Glass Ceilings

From time to time [1] I write about the aspect of ratings, and there are few sports where ratings are more important than in college football.  Part of that is due to the way the game is organized.  In most games, performance is settled on the field of play.  Either through standings tables that are determined by results on the field or through tournaments where winners are identified through victory, most sports have a certain degree of legitimacy to their rankings.  You can grouse about how low you are ranked on a power ranking for football, for example, but that power ranking has no determination on how one will actually do.  That is, unfortunately, not the case for college football.  Even college basketball, which has pretty wacky ratings and obvious inequalities, makes it clear that even the most maligned conference will get its winner into the tournament, even if they have to play in a “first four” game before everyone else gets started.  In college football, even that opportunity is neglected.

College football, for a variety of reasons, lacks this obvious legitimacy.  The most important reason why is that there are too many college football teams (roughly 120 or so in the Football Bowl Division) and too few games (at most fourteen or so) to definitively settle a champion.  Right now, as I write this, there is a four-team playoff that uses two of the bowls, which rotate from year to year, as the feeder for a national championship game.  But, as one might imagine, competition for those spots is intense, and there are some obvious advantages that some conferences have above others.  So far we have four years of records of the teams and conferences that have made it to the college football playoff, and the following teams and conferences have been represented.  First, the teams:  Alabama (4), Clemson (3), Ohio State (2), Oklahoma (2), Oregon (1), Florida State (1), Washington (1), Michigan State (1), and Georgia (1).  And now, the conferences:  SEC (5), ACC (4), Big 10 (3), Big 12 (2), and PAC-12 (2).  Not coincidentally, the only five conferences to have ever been represented are the “Big Five” conferences that dominate the big money bowls as a whole along with Notre Dame.  No team, no matter how good, from the group of five college football conferences have ever made it to the playoff.  During these years there are some teams that could have qualified–UCF went unbeaten in 2017, Western Michigan went unbeaten in the regular season in 2016, Houston went 13-1 in 2015, and Marshall went 12-1 in 2014 and didn’t even manage to be ranked.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same thing can be seen this year.  This year, 7-0 UCF sits behind a few one-loss teams from power conferences, and 7-0 USF sits behind a handful of two-loss teams, one of which leap-frogged it after a win against Illinois, a team that USF beat earlier in the season.  To be sure, as long as both of those teams keep winning, both of them are likely to continue to be ranked, but both of them appear to have a pretty strong glass ceiling because of perceived “strength of schedule,” even if the top of the AAC is a strong conference with numerous powerful teams like Cincinnati and Temple.  It’s not as if USF has won based on a purely cupcake diet, having won at Illinois, and UCF has beaten Pitt and would have beaten North Carolina, likely, had a hurricane not prevented the game from being played.  Yet such teams have an obvious peak as to how high they can be ranked no matter how much they win because the people who vote on rankings don’t want to give them too much credit or put them above mid-tier schools from conferences like the SEC and Big 10 that have their champions make the football playoff nearly every year.  Even if a team like USF or UCF played all of its non-conference games against elite competition, it would likely face an uphill challenge to be rewarded for it in terms of rankings, assuming that an elite school would be willing to have a home-and-home series with either of those two teams in light of scheduling cupcake non-conference opponents of its own, like Alabama’s non-conference slate that includes games against The Citidel and Arkansas State, which does not penalize its own perceived strength of schedule in the least.

It is unclear what can be done about this so long as subjectivity reigns in college football, and it is unclear of how subjectivity can be avoided in college football so long as there are 120 teams and only four playoff spots and another half-dozen or so New Year’s Day bowl slots that matter, only one of which is guaranteed to fully half of the conferences in football.  In the NCAA basketball tournament, nearly half of the spots are guaranteed to conference winners, many of whom come from small conferences.  If there was a 16-team college football playoff, for example, here is how it would look at present if the season ended today:  1. Alabama (SEC), 2. Clemson (ACC), 3. Notre-Dame (At-Large), 4. LSU (At-large), 5. Michigan (Big 10), 6. Texas (Big 12), 7. Georgia (At-Large), 8. Oklahoma (At-Large), 9. Florida (At-Large), 10. UCF (AAC), 11. Ohio State (At-Large), 12. Washington State (Pac-12), 13. Appalachian State (Sun Belt) 14. Fresno State/Utah State (MWC), 15. UAB (C-USA), 16. Buffalo (MAC).  It is unlikely that most of the lesser conferences would win a game, but there’s certainly a chance that a team like Notre Dame would struggle against a Mountain West champion when it barely beat Pitt, or that LSU might be surprised by a motivated Appalachian State or that Washington State could beat Michigan in what has been a down year for the Pac-12, or that UCF could club an overrated Georgia squad.  But as is always the case in life, you can’t win until you get a chance to play, and that is the first struggle one has to face.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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