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College Football Playoff Rankings: What We Learned From the 2014 Selection Process

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Five takeaways from the selection committee's first bracket

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

There are reasons to believe that the college football selection committee's rankings for 2014 will be a one-off event, a circumstance-specific set of decisions that it's hard to draw any conclusions from. But there appear to be at least a few things we can determine based on what the bracket announced Sunday looks like. Here's a first set of potential lessons we can learn.

Conference championships matter a little. Conference championship games matter a lot.
It's worth pointing out that the top six teams in the selection committee's rankings were either conference champions or co-champions. Part of that was that there were no truly mediocre conference champions this year (with the possible exception of Ohio State), and part of it was because the conference champions all got a chance to make a closing argument the final weekend of the season, and most of them did so emphatically. And keep in mind that the committee was clearly instructed to take conference titles into account.

But you will also notice that the four teams that made the final cut come from the Power 5 conferences that actually did end the year with one true champion: the SEC, ACC, B1G and Pac-12. That's likely not coincidental. Bill Hancock can say that a Big 12 championship game "would not have mattered this year," but that's this year, and Jeff Long seemed to make it clear that committee members noticed.

Bob Bowlsby thinks it mattered, and here's the thing: Even if committee members didn't vote against the Big 12 schools "because the Big 12 doesn't have a championship game," it could still play a role when it came to other parts of the process, like evaluating schedules. Getting through 13 games with just one loss (or no losses, in Florida State's case) is more difficult than getting through 12 games with just one loss -- that's math. And each of the conference championship game losers ended up in the Top 20 of the final college football playoff rankings -- so not only did the winners of those games each have an extra game, they each had an extra quality win.

Finally, whether the Big 12 was trying to game the system or not -- it looked like the Big 12 was trying to game the system by advertising for months that it would have "one true champion," and then being the only conference not to have one declared champion. That can't have gone over well with committee members. (And in hindsight, with Bowlsby suggesting he thought that the team that would have been eliminated by the head-to-head tiebreaker was more likely to beat out Ohio State, it looks even more like gaming the system is precisely what the conference was trying to do.)

It's going to be hard to get two teams into the playoffs.
The emphasis on conference championships just drives home a point that some of us having been making for a while: Even for the SEC, it's going to be hard to get two teams into the final bracket. Not impossible, but very hard. Exhibit A this year could have been Mississippi State, had the Bulldogs not lost to Ole Miss -- but the Dogs were only No. 4 after their loss to Alabama, and TCU fell three spots the day after it clobbered Iowa State. The idle Bulldogs, as For Whom the Cowbell Tolls pointed out, probably never had a chance.

Getting two teams into the playoffs will likely mean having at least two underwhelming conference champions -- since there will be five (or six, or four plus how many ever champions the Big 12 hermit kingdom produces in a given year) of those teams fighting for four spots. And if one team with a bad-luck loss happens to miss out on the conference title in a league with an underwhelming champion, the non-champion might very well go to the bracket for that conference. Just because it will be easier to get two teams from the same conference into the playoff than it was to do so in the BCS -- something that only happened once in 16 seasons -- doesn't mean it will happen regularly.

Scheduling matters. Resume ... eh, not so much.
One of the things that might justify Ohio State ending up ahead of Baylor in the final rankings -- which sent the Buckeyes to the playoffs and resulted in the Bears remaining at home -- was the Buckeyes' game against Virginia Tech. You will notice that's "game against," and not "win against," because Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech by 14 points.

The loss to the Hokies (6-6, 3-5 ACC, non-conference loss to East Carolina) was probably worse than Baylor's loss to West Virginia (7-5, 5-4 in the Big 12, non-conference loss to Alabama) by the same margin. Ohio State did also have one more win against a team that was ranked in the final College Football Playoff Top 25, but barely -- one of those Top 25 wins was against No. 25 Minnesota. TCU beat the Golden Gophers in the non-conference schedule, by the way, and ended up below both Ohio State and Baylor.

If resume was what the committee was looking at, then scheduling Virginia Tech shouldn't really matter -- only beating them would have added to the record of what Ohio State accomplished in the 2014 season. (After all, losing by two touchdowns at home against a .500 ACC team isn't exactly a "good loss," whatever your definition of that term might be.) It's pretty obvious that the committee rewarded the Buckeyes, to some extent, just for trying. Had Ohio State lost to a B1G team, it might have been another question. But it appears that if you're going to have one defeat at the end of the year, losing a Power 5 non-conference game is better than losing to a team in your own league.

The weekly release of the committee's Top 25 was a mistake.
I'll probably have more on this later, but Poseur at And the Valley Shook already has a pretty good post up on this: The committee pretty much did what they said they would do. It could have picked TCU or Baylor, and you could have said the same thing, but what you can't say is that the committee strayed from its guidelines in pegging Ohio State as the No. 4 team.

Some of the criticism of the committee's decision to put Ohio State in the bracket has been: "How could TCU fall three places in the rankings after beating an opponent by 52 points?" But, except for TCU fans, we should want the committee do things like that. The only fair way to evaluate teams is based on their record to date, and not beyond that -- and the only fair way to evaluate teams is to scrap the previous week's rankings and start over with a blank slate. Teams should not be entitled to remain in a spot if they win just because they won. TCU had a win Saturday, but Ohio State, Florida State and Baylor (who all moved past the Frogs in the final poll) all had better wins -- there's nothing wrong with then concluding that those better wins then gave the other teams a better overall resume.

Part of this is the conditioning we've had from years of the polls, and therefore the rules of poll momentum, dictating who went to the playoff. The most extreme and ludicrous example of this came on College Football Final late Saturday and early Sunday, when Lou Holtz argued in favor of Ohio State by noting that the Buckeyes lost early -- and the media has always said that it's better to lose early than lose late. But that was because of one of the failings of the polls; teams that lose early have a chance to win their way back into the mix, while teams that lose late don't, often regardless of whether the late loss came to a team that was better than the early loss. There's nothing that says that a team that loses early is objectively better than a team that loses late, but the logic has a place in our minds because of the way writers and coaches and others vote in polls.

Once the committee started putting out a weekly ranking, fans at least subconsciously expected it would work like the other polls; teams that won would stay in the same place or move up; teams that lost would move down. The first signs of trouble came when Florida State fans started yelping about the Seminoles winning and dropping multiple times. Several commentators over the weekend talked in terms of the "seeds of disaster being sown" when the committee ranked TCU at No. 3 last week before dropping the Horned Frogs on Sunday, but that's nonsense. The committee saw TCU as the No. 3 team one week, and didn't the next, after more data was available. That's the right thing to do, but as long as people are expecting poll momentum to decide rankings, it might be best not to release a weekly ranking if you're really as willing to change it as the committee is supposed to be.

You must unlearn what you have learned.
So, every conference and every team should immediately institute changes based on these lessons, right? Not necessarily. It's not at all clear how new faces on the constantly changing committee will view the same set of circumstances. And some of the committee members will be gone soon, doing one more set of rankings before they'll be off the panel, and things will move quickly after that.

There is, of course, also the chance that the new members will vote more or less like the old members, and some precedents will continue even after the original members of the selection committee are gone. If we're still getting similar results after three or four years, then it will be time to say that these takeaways are more guidelines than trivia. The learning process on how the committee works will have to continue before we can draw any firm conclusions.