When distinguishing which College Football Playoff hopefuls are best from which teams are most deserving, what the committee says and what the committee does are two different things.
The CFP selection committee protocol outlines instructions for the group to "select the four best teams." But it's really not that simple.
If the committee wanted to select the four best teams, it would need only to ask Vegas for its power ratings, or consult a predictive model like FPI. If it really followed that directive, Alabama and a Big Ten champion Ohio State team would be virtual locks to make the playoff. They rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in FPI, and both would be favored over any other team in college football on a neutral field at the moment, according to the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook. Miami, widely considered a strong playoff contender if it can beat Clemson this weekend, would be nowhere near the playoff conversation if we only considered the best teams, as it ranks 14th in FPI.
Despite the protocol requesting the selection of the four best teams, the document makes reference to teams' records and includes the line, "Nuanced mathematical formulas ignore some teams who 'deserve' to be selected." Strength of Record (SOR) would quibble with that line, but the point here is that, without explicitly saying it, the protocol is also indicating the committee should not be agnostic toward accomplishment.
So where is the committee's line between best and most deserving?
With nearly four years of weekly rankings -- 24 in total -- we can get a sense of the committee's take. And while it's far from black and white, in general the committee has rewarded the teams that have accomplished the most, rather than those that are simply the best.
Seventy-nine of the 96 teams that have been ranked in the top four by the committee have been in the top four in Strength of Record (SOR) at the time of that ranking. By contrast, only 49 of the 96 top-four teams have been in the top four in FPI at the time of the ranking. SOR is an objective measure of accomplishment based on a team's record and the strength of the schedule it faced, while FPI is a pure measure of how good a team is.
Even if we narrow down to just the final rankings each year, the same conclusion emerges though in a smaller sample size. Eleven of the 12 playoff teams have been ranked in the top four in SOR, while eight of the 12 were in top four in FPI. One thing that is clear is that teams do essentially need to be best or deserving (we should hope so!) to be in the top four of the committee's rankings. Eighty-seven of the 96 members of the top four in past rankings teams have been in the top four of either SOR or FPI.
While the committee has leaned toward deserving over best, it isn't an either/or proposition, obviously. If it were, the Big Ten title game would likely feature only one team in the playoff conversation. If the committee only sought the best teams, Ohio State would likely be the only candidate. If it wanted the most deserving, Wisconsin would be a virtual lock with a win, while the Buckeyes ought to be basically out of the running before they set foot in Indianapolis.
Whether the committee ought to only want the best teams, or the most deserving teams, in the playoff is another conversation altogether. But as debate rages over the next several days about who will get in to this year's playoff, remember that the protocol's direction for the "four best teams" is a misnomer.
Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Analytics contributed to this report.
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