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Reality vs. the ‘Experts’ in College Football

As college football approaches playoff season, merit and committee opinion seem at odds.

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Credit: chensiyuan

Another exciting college football season is in its stretch run, and on Sunday a 13-member “expert” committee will decree which teams will receive the four highly coveted bids to the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl, and hence to the sport’s playoff. While one hopes that the most deserving teams will be rewarded, rule by “experts” often leaves one scratching one’s head—or struggling to breathe in oxygen through one’s mandated mask.

The Anderson & Hester College Football Computer Rankings (which Chris Hester and I co-created) were part of college football’s Bowl Championship Series (BCS) throughout its 16-year run, before that system was replaced by a four-team playoff chosen by committee. The committee and the Anderson & Hester Rankings currently have the same teams in the top four, but in a different order. The committee ranks Georgia #1, Michigan #2, Washington #3, and Florida State #4. The Anderson & Hester Rankings flip Georgia and Washington, with Michigan remaining #2.

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The Anderson & Hester Rankings are based solely on what each team has accomplished to date. They make no effort to predict the future. Being computer rankings, they’re also not influenced by the name on the jersey—or by whether the coach does Aflac commercials.

Based on such objective rankings, the Washington Huskies’ season has been somewhat historic. Their .851 rating is the highest that any team has posted in the Anderson & Hester Rankings at the end of the regular season in the 26 years since the start of the BCS era in 1998. Over that span, no other team has played as tough of a schedule and managed to go undefeated.

The committee’s—and the polls’—East Coast bias keeps them from recognizing how hard it is to go undefeated in the deep Pac-12 Conference. Over the past 50 years, only seven Pac-12 (or Pac-10) teams have finished the regular season unbeaten. Those seven are USC in 1979 (which had a tie), Washington in 1991, Arizona State in 1996, USC in 2004 and 2005, Oregon in 2010, and now Washington in 2023.  

Each of those memorable teams, prior to this season’s Washington squad, featured either a Heisman Trophy winner (Charles White in 1979, Matt Leinart in 2004, Reggie Bush in 2005) or at least a player who finished in the top four in the Heisman voting (Steve Emtman in 1991, Jake Plummer in 1996, LaMichael James in 2010). The 2023 Huskies will likely follow suit, with quarterback Michael Penix being a leading contender for college football’s most prestigious individual award.

There’s nothing comparably historic (at least so far) about Georgia’s season. The Bulldogs have beaten just two teams in the Anderson & Hester top 25, neither of them on the road, and haven’t beaten any of the top eight teams (after which there is a big gap in the rankings). In comparison, Washington has beaten four top-25 teams, two of them on the road, and has beaten #7 Oregon (#5 in the committee rankings). Yet the committee ranks Georgia ahead of Washington.  

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The committee, forgetting that the object of the game is to win, isn’t impressed that Washington has had to gut out a number of close contests, winning seven games by single-digit margins. In what has probably been college football’s game of the year so far, the Huskies beat Oregon after stopping the Ducks on 4th down with the game on the line, then quickly scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a pass from Penix to All-America wide-receiver Rome Odunze, and then watching the Ducks’s potential game-tying field goal sail just wide as the horn sounded.

This past Saturday, the Huskies’ Coach Kalen DeBoer, showing the spine of a tightrope walker, decided to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Huskies own 29-yard-line with just over a minute left in a tie game against archrival Washington State. After faking a handoff up the middle, Penix pitched to Odunze on a surprise end-around for a 23-yard gain—announcer Jason Benetti exclaimed, “An outrageous call!”—before kicker Grady Gross nailed a winning 42-yard field goal as time expired. The committee has little appreciation for such dramatics.

The committee also uses a truly awful strength-of-schedule (SOS) rating, apparently devised by ESPN, which throws off its evaluations.  Washington (whose schedule is the 12th-toughest in the nation per the Anderson & Hester Rankings) and Ohio State (whose schedule is the 20th-toughest) have each played three teams in the committee’s own top 25. Washington has played five teams in the Anderson & Hester Rankings’ top 30 to Ohio State’s three—and eight teams in the top-60 to Ohio State’s seven. Yet the ESPN SOS rating not only says that Ohio State has played a tougher schedule than Washington, it says the Buckeyes’ schedule has been #6 and the Huskies #46. To quote the old adage: garbage in, garbage out.

None of this—the committee’s East Coast bias, its refusal to value close wins, and its reliance on a flawed strength-of-schedule rating—will matter too much if Washington, Michigan, Georgia, and Florida State all win this weekend. The committee will likely botch the seeding in that scenario, but it would almost certainly invite the four most deserving teams. The question is what would happen if one or more of these four undefeated teams were to lose this weekend, as is likely.  

On the merits, the Huskies should be able to survive a loss and still make the playoff field. They face a rematch on Friday night against Oregon in the final Pac-12 game ever played (after the mercenary Big Ten poached the Los Angeles schools from its longtime conference ally and set in motion an exodus from that century-old conference). Aside from losing to Washington, the Ducks have gone 11–0. Even if Oregon beats Washington in the rematch, both teams will be 12–1 overall and 1–1 against each other.  

Other than an undefeated Washington, Michigan, or Georgia, the teams most deserving of a playoff berth would be a one-loss Washington, a one-loss Oregon, or an undefeated Florida State. Washington would have the better season-long resume (having played the committee’s #15 team, Arizona, while the Ducks played a Colorado team that went 1–8 in Pac-12 play), Oregon the better late result and the official conference championship, and Florida State the distinction of being undefeated—albeit without having played anyone nearly as good as Washington or Oregon (which would have lost only to each other). It’s hard to go undefeated, even in the Atlantic Coast Conference—and even without playing two of the other four best teams in that conference (North Carolina State and North Carolina, #23 and #32 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings), as in the Seminoles’ case.

The other top one-loss teams—Ohio State, Texas, and Alabama—have varying degrees of control over their own destiny. Ohio State must sit and watch, rooting for upsets and hoping that the committee will continue to trust ESPN’s untrustworthy SOS ratings. Alabama plays Georgia and can claim the Southeastern Conference title with a victory. Given their pedigree (an important consideration for the committee), it seems unlikely that the Crimson Tide would be left out with a win—although, given its comparatively weak schedule, Georgia certainly should be with a loss. Texas would also benefit from an Alabama win, as it would be hard for the committee to take a one-loss Alabama over a one-loss Longhorns team that beat the Crimson Tide earlier this season in Tuscaloosa.  

As for Ohio State, if Washington loses to Oregon on Friday, the Huskies would be 1–1 versus the committee’s top five and 3–1 versus the committee’s top 25. Ohio State would be 0-1 versus the committee’s top five and 2–1 versus the committee’s top 25. The Huskies would also have made it to their conference championship game and would have an extra win.  

Comparing the Huskies with the Longhorns, Washington would have played two games versus the committee’s top five, while Texas would have played either one (if Alabama beats Georgia) or none (if Alabama loses). The Pac-12 has been far tougher than the Big 12 (the Longhorns’ conference), and Washington’s schedule has been tougher than the Longhorns—a gap that will widen this weekend once Washington plays 11–1 Oregon while Texas plays 9–3 Oklahoma State. Even with a loss, the Huskies would pretty clearly deserve the nod over the Buckeyes or the Longhorns—but would they get it?  

One never knows with a committee. One simply has to wait, see, and hope that the teams that have earned the right to go to Pasadena and New Orleans will be the ones that the “experts” will send there. It should be an interesting weekend—and not just while the games are being played.

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