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College Football Playoff: Best Versus Most Deserving

Here it is, plain as day.

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a long post about the College Football Playoff selection committee, its rules, and the debate over "best" versus "most deserving". Here's a sample of what I said at the time:

These terms, "best" and "most deserving", have very specific meanings in a college football context. They are a byproduct of the arguments of the BCS era, and they work like this:

  • Best: refers to whether a team would be favored on a neutral field. Whoever would be expected to win in a game tomorrow against anyone else in the country is the "best" team. This method is sometimes shorthanded as "the eye test" or "style points", though arguments about who is best shouldn't rely solely on looks.
  • Most Deserving: refers to the accumulated wins and losses of a team. A team with a loss might be more deserving than a team without a loss if that loss was to a good team and the one-loss team has more quality wins than the undefeated team does. This method is often described as "resume ranking".

Really, though, I could have just looked ahead.

This weekend's game between Alabama and Mississippi State very clearly shows the difference between these terms. Mississippi State is the No. 1 team and has been for a while now based on having no losses plus nice wins over Auburn, LSU, and Texas A&M. The dispute over MSU's position, if anything, diminished this week with the committee slotting the only other Power 5 undefeated team third. The Bulldogs are at the top, and there is basically no arguments over their standing there.

Despite that fact, Alabama is a heavy favorite to win the game. The Tide is an 8.5-point favorite in the Yahoo! pick 'em game, and it's either an eight or nine-point favorite depending on which sports book you look at. It's not just a function of the game taking place in Tuscaloosa, as home field advantage typically manifests itself as about a three-point difference in point spreads. Bama would still be about a field goal favorite if the game was happening in Starkville (nine, minus three going to a neutral field, minus another three going to MSU's home field).

Going off of this information, Alabama would be the "best" team—because the Tide is expected to win handily—while Mississippi State would be the "most deserving" team—because the Bulldogs are considered to be rightfully ranked above Bama anyway. That's about as clear as it gets.