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What criteria are used for the rankings in the College Football Playoff

The CFP committee uses a strict list of criteria that they can abandon whenever they want.

The College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy is displayed on November 12, 2020 in Palm Beach, Florida. The Championship game will be played at Hard Rock Stadium on January 11, 2021. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Because there are only 12 or 13 games played by a college football team during the regular season, and only four spots in the arbitrarily-decided College Football Playoff, someone has to choose which four teams are the most worthy. No matter how big you eventually make the playoff field, there will always be controversy, as the NCAA Tournament leaves out worthy bubble teams each year.

Although eight teams seems to make a lot more sense as you could add all the Power Five conference champions, two at-large spots, and one protected spot for the Group of Five teams (that also prevents you from getting sued for monopolistic practices), that’s not where the sport is right now.

So who decides the four College Football Playoff teams, and how do they do it?

Here’s the official answer from the NCAA’s website:

Selection Committee members will have a wealth of information including review of video, statistics and their own expertise to guide them in their deliberations. They will emphasize obvious factors like win-loss records, strength of schedule, conference championships won, head-to-head results and results against common opponents. The playoff group has retained SportSource Analytics to provide the data platform for the committee’s use. It will also include general information such as each team’s opponents’ record. The platform will allow the committee members to compare and contrast every team on every level possible.

It should be noted that the committee will not use a single data point such as the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) that is used for NCAA championships.

That “statistics and their own expertise” line means exactly what you think it means: A bunch of people with hunches can overrule the data in front of them.

The CFP freely admits this in their Selection Committee Protocol page on their website.

Ranking football teams is an art, not a science. Football is popular in some measure because the outcome of a game between reasonably matched teams is so often decided by emotional commitment, momentum, injuries and the “unexpected bounce of the ball.” In any ranking system, perfection or consensus is not possible and the physical impact of the game on student athletes prevents elaborate playoff systems of multiple games. For purposes of any four team playoff, the process will inevitably need to select the four best teams from among several with legitimate claims to participate.

There used to be an emphasis on a “game control” metric, but don’t get that confused with the ESPN statistic of the same name. As a former chair of the committee freely admits, it was always completely arbitrary. But now that level of arbitrary is built into the description above.

And that committee? Seven current FBS athletic directors, two former head coaches, two really good former college football players, one university professor, one former United States Army Chief of Staff. When they CFP process was formed, there were calls for diversity and inclusion outside of the sport as part of the process. That has happened in a limited fashion, and it’s how Condoleeza Rice ended up there.

But it’s still made up of a majority of athletic directors: One from each of the Power Five conferences, and two that would like to be AD’s at Power Five schools someday. And taking away the revenue and exposure derived from participating in the games to determine the national champion isn’t a good outcome. The already unbalanced revenue distribution system tilting even slightly towards the hoi polloi won’t be welcomed by the blue bloods of intercollegiate athletics.

In other words: Good luck this season, BYU and Cincinnati. We’ll believe you’ve got a shot at the Final Four when we see it.