2015 College Football Playoff: Opening Rankings and Conflict Conflicts

Last night, for the first time in the 2015 season, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee released its rankings. The Committee ranks twenty-five teams, and their top ten teams are shown in the images below.

These initial rankings offer plenty to critique about the Committee’s decisions this week and its process in general. One-loss Alabama does not belong in the top four, for example, but if the Committee can create extra hype for the Tide’s game against LSU, which just so happens to be this weekend, why not? And the Committee really thought so lowly of the remaining undefeated teams that one-loss Notre Dame also made it into the top six, ahead of undefeated Baylor, Michigan State, TCU, Iowa, Memphis, Oklahoma State, Toledo, and Houston? Ok, sure, whatever. I think the Committee correctly placed Clemson in the top spot, and I think they deserve credit for acknowledging unbeaten teams outside of the power conferences in Memphis, Toledo, and Houston. Beyond that, though, it is difficult to be pleased with the Committee’s initial offering.

Here’s an exercise: compare the records of two teams, each of which currently are ranked in the Committee’s top twenty-five.

cfp1Neither team has lost. One team looks somewhat better against common opponents. Team A, on the left, beat Western Michigan, Rutgers, and Indiana by a total margin of forty-six, while Team B, on the right, beat those teams by a total margin of seventy-five. Overall point differential also favors Team B, +187 against +90. Team A has played a more difficult schedule, though. They’ve faced two teams ranked inside the AP top fifteen, while Team B hasn’t played any ranked teams, and the combined record of Team A’s opponents currently stands at 35-29 (.547), while Team B’s are at 33-35 (.485).

Team B has performed better against weaker competition than Team A, but, all in all, pretty close, right? As you may have guessed, Team B is Ohio State, sitting at #3 in the CFP Committee’s initial rankings, while Team A is Michigan State, which is on the outside looking in at #7.

While frustrating for Michigan State, the Spartans’ path to the playoff (as with the Buckeyes’) remains the same as it was before the season started: go undefeated, including a win over Ohio State on November 21, and the Committee will have no reasonable basis to exclude MSU. Disrespectful? Perhaps, but this week’s ranking changes little as a practical matter.

The above exercise points at a potential fundamental flaw in the Selection Committee’s procedures, however. Simply as a matter of natural bias-removing process, and especially since the Committee has been fraught with conflicts of interest since day one, one would hope that the Committee would conduct blind evaluations of teams, roughly along the lines of the OSU/MSU comparison in this post.

A recent article by SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey indicates that that is not what the Committee does, however. Here are two of Godfrey’s bullet points:

5. Two Playoff hopefuls could cause recusals for the first time, and one school could shrink the committee to 10 votes.

There are eight programs that can cause at least one member of the committee to step away from deliberation and voting on that school. Six — Air Force (Gould), Arkansas (Long), Wisconsin (Alvarez), Nebraska (Osborne), Duke (Willingham) and Texas Tech (Hocutt) — are likely out of the 2015 race, but Clemson and Stanford could make things interesting.

(Manning stepped down before his connections with Ole Miss could cause a recusal.)

Clemson athletic director Radakovich will have to excuse himself from discussing the 8-0 Tigers — potentially the committee’s top pick — and the Cardinal have two conflicts. Both Willingham and Rice have connections to 7-1 Stanford, with Willingham’s son working for the school and Rice employed as a professor.

It’s important to note that just being an alumnus or former employee doesn’t matter. If Willingham’s son weren’t currently employed by the Cardinal, he could vote on Stanford regardless of having coached there. Johnson is a former Clemson player and assistant coach, but will be allowed to deliberate on the Tigers because he has no current employment or family ties.

6. How voting and recusals actually work.

The CFP’s official language wants you to know it’s really serious about preventing lobbying:

A recused member shall not participate in any votes involving the team from which the individual is recused. A recused member is permitted to answer only factual questions about the institution from which the member is recused, but shall not be present during any deliberations regarding that team’s selection or seeding. Recused members shall not participate in discussions regarding the placement of the recused team into a bowl game.

This is how the committee votes:

  1. Each member makes a list of the 30 best teams. Teams listed by three or more are up for discussion.
  2. Each member picks the six best from that group in no order.
  3. Everyone shares their top sixes, and the most popular shared teams become a list of six.
  4. Each member ranks that list of six, and the three teams with the highest cumulative ranking go up as Nos. 1 through 3, while the bottom three go back in the pool.
  5. Then the process repeats itself, each time adding three teams until the top 25 is complete.

When contacted to provide additional clarity on the recusal process, CFP Chairman Bill Hancock said, “The recused member simply does not participate in any vote in which his or her team is involved. That’s really all there is to it.”

So if you’re Radakovich, you can neither lobby other members to vote for Clemson nor vote on where the Tigers rank. If you’re Rice, and Stanford makes the first list of six, you have to recuse yourself from voting during that round until Stanford goes up on the board without your input.

If Clemson and Stanford keep winning, or if one of those schools is in consideration for the fourth seed in the final week, recusals could become this year’s controversy.

A practical takeaway from this? The Committee members know which team they’re discussing and voting on. Recusals usually are a good way to address conflicts of interest. In this instance, though, the manner in which the Committee’s recusal process operates seems to threaten the integrity of its overall mission on an even more fundamental level, and new member Bobby Johnson’s presence on the Committee only slightly alleviates my concern.

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2 thoughts on “2015 College Football Playoff: Opening Rankings and Conflict Conflicts

  1. So yet again the BCS is (sigh, I hate to use this term in this context, but alas) the elephant in the room. There were none of these problems when the BCS was ranking teams. Only two teams had the opportunity to play for a championship which lead to strife (of course now, “only” four teams have a chance to play for a championship which leads to strife), but there were few complaints about the ranking process because it elegantly combined hard analytics and gut instinct by dozens of college football experts.

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