College Football Playoffs: The Troubling Conference Champion Standard

The College Football Playoff committee has done one thing–create more talk about college football, if that is possible. What it hasn’t done is necessarily provide clarity on what it takes to be selected. At the outset, I questioned why they would release their rankings each week. (The answer, of course, is television money, interest, and ratings for the release each week). The weekly release will lead to issues if/when we get to the end of the season, and suddenly, the Committee bumps teams up artificially because they were conference champions.

Here is what the college football selection committee proposes as its protocol:

The criteria to be provided to the selection committee must be aligned with the ideals of the commissioners, Presidents, athletic directors and coaches to honor regular season success while at the same time providing enough flexibility and discretion to select a non-champion or independent under circumstances where that particular non-champion or independent is unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.

When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable, then the following criteria must be considered:

Championships won


Strength of schedule


Head-to-head competition (if it occurred)

Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory)

There are plenty of loaded issues in those lines. What makes one “unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country” as a non-champion? That would inherently mean that a team has at least one loss. What makes one a champion? Meeting the conference definition?

Take the cases of TCU and Mississippi State. Both have one loss, and that loss was on the road to another team that looks to be the favorite to win the conference title. Because of the particular setup of each conference, TCU can be co-champion and have the committee treat them as one, presumably. Mississippi State would miss out on the SEC Championship game because of the tiebreaker if Alabama wins out, and would not. That’s just semantics, though. How is one situation different than the other?

The conference champion thing is necessary only in extreme circumstances. The BCS method completely got it wrong in 2001. Nebraska went on the road to Colorado and got run out of the building, giving up 62 points. They avoided the Big XII championship game, and still got selected–ahead of the team that won their conference, Colorado, and 1-loss Oregon of the Pac-10. Fine, put in a rule preventing that idiocy (which was aided, by the way, because margin of defeat is not a factor for consideration).

But that’s not the same situation that we have this year. Let’s say Alabama is in. Mississippi State being tied with them, and being selected behind them, would be proper. It doesn’t mean that Mississippi State should be artificially held back compared to Baylor (or TCU) or Ohio State.

What constitutes being “unequivocally” better? I can’t say that Mississippi State is unequivocally better than any of those teams. I can say that finishing where they did was just as impressive, if not moreso, they win out.

On Tuesday, Ty Duffy laid out a problem case for Mississippi State based on the results last weekend. If you go by just won-loss record and ignore the results of how teams got there, sure. The SEC is the No. 1 ranked conference this year by every measure, from something like the RPI that doesn’t use margin of victory, to things like the simple rating system or Sagarin, that do. The Big Ten is the 4th-best conference based on results.

Ohio State will be rewarded for winning a championship by beating a 10-2 Wisconsin team. Mississippi State would have run into Alabama, and be dinged for not beating as-good-a-team-by-record in LSU, who will finish 5th or 6th in the SEC West. Those teams, by the way, happened to have played this year, with LSU winning. They are roughly equal teams (and are ranked very similarly in the rankings at Football Perspective, with the records explained by schedule). Winning the Big Ten and finishing with one loss in the SEC will not have involved the same paths.

Of course, we are a few years from expanding the playoffs further. An eight-team playoff would eliminate silly debates about games that invoke the old “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” between top teams around the country. All five conference champs from the major conferences get in (but conferences must declare one, sorry Big 12), and then we get to debate the rest.

For now, we get to hear about how TCU and Ohio State presumably accomplished more than Mississippi State, or wonder if the committee has already made those mental adjustments (though Baylor being behind TCU suggests they have not). That, or we’ll get a wacky and wild final week of selections that will make us wonder why we paid attention to what they said earlier, all along.