College Football’s Rule by ‘Experts’ Shortchanges Deserving Teams
Elitism vs. merit is a dynamic that permeates even America’s collegiate sports.
Americans got a lesson during the Covid period about what rule by “experts” looks like. Unfortunately, in the college football world, the so-called experts still reign. Rather than rewarding the teams that have accomplished the most on the season, a baker’s dozen committee members emerge each week from a closed-door meeting to decree which teams they think would be the hardest to beat in a hypothetical matchup going forward. Right after the USA upset the USSR in Olympic hockey in 1980, this committee would probably have declared that the USSR was #1—based on the notion that the Soviets would likely have won a rematch.
Before this committee took charge, college football had a system that blended subjectivity and objectivity, art and science, and did a better job of rewarding the most deserving teams for their accomplishments on the field. That system, the Bowl Championship Series—which the Anderson & Hester Rankings (a college football computer ranking that Chris Hester and I co-created) were a part of—ended in 2014 after a 16-year run. It was replaced by a system in which teams are ranked by a purely subjective committee of twelve men and one woman, and the four highest-ranked teams are invited to play in a playoff. As one can imagine, the name on the jersey—and the prestige of the conference in which a team plays—often matters more to the committee than the team’s actual accomplishments on the field.
Right now, the committee’s #1 team is Ohio State (9–0). The Buckeyes are #2 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings, and one could certainly make a reasonable case that they deserve the top ranking based on their accomplishments to date. The Buckeyes have beaten Penn State (#11 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings) and went on the road to beat #27 Notre Dame in South Bend. Also quite defensible are the committee’s rankings of #3 Michigan (9–0) and #4 Florida State (9-0), which have earned those same spots in the Anderson & Hester Rankings.
The #2 team in the committee’s rankings, Georgia (9–0), is another matter. The Bulldogs have beaten exactly one team in the top 40 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings. That team was #20 Missouri, which Georgia beat this past weekend at home. The Bulldogs’s toughest win away from home has been over #52 Auburn. Indeed, a majority of Georgia’s wins (5 of 9) have been against teams that aren’t even ranked in the top 80 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings.
In comparison, the committee has Washington (9–0) ranked #5, meaning that the Huskies wouldn’t make the playoff if the season were to end today. That’s despite the fact that Washington handed Oregon (#10 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings, and #6 in the committee rankings) the Ducks’ only loss to date. The Huskies have also beaten both USC and Arizona (#17 and #28 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings) on the road.
There can be little question that Washington—which is ranked #1 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings—would be more deserving of a playoff invitation than Georgia if the season ended today. The Huskies have played the 17th-toughest schedule, according to the Anderson & Hester Rankings, while the Bulldogs have played the 79th-toughest. (Michigan and Florida State have played the 61st- and 62nd-toughest schedules, respectively.) But the committee generally favors the Southeastern Conference (Georgia’s conference) over the Pac-12 Conference (Washington’s conference), despite the fact that the Pac-12 has a higher rating (.626) than the SEC (.602) in the Anderson & Hester Rankings.
The committee also came into the season more inclined to be impressed with Georgia based on prior performance. Last year, Washington had an excellent season, going 11–2, but Georgia went 15–0 and won the national championship, setting the Anderson & Hester Rankings’ all-time record with an .853 rating in the process. The year before, Georgia went 14–1 and won the national championship, while Washington went 4–8 and was ranked #113 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings.
But that year’s Husky team didn’t even have the same coaching staff as this one. It didn’t have Michael Penix Jr., the Heisman-candidate quarterback who leads this year’s squad. It would seem that what Washington did in 2021—with a different coach, culture, and quarterback—shouldn’t have any bearing whatsoever on where this year’s team should be ranked. But there can be little doubt that if Georgia had a win over the otherwise undefeated Oregon Ducks and a road win over USC, while Washington had a home win over Missouri and no other victories versus the current top 40, the committee would rank Georgia ahead of Washington. In other words, it would rank Georgia in the top four if the Bulldogs had Washington’s resume and Washington outside of the top four if the Huskies had the Bulldogs’ resume.
The other former BCS computer rankings offer similar assessments of these teams’ relative accomplishments to date. Kenneth Massey and Jeff Sagarin no longer publish the versions of their rankings that were used by the BCS, but here is the top 10 to date based on the average of the other four BCS computer rankings (Anderson & Hester, Billingsley, Colley, and Wolfe):
1. Ohio State (9–0)
2. Washington (9–0)
3. Florida State (9–0)
4. Michigan (9–0)
5. James Madison (9–0)
6. (tie) Alabama (8–1), Texas (8–1)
8. Georgia (9–0)
9. Mississippi (8–1)
10. Penn State (8–1)
Interestingly, the four computer rankings are unanimous in saying that Washington should be ranked ahead of Florida State. (The committee has that order reversed.) In combination, the computer rankings have Alabama, not Georgia, ranked as the top SEC team to date. (The Anderson & Hester Rankings flip that order, with undefeated Georgia #6 and 1-loss Alabama #8.)
More surprisingly, the computer rankings in combination say that undefeated James Madison—which, because of a bizarre NCAA rule, is ineligible to play in a bowl game at the end of this season—has merited the #5 ranking based on success to date. Indeed, all four computer rankings have the Dukes ranked between #4 and #7. A friend of mine, a political science professor, observes, “The last time James Madison was ranked this high was the 1808 presidential election.”
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While James Madison may not be able to maintain these lofty heights, it is interesting that if one were to remove the name from the jersey, one would likely conclude that the upstart Dukes have done more to date than the tradition-rich Bulldogs.
The former BCS computers combine to say that if the top two teams were invited to play in the national championship game, like under the BCS, right now that game should feature an old-fashioned Rose Bowl–style matchup: Ohio State versus Washington. But as of today, the subjective committee wouldn’t even grant the Huskies a berth in a four-team playoff field. Such is what happens when “experts” see what they want to see, rather than looking objectively at the evidence at hand.
Joe Biden once called the old BCS system “un-American,” but in truth it represented the moderate middle ground between unfiltered public opinion, on the one hand, and unchecked rule by “experts” on the other. The current system instead embraces the “expert” model—with results about as satisfying as when such “experts” issue their decrees in other aspects of American life.