Tonight will see the reveal of the College Football Playoff selection committee's rankings for the first time ever. Plenty of folks are arguing against the weekly rankings, typified by this Dan Wetzel piece. It's a compelling argument, and besides, the basketball selection committee doesn't do weekly rankings.
Like it or not, we'll have the weekly rankings for this year at least. Tonight's are going to be the most interesting that will ever come out other than any season's final ones that actually set the playoff and bowl field, if only for the trivia aspect of them being the first rankings. Beyond that, they don't matter.
Seriously, they don't. We already know how they'll go. The two undefeated teams will be at the top. After that, we'll see nearly all of the power conference one-loss teams listed out before getting to two-loss LSU. After the Tigers, we'll get the rest of the Power 5 one-loss teams, ECU, Marshall, and a few two-loss teams in an order that might as well have been drawn from a hat. In other words, these rankings will look a lot like the traditional polls.
After showing off the rankings, committee chair and Arkansas AD Jeff Long will explain the rankings. The explanations we get from him are supposed to show us how the committee makes its decisions. It will be notable to hear how the committee is making its choices, but that almost doesn't matter either. He will phrase everything as diplomatically as possible and not supply much if any of the real nitty-gritty stuff.
What will be most instructive is watching how the teams move up and down over time. We have a good handle on how poll voters work; people putting out mock BCS standings were able to predict the traditional polls with a high degree of accuracy before those polls came out each week. The committee should be more sophisticated than poll voters, who tend to drop losers and advance winners with no apparent thought put into the process. Circumstances will drive actual opportunities, of course, but it will be a good sign to see the committee drop a team after a bad win or move up a team after a close loss to a much higher ranked team.
Watching that motion and comparing it to how the committee's rhetoric changes will tell us the most about how the members are making their decisions. Inevitably, something they say won't make true sense. People are fallible, and sometimes they think they're making sense when they're not. Suppose the committee wants to go against a head-to-head outcome like putting Alabama ahead of Ole Miss, which can be a defensible move since the better team doesn't always win a game—and remember, the committee's instructions tell it to go by who is best. How they justify such a move is important to hear.
It's also important to file away to see if that same logic will apply to future decisions. Whether committee members are cognizant of it or not, these weekly chats with Long will generate a de facto set of principles that reveal the committee's priorities. If you're hunting for a sign of bias, you won't find it so much in what the priorities are but whether and how their order changes. Hopefully the biases we'll find are towards particular outcomes—wins over quality opponents, looking good consistently, not playing down to inferior opponents, etc.—rather than towards particular teams or conferences.
After all, the rankings that the committee produces in any single week could be a fluke. They could be unrepresentative of how the committee truly feels about the year's teams and football in general. It's an unsettling thought that the final week's rankings could be that fluke, but it could be this week too.
It'll be best not to overreact to any given set of rankings, especially this week's as there could be some kinks in the system yet to be worked out. This week's rankings hold no importance except as a piece of a much larger puzzle for which we'll get one piece per week through the rest of the year.