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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: Is 'Best' Better Than 'Most Deserving?'

December 3, 2018
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"The debate was deep, detailed, and occasionally contentious," College Football Playoff Selection Committee chair Rob Mullens said of the process to get to the final four –– 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Notre Dame and 4. Oklahoma –– announced Sunday.

Glad it felt that way inside the walls of Committee headquarters in Grapevine, Texas, because out here it mostly just felt occasionally contentious. Actually, you can strike the "occasionally." It was just contentious, and it's always going to be that way. The contentiousness is baked in when the mission statement for the Committee reads: "The committee's task will be to select the best teams, rank the teams for inclusion in the playoff and selected other bowl games and then assign the teams to sites."

"Best" is a big source of frustration in this whole process. I think it's the the thing people want the most, but actually would like the least. If you were to create a whole playoff system out of thin air, which is actually what happened with this Playoff, and say to people, "Who should be in?" I suspect the majority would say the "best" teams need to be in. That is the Committee's ultimate goal.

But the problem is that the primary (or at least most widely accepted) tool for measuring "best," wins and losses, is imperfect. Would anyone argue that the best team wins each and every football game? Of course not. Alabama is easily the best program of the past decade (five national titles over that span) and it has gone undefeated in a season once. Even the best of the best is occasionally beaten (or loses via poor play, the occasional off day). 

This is the key challenge to "the results have to matter" absolutism. To accept that mantra wholesale –– and it came up plenty during the debates over which team should land the fourth spot –– is to accept that your playoff may not actually end up with the best teams. If one of the "best" teams loses the wrong game at the wrong time –– doesn't even have to be to a team also vying for "best" designation and is often not, though it was in the case of Alabama-Georgia –– then it may be excluded from the discussion. Follow this track and you're down the path towards "most deserving," which is often pitched as the alternative to "best."

What's interesting about that point of view, to me at least, is that it's the most socially acceptable stance to take. People seem to prefer a world in which when Team A beats Team B it wins completely. This is the easiest position to defend, which probably explains its popularity. Sad about missing the Playoff, Georgia? Should've beaten Bama, then. In the "most deserving" world, what the Bulldogs may have proven in that game may not matter. It only counts for the "best" discussion.

While the Committee's mission may be "to select the best teams," what we've actually seen is a selective blending of "best" and "most deserving." When Ohio State made it in over TCU and Baylor it was mostly a case of "most deserving." When the Buckeyes made it in over Big Ten champ Penn State, it was mostly about "best." When Oklahoma slid in ahead of Georgia yesterday it felt like we were back to "most deserving" to break a virtual tie. Any time UCF's name has come up over the past two years, which has not been often, we're immediately back to "best" again.

The selective reasoning seems to frustrate just about everyone occasionally, and the solution isn't simple. Well, it isn't on one half of the equation.

If people really would prefer to see the "best" teams in the Playoff then the only way to do it would be to expand the sample size and with football you're probably never going to get enough games to truly prove the point. You could look at a win-shares model or some sort of coint model that rewards teams for down-to-down excellence, but I feel like I can already hear a chorus of boos. It would be better at determining "best," but less socially acceptable because it would occasionally have to throw out, or at least mitigate, head-to-head results.

That's probably never going to happen.

"Most deserving" is easier. Expand the field and set some rules. Five conference champions, three wildcards, whatever playoff alternative you prefer. As long as every team knows how it can get in, you remove the handwringing (and probably a "best" team or two along the way given the randomness of results). This works fine for every other sport.

But college football seems to revel in its otherness. Nothing would dominate the news cycle the way the current Playoff discussion does. The sport’s inability to settle on a mostly satisfactory way to determine its national champion may not be life-affirming, but it is incredibly lifelike.

Which is to say it's messy, often illogical and occasionally unsatisfying.

Now I'm wondering if maybe it's the best system for those reasons.

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