ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When the College Football Playoff committee released its updated rankings on Tuesday night, everything went exactly as expected.
Georgia, Michigan, and TCU -- the nation’s only remaining undefeated teams -- hold the top three spots. The order is hard to debate: Georgia has been the most dominant team, Michigan picked up the season’s most impressive win, and TCU continues to prove doubters wrong week after week.
There wasn’t much dispute over the No. 4 spot, either. USC and Ohio State are the only one-loss teams left, and the Trojans have three ranked wins and a one-point road loss compared to Ohio State’s two ranked wins and 22-point loss at home.
A lot more factors into these decisions, but I’m going to ramble quite a bit in the coming sections, so let’s keep this one simple and move on.
Champ week: Reward or punishment?
The playoff committee members had an easy job this week: Don’t miss the layup. Even the most casual college football fans could have come up with Tuesday’s top five. It was easy, and they got it right.
Next week is when this prestigious group of enlightened football minds might have to make the most important ruling in the history of the playoff era:
Is making the conference championship game a reward or a punishment?
If TCU loses to Kansas State or USC loses to Utah this weekend, it will be just the second time since the inception of the College Football Playoff that a team playing in a conference title game is in danger of falling below a lower ranked team that sat at home on champ week.
Most years (2015, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021), we don’t even really need a committee to determine the playoff teams because the rankings are obvious. I think 2014 and 2016 were pretty clear-cut, too.
In 2014, Ohio State leapt from No. 5 to No. 4 and overtook TCU in the final rankings after dismantling 10-2 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship. That was possible because TCU only played 12 games (the Big 12 didn’t have a conference title game at the time).
That’s one of the most controversial decisions in CFP history, but it was justified by that emphatic extra data point Ohio State delivered against Wisconsin. TCU was kept out because it didn’t play a conference championship game. The team with the extra game got rewarded, not punished.
Penn State fans often complain about being left out in favor of Ohio State in 2016, but that was never really a debate outside of State College. The Nittany Lions had two ugly losses and never spent a single week ranked above the Buckeyes in the poll. Ohio State’s resume was far superior before champ week, and Penn State’s win in the Big Ten title didn’t change that.
Comparing 2016 to this year is a false equivalence. Penn State was ranked behind Ohio State going into the Big Ten Championship Game, proving the committee found the Buckeyes more deserving before that week. Even by winning, Penn State couldn’t completely close the gap between the two resumes.
Penn State wasn’t punished for playing in a conference championship game. Penn State was punished for its shortcomings during the 12-game regular season. It was a fair ruling and the correct decision for the committee to choose Ohio State.
The closest example we have to our current predicament was in 2017, when both Auburn and Wisconsin fell below Alabama (which was not in the SEC title game) after losing their conference championships.
One key difference for Auburn: the Tigers already had two losses going into the game, and getting blown out by Georgia was their third. Realistically, it might have been an overreaction to move Auburn all the way up to No. 2 with two losses, because nobody was arguing for the Tigers to make the playoffs at 10-3.
The Wisconsin example, though, could be a dark omen for TCU and USC.
The Badgers were 12-0 going into the Big Ten title game and ranked No. 4 in the country. They lost that game by six points to No. 8 Ohio State and dropped out of the top four, opening the door for an Alabama team that sat at home and watched the team it had just lost to get destroyed in the SEC title game.
If the committee thought Wisconsin needed to beat Ohio State to be more deserving than Alabama, then Wisconsin shouldn’t have been ranked ahead of Alabama before doing so. I’ll tell you one thing: A close loss to a top-10 team shouldn’t have been enough to drop a 12-1 team below an 11-1 team that didn’t even play.
The 2017 committee was the worst of all time, tripping over itself to overrate a two-loss Auburn and then overcorrecting to get Alabama in the top four.
Wisconsin had a weak resume, with only one top 25 win (No. 21 Northwestern), but Alabama only had two, and they came against No. 17 LSU and No. 23 Mississippi State.
If there’s anything that should make TCU and USC fans anxious, it’s what happened to that Wisconsin team.
Why punishing TCU, USC feels wrong
When the committee members ranked TCU and USC at No. 3 and No. 4 on Tuesday, they declared, “At this moment, we find both of these two teams more deserving of making the playoff than Ohio State.”
So, hypothetically, if the Big 12 and Pac-12 canceled their conference title games, both of those teams would be guaranteed playoff spots. Ohio State and Alabama don’t have any more games on their schedules, so how could they build a case to pass anybody?
That makes this situation sound so incredibly ridiculous. If playing for a conference title is worse than not playing at all, what’s the point of even having champ week?
How can those teams be punished if they lose a conference championship game that Ohio State didn’t even qualify for?
“Well, TCU and USC didn’t have to play Michigan or Georgia,” is one argument I’ve heard. “If Ohio State had their path, it would be playing in a conference championship game, too.”
I think that’s probably true, and I would agree with that argument if -- and only if -- Ohio State was ranked ahead of TCU and/or USC at this very moment.
For example, if Ohio State was currently ranked No. 4 and USC was No. 5, you could argue that USC’s conference championship shouldn’t allow it to jump Ohio State because the Buckeyes didn’t have the same opportunity to qualify for a conference title game.
But the committee’s second-to-last ranking told the world that it finds TCU and USC more deserving than Ohio State without any conference title games taken into account.
Right now, all three teams have played 12 games, and in comparing an equal number of data points, the committee came away feeling TCU and USC have better resumes.
It’s one of the first things you learn about fractions in math class: to compare or combine them, make sure they have a common denominator. If you introduce a whole new variable to TCU and USC, but not to Ohio State, the common denominator is gone, and the discussion becomes even more ambiguous and inexact.
What’s the solution?
The expanded playoff will partially solve this problem because the six highest-ranked conference champions are guaranteed playoff bids. At least that way, the conference championship game does objectively offer teams a reward.
But if we had a 12-team playoff right now, teams like No. 10 Kansas State and No. 11 Utah would be dealing with the same fear as TCU and USC. They could lose their conference championship games and fall out of the top 12 in favor of No. 12 Washington or No. 13 Florida State.
College football could adopt a rule like this: If Team A is ranked ahead of Team B going into champ week, and Team A plays in a conference championship game while Team B does not, then Team A cannot fall below Team B in the rankings as a result of losing that game.
That would allow teams that play in conference championships to be compared to each other and avoid rewarding teams that essentially receive a bye week for not being good enough to make their own title game.
But that’s a dangerous proposition because rigid rules don’t always work for college football. That’s why the BCS was ditched for a committee in the first place. It’s such a case-by-case sport -- every situation is different.
What if the final rankings release was moved up to this week? The committee would rank their top 25 teams before champ week, and then the six highest-ranked conference champions from that poll would get the automatic bids, while the six highest-ranked remaining teams fill out the field.
One obvious issue: What if there aren’t six ranked conference champions? The expanded playoff guarantees that the highest-ranked champion from the Group of Five must get an automatic bid. So if the committee only ranks two Group of Five teams (which is the case right now), what if neither of those teams wins their conference title? Which Group of Five team goes to the playoff?
In that scenario, the committee could hold a special selection meeting to choose between the available champions -- that process wouldn’t be entirely unlike a regular rankings release.
It seems a bit messy. But so is the situation we’re looking at today. There is no perfect solution.
College football has never been fair, and that won’t change. From geographical advantages, to resource disparities, to brand favoritism, the 131 FBS teams will never be on a level playing field.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep working to make the selection process as fair as possible, though.
Maybe TCU and USC will take care of business this weekend, and this whole conversation will be moot. But if one or both lose, the committee’s response will set a precedent for the future.