How the College Football Playoff Differs from the BCS

The first, and most obvious, difference between the old BCS and the new College Football Playoff (CFP), is the additional game that teams will have to play to win the national championship. While before there was one game to determine the champion, we now have a seeded plus-one, which means that four teams will be seeded in a two-round bracket to decide the national champion.

That change, though, pales in comparison to the far more major difference—namely, in how we determine those teams in the first place. For the past 16 seasons, the BCS used a formula to provide rankings to try and determine the top two teams. The formula was often critiqued, misunderstood, and tweaked over those years, but there was always a formula. There were always clear numbers that we could look to and understand. We could see the votes, at least on the final weekend (which, face it, is the only one that mattered). We could, more or less, find information about how the computer rankings operated if we chose. We could be informed fans and know what the BCS would give us.

Now, though, we don’t have any of that. There is no formula, and there is no system. There is a selection committee of 13 people who will attempt to weigh the top four teams in the country. So far, there have been no official guidelines released as to what the committee will look for and how they will determine their top four teams, but there has been plenty of statements about what the committee should weigh.

Using a committee instead of a ranking system has both pros and cons. The pros are simple. They can weigh all the information we used to have in the past and can weed out the not-always-logical results that the computers gave us. Also, having a small committee can hopefully avoid any group-think that is always a threat with polls with 60 or more voters. The major con, on the other hand, is that we do not have any accountability for the committee. At the very least, the BCS had numbers to point to that explained how they selected their teams. Now, though, the committee decides what the committee wants. And while the hope is that 13 very well-informed members will be able to make proper decisions, it is a lot easier for disgruntled fans to protest (and send hate mail to) individuals rather than a rankings system.

So, the major question is, what exactly do we know about what the committee will use to decide who the top four are? We have some information to go on that can be gleaned, especially from statements by Bill Hancock (the executive director of the CFP). He has said that the committee will be looking to pick the four best teams, no matter what—meaning that if two of the top four are from the same conference, then they will both make the playoff.

The most important thing we know, though, is that strength of schedule (SOS) will be one of the most important factors. Of course, we don’t know how the committee will determine SOS. Will they use the BCS’ original SOS formula (2/3 opponents’ combined records plus 1/3 opponents’ opponents’ combined records)? Will they use Sagarin’s SOS numbers, which are often touted as the most reliable, but also were often one of the larger outliers within the BCS’ computer rankings? Or will they just judge strength of schedule based on the eye test of the teams that the contenders have played?

The real issue for us fans as we look at the CFP is that there is so much we don’t know. We have no precedents to look at. If the CFP had told us who would have made it last year, at least we would have a starting point for this season. But we don’t even have the beginnings of a clue what could have been last year. In my next preseason post, we will look at what possibilities there were last year, just to get an idea of how difficult these decisions are.

The committee has told us that they will release weekly rankings every Tuesday during the last seven weeks of the season, giving us a sort of “pecking order” for how things currently stand in line for the CFP. But these can change rapidly as big games come up week after week that have national implications. Teams will certainly fall without losing due to being jumped by someone behind them. But, hopefully, as we can see more of these rankings, we can learn what the committee is really looking for in determining their top four teams.

And, of course, injuries can be a major factor. Imagine if Braxton Miller had gone down in November and Ohio State was undefeated. Could losing a star keep the Buckeyes out? What if the same thing happens to any other major player on a contender? With so many factors and possibilities, there really isn’t a wrong way to decide. But, then again, there isn’t a right way either.

As a fan, I envy the 13 people on the committee. I, as I am sure that all fans do, wish I had a say in who will compete in the four-team bracket. On the other hand, the job is a terrifying prospect. There are always going to be multiple teams with a legitimate claim for the #4 spot, or even for the top three spots. There will always be ways to argue which team is truly more deserving and there will always be angry fans of whichever teams don’t get the nod. So no, I don’t envy them at all. But I do plan on enjoying the ride as we watch them make their decisions.


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