (like always) despite some poor messaging in the weeks leading up to the final revelation (like pretty much always). There are many problems with the Playoff, most pressingly how it has contributed to the devaluation of games involving teams that aren’t in contention to play in it. But the biggest success of the Playoff is its track record of applying the same standards to pick the right four teams every year. No sport has more bureaucratic messes going on at any given time than college football. It is astonishing that Playoff team selection isn’t one of them.

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