By Gerald Hopkins
This upcoming year of college football has seen some changes due to the pandemic. The PAC-12 and BIG 10 both decided to cancel fall sports, major institutions like the University of North Carolina and Michigan State University already opted into having classes go online, and there is a realistic possibility of there not being a college football season.
But, I’m not a doctor, nor a psychic, I’m just a wannabe sports journalist. With several conferences not participating at all in college football this year, and all of the remaining conferences deciding to play only in-conference games, trying to crown a champion will be more complicated than ever.
To understand why evaluating this year will be even more challenging than usual, we need to understand how college football rankings work. There are three polls that people look to when it comes to college football. The first poll is the AP Top 25 poll, which comes out every year with a preseason list and is created by a select group of sports media personnel. The second poll that many people refer to is the coaches’ poll, which is voted on by the head coaches throughout college football. The third, and most important, poll is the college football playoff poll. This poll comes out later in the season and determines which four teams have a chance at playing for the championship. The committee for this poll is comprised of some of the most influential people in college football.
To save time we’re going to think in terms of the college football playoff, or CFP, poll. The committee, while not having to be completely transparent, uses “strength of schedule, results, championships won, common opponents, and more.” This process, though not foolproof, is the best way to determine which teams realistically are the best in the country. However, this system is subject to bias, and with two major conferences and the loss of non-conference games, the evaluation of teams this year will be a new one for the committee.
These guidelines become especially interesting because of how the factors of the strength of schedule and common opponents work off of each other. The strength of someone’s schedule can change quite dramatically, as every win and loss affect the balance and rankings each week. As the season goes on, those teams who are close to contention can be helped if teams they played win as well. Common opponents are vital in the ranking and balancing process because these programs can’t control the strength of their conference, but they can control who they play outside of their conference.
Here is an example: last year’s champions LSU play in the SEC, and one of their non-conference games was Texas. LSU beat Texas by seven points. Oklahoma, a team in the Big 12, played Texas and won by seven. The committee can use these two games as a way to compare these teams. Both of these teams ended up being in the top 4 that year, and the committee used Texas as a common opponent game to determine both teams’ strength of schedule. This and other teams that LSU and Oklahoma played are all part of that complex method of picking the four best teams in college football.
With non-conference opponents eliminated, this makes determining the strength of schedule harder because teams will lack any common opponents outside their conference. The CFP committee will have to rely more on the “eye test” and stats than ever, which is going to be harder to justify when there are less comparable things between two teams. This will be a point of much discussion, especially considering some of the setbacks that the pandemic may cause to games, players, and teams that could change the season dramatically.
To do this somewhat correctly, the committee’s transparency will need to be steps ahead of where it is now. With there being limited information to use to compare these teams, explanations are going to be necessary to try and make an already complex season less complicated and controversial. There is potential for us to see how important the eye test and other factors are in the decision-making process. With major changes to the strength of schedule and common opponents, will the “eye test” take over, or will prestige dominate? If the committee does use the strength of schedule, how will they truly determine that without non-conference games? These are just some of the many questions that we could get an answer to this year, and while I don’t wish a pandemic on the world to learn these answers, this season can be very informative as well.
I hate to sound like Phil Jackson, but everyone is going to already put an asterisk next to this season if the PAC-12 and BIG-10 do not have a shot at the title. The CFP committee has its work cut out, but there is also a golden opportunity for the committee to open up this season and give the average fan a glimpse into the selection process. Plus, I would much rather talk about college football rankings instead of the pandemic for a change. Buckle up, and put on your mask college football fans, this is going to be one hell of a (socially distanced) ride.
Edited by Emma Moloney