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Understanding the understandable: Translating the CFP selection committee for dummies

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This is the dumbest timeline and it’s all so predictable

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Iowa
Iowa athletic director Gary Barta walks the sideline before the Hawkeyes’ game against Minnesota on Oct. 28, 2017.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

A little over a year ago, I was a guest on CrimsonCast – a very good podcast for IU sports fans, in my humble opinion – and I talked with host Galen Clavio about Indiana’s potential path to a top-25 College Football Playoff ranking after its 7-2 start to the 2019 season. I had combed through old AP polls from the CFP era and found a few examples of teams that were, like, seventh or ninth among “Others receiving votes” but still found their way to a No. 23 or No. 25 ranking from the selection committee.

Maybe – just maybe! – I said, Indiana could sneak in at No. 25 after beating a lifeless Northwestern squad last November.

Well, fast forward a little over a year and Indiana football fans are now experiencing the burdensome weight of expectations and the emotional toll of trust issues with the selection committee, just like any good football school and its fan base does.

In the latest CFP rankings, Indiana is ranked No. 12.

Just like last week.

But since last week, Indiana defeated the committee’s No. 16 team, Wisconsin, on the road, with Indiana’s backup quarterback making his first-career start. As we wrote after the game, an eight-point victory could’ve easily been a 15-point margin, too. The selection committee doesn’t operate in hypotheticals and what-if scenarios – and the committee members will be happy to remind you of that – but a dropped touchdown from Miles Marshall was perhaps indicative of the performance.

This wasn’t a Shaun Wade pick-six of Michael Penix Jr. moment, where Indiana fans were wondering “Could our team have won if this play or that play went differently?”

No, this is Indiana fans asking “How much more could my team have won by?”

Well, it turns out that margin of victory be damned, because the selection committee just sort of thinks that Wisconsin isn’t that good anymore.

“When you look at some of the people that we compare around them, they don’t have any top-25 wins and none of their wins are against a team with a winning record,” Iowa Athletic Director and CFP Committee Chairman Gary Barta said of Indiana on a conference call with the media Tuesday night, when asked why the still-No. 12 Hoosiers are ranked behind several two-loss teams.

While acknowledging that it usually feels like the committee just decides, somehow, some way, who the best teams are, then it figures out the justification for the order after the fact, let’s try to understand the understandable.

This is Translating the Selection Committee for Dummies, available now in your local independent bookstore for just $14.99, or $9.99 on Kindle.

The committee’s distorted view of Newton’s Third Law of Motion

Newton’s Third Law roughly says, “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.”

The selection committee sometimes abides by it, like when Coastal Carolina climbed five spots from No. 18 to No. 13 after beating BYU in Week 14, as the Cougars also fell five spots from No. 13 to No. 18 after the loss. The two schools switched places after playing each other and they’re still separated by four teams, even though we all just watched with our own two eyes as Coastal Carolina and BYU were, quite literally, only separated by one yard, as BYU was tackled on Coastal Carolina’s 1-yard line on the final play of a five-point loss.

It could have just as easily been a narrow win for BYU.

That was a case of the selection committee wrongly applying Newton’s Third Law of Motion. But sometimes the selection committee also misinterprets Newton’s Third Law.

You see, Barta said Tuesday night that Indiana doesn’t have any wins over top-25 teams, which is true when looking at the current CFP rankings. Meanwhile, Indiana’s football program has taken the opposite approach and compared itself to Alabama, as one of two schools that has beaten three opponents that were ranked in the top 25 at the time of kickoff.

That’s not intended to be shade at Indiana or its graphic design team, by the way, but the contrast highlights the selection committee’s failure to fully grasp Newton’s Third Law.

You see, Indiana’s three wins over formerly top-25 teams don’t count as top-25 wins, at least in part, because Indiana beat No. 8 Penn State, No. 23 Michigan and No. 16 Wisconsin.

Those three wins and those three losses are all related. Penn State didn’t start 0-1 in a vacuum, just like Michigan didn’t magically drop to 1-2, nor did Wisconsin’s record spontaneously fall to 2-2.

When two Big Ten teams – Maryland and Wisconsin – have only played four games through Week 14 of the college football season, and the average number of games played in the conference is just 5.8 entering the last week of the regular season, well, then frankly it’s just going to be difficult for many teams in the conference to meet the selection committee’s talking points du jour, like “top-25 wins” and “wins over teams with a winning record.”

Hell, Ohio State’s only top-25 win is No. 12 Indiana and the combined record of the Buckeyes’ five opponents is 14-16 (with six of those wins coming from Indiana).

Think how different the narrative about Penn State would’ve been in the fall if the officials had ruled that Michael Penix Jr.’s two-point conversion in overtime was short of the pylon or that he landed out of bounds. Preseason No. 7 Penn State – despite its best defensive player opting out, its No. 1 running back being sidelined with a medical issue and its No. 2 running back getting hurt on the opening drive against Indiana – would’ve earned a “really gritty, hard-fought win over an underrated Indiana team,” or whatever the talking point would’ve been.

Because that’s the benefit of the doubt that a team like Penn State or Georgia, ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP poll and No. 9 in the latest CFP rankings, typically receives after unconvincing wins.

Barta pointed out that Indiana doesn’t have any top-25 wins. Neither does Georgia.

Barta said Indiana hasn’t beaten any teams with a winning record. Georgia has one – a win over an Auburn team that’s 5-4. The rest of the teams the Bulldogs have beaten are two games below .500, or worse.

This commentary isn’t specific to Indiana, but it applies to the Indianas of the college football universe.

Until you have institutional familiarity with the committee, you’re not going to get the benefit of the doubt.

Cincinnati was ranked No. 20 in the preseason AP poll and No. 7 in the first CFP rankings this season, but only after the Bearcats put together back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2018 and 2019. Cincinnati, ironically, is Indiana’s third opponent next season and if Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell stays put for another year, his Bearcats will likely earn a generally lofty spot in 2021 preseason polls from voters. Indiana will probably deserve a similar spot in the AP poll, and should the Hoosiers win that game against Cincinnati and at least seven or eight more next season, then they’ll be set up in 2022 and beyond to finally get a more fair shake from the selection committee.

Let’s just call a spade, a spade. This is how the sausage gets made on the way to yet another College Football Playoff that features Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and NotreOregLSUWashingState.

Gary Barta likes to talk how Magic Johnson tweets

Every College Football Playoff selection committee chairman has had his own style, quirks and as-needed evasiveness.

Hey, does anyone care to acknowledge or discuss how the chairman is potentially going to vote to change his conference’s rules in order to make a current top-four team’s resume stronger, late in the 15th week of the season?

Anyone want to discuss this? Buehler?

Well, Barta certainly doesn’t wish to address it.

Anyway, one of Barta’s CFP mannerisms is the Let’s Acknowledge That a Team’s Best Offensive Player is Very Good move.

On Ohio State: “So watching Justin Fields do what he did, just really took command of the offense. I’ve been saying the last few weeks, all the different weapons that Ohio State’s offense has this week, it was Olave going for 140 yards and then Fields rushing for two and throwing for two.”

On Iowa State: “They now have the nation’s leading rusher in Breece Hall. Brock Purdy was 20 out of 23. So when you take all those things, Iowa State ended up at No. 7.”

On USC: “I can tell you the committee early on in the season was impressed with USC and all the different skill positions. Kedon Slovis is an impressive quarterback.”

OK, you get the point. All of these quotes were from Tuesday night, by the way.

Look, there are many more serious gripes to be had with the committee over the years besides the current chairman listing high-profile offensive skill position players like he’s working on a mock draft before a fantasy college football draft, but it has a very Magic-Johnson-on-Twitter vibe to it.

“The committee was very impressed by [checks notes] quarterback Justin Fields’s 15 touchdown passes compared to three interceptions this season. Wow! (praise hands emoji)”

The committee members love to say they watch games. There’s no reason to doubt that they do, but they really love to tell you how much they watch games.

But the talking points about top-15 quarterbacks, top-five running backs and top-20 wide receivers wear thin when it’s just window dressing to give name brands the benefit of the doubt, and give newcomers to the CFP scene less credit than they probably deserve.

For an Indiana, a BYU, or a Louisiana, Barta will often use a big-name player or two as part of the sandwich method of feedback:

  1. Man, this guy [enter star QB or RB name here] sure is something!
  2. Hey, we don’t think your team is that great.
  3. “They’ve done some good things so far and we’re continuing to evaluate them”

I learned about the sandwich method of feedback in a business communications course sophomore year and you can smell it a mile away.

Remove the bread from the metaphorical sandwich and what are you left with?

Some expired canned tuna from the back of your grandma’s pantry that tells you that your favorite team doesn’t have any top-25 wins, only because your favorite team already beat those teams and now their records are worse.

The only rules are there are no rules

This isn’t unique to the College Football Playoff rankings, because it’s present throughout college football. Ask a coach or administrator if this college football season, played amid a pandemic, has been a success.

That’s a debate that can be had next month, next year and next decade, but the answer is wholly predicated on no one in the sport really being in charge and none of the many people who are in power setting clear definitions of success or failure ahead of time.

So, sure, this has all been a rousing success. Every SEC team is on pace to play at least 90 percent, if not all, of its regular-season games, just don’t look over there in the corner at Charlotte, which has had roughly twice as many games postponed or canceled this season as it has played.

When there are no rules, you get to make up the grading scale on the fly.

So somewhat similarly, the CFP selection committee gets to kind of make things up as it goes. Talking points, and pros and cons on a team’s resume can change from year to year, even from team to team within the same year. This isn’t breaking news.

Sometimes it’s top-25 wins, which, by the way, is a completely arbitrary number. What makes 25 a better number than 20, 30 or 35? Just because the AP poll expanded from ranking the top 20 teams to the top 25?

Sometimes the committee might highlight another number, like top-20 wins or those in the top 10. Sometimes it’s wins over opponents with a winning record.

Maybe it’s strength of schedule, or road wins.

At the end of the day, the committee is most likely going to select the four best teams and most likely put them in the right, or at least defensible, order, but the process to get there and the bread-crumb trail of flawed logic that the committee leaves behind will most likely leave us with something like No. 9 Iowa State and No. 21 Louisiana – head-to-head results be damned.

It was also written in the Magna Carta that Iowa will be ranked somewhere around No. 17 and Oklahoma State will be around No. 21, so you’ll just have to deal with that, too, and just shove their three or four losses under the rug and put a nice sofa over it so the guests don’t see it.

Ohio State is probably going to make the playoff, as it probably should, and Texas A&M probably isn’t going to make the playoff, just as it probably shouldn’t, but the bullet-point resumes and talking points that the committee brandishes to reach that conclusion will probably be contradicting, jumbled and they might even sound at times like Magic Johnson reading basic stats off a box score.

Welcome to college football.