College Football is my favorite sport, but its competition is deeply flawed. There is arguably nothing worse in sports than the FBS’ two-class system and beauty contest rules. The best part about the recently proposed 12-team playoff format is that it awards automatic berths to the top six conference champions without regard to P5/G5 labels. Of course, this format may not be adopted, and the latest round of conference realignment appears to have slowed momentum towards playoff expansion. That said, the automatic berth rule did not go unnoticed by the Pac-12 Conference which made it clear that it prefers its champion be guaranteed a spot in the playoffs regardless of its rank among all conference champions. Apparently, it is too much to ask that its champion place higher than seventh among ten champions. After all, Power Five leagues are entitled to unfair competitive advantages based on how much more successful these leagues have been throughout history due, in no small part, to these unfair competitive advantages.
Even if automatic berths are awarded as proposed, it does not end the two-class system so long as placement and advancement is determined by vote. The purpose of competition is to determine a winner. In most competitions, teams place and advance based on which teams best accomplish what the rules in play value. With polls and committees, there are no fixed rules. Voters are free to favor teams for any reasons they wish, and it does not matter if they contradict themselves when deciding one place to the next. The final committee rankings are the product of 13 people voting for or against teams for any number of reasons, and the four teams selected for the playoffs advance over unselected teams for no specific reason and for no reason that is worth more as a matter of rule than any reason someone might vote in favor of an unselected team. The worst part is that beauty contest methods are primarily influenced by a need to identify and validate the best teams. Far too many are programmed to believe that the purpose of competition is to determine the best team or teams which leads to self-fulfilling outcomes. The best P5 teams are always better than the best G5 teams and there are no objective results that the latter group can produce which voters will not ignore in favor of voting for a better P5 team simply because it is a better team. With any possible objective rules, being a better team is simply and only a competitive advantage towards accomplishing what the rules in play value. If a better team fails to beat a lesser team at the rules of a competition, it loses, as it should, the same way it loses if it scores fewer points in a football game.
If desired, College Football could place teams by their records plus tiebreakers. Of course, the argument against this idea is that it will encourage and reward easy schedules. I imagine most fans prefer a format that encourages if not compels teams to play challenging schedules. The irony is that the CFP committee essentially ranks teams by records when comparing members of the same class. However, when P5 and G5 teams are compared, being a P5 member and playing a P5 schedule is worth 2-4 games in the loss column. In the seven final CFP rankings, when comparing P5 teams, the higher ranked team had equal or fewer losses 94.8% of the time (1479/1561). When comparing G5 teams, the higher ranked team had equal or fewer losses 91.9% of the time (34/37). When comparing members of the same class, the higher ranked team had equal or fewer losses 94.7% of the time (1513/1598). In many instances, a higher ranked team with more losses had lost in a conference title game and was likely not punished for it. Only two instances involved top four teams. In 2014, one-loss teams Alabama and Oregon were ranked higher than undefeated Florida State. Since all three made the playoffs anyway, there is nothing especially brave or informative about the committee’s decision to favor the one-loss teams. On two other occasions, the fifth ranked team had more losses than the sixth ranked team. Again, nothing brave or informative about these rankings since there is no significant difference between fifth and sixth when only the top four teams advance.
When comparing P5 and G5 teams, the higher placed team had equal or fewer losses 60.2% of the time (302/502). In all 200 instances when the higher ranked team had more losses, the higher ranked team was a P5 member. Only 24 G5 teams have been ranked in the final committee poll through seven seasons. Only one, 2019 Cincinnati, did not rank behind a P5 team with more losses. Six G5 teams ranked behind one or more P5 teams with one more loss. 12 G5 teams ranked behind one or more P5 members with two more losses. Four G5 teams ranked behind one or more P5 teams with three more losses. And one G5 team ranked behind one P5 team with four more losses. All seven G5 teams selected for a NY6 bowl ranked behind one or more P5 teams with two to four more losses.
The problem here is not that P5 teams with more losses are ranked higher than G5 teams with fewer losses. The problem is that the committee format does not explain why they are or what G5 teams must do, at a minimum, to make up the difference. Nothing is quantified. If, for example, any two FBS teams post 12-0 records and their opponents finish 72-72 combined, they would be tied in the Power Points Standings pending subsequent tiebreakers without regard to their identity and perceived ability and that of their opponents. Of course, “best team” advocates will object to this because they are convinced that the better team is entitled to place higher for that reason even though they do not adhere to their own rule 100% of the time when comparing P5 teams. That said, in 43 FBS seasons, 158 P5 or equivalent teams have finished in the Power Points Standings top four through regular season competition compared to 14 G5 or equivalent teams. That is a 11.3 to 1 ratio (91.9%) in favor of P5 teams.
Unfortunately, those numbers are not good enough under a beauty contest format. Many will look at the 14 G5 teams that finished in the top four and argue that a lower ranked P5 team is a better team and should be ranked higher for that reason. I will happily stipulate to their claim that any lower ranked P5 team is a better team and argue that “fact” is irrelevant to the purpose of competition. How does it make any sense that better teams win nearly 92% of the time as a matter of rule, but should also win the remaining 8% of the time for simply being better teams as a matter of opinion when they fail to win as a matter of rule? There are no fair objective rules that can guarantee better teams will always beat lesser teams nor should there be. Again, even beauty contest methods do not always favor better teams. What are G5 teams supposed to do when they are not allowed to win as a matter of rule because they are also required to better as a matter of opinion than the teams they beat as a matter of rule?
In 43 FBS seasons, 2017 UCF owns the best resume among G5 or equivalent teams under the Power Points (PP) System. Against FBS competition only, the Golden Knights finished the regular season with 61 PP, an 11-0 record, and 32 for schedule strength (SS). UCF also won three games versus AP ranked competition which only three other G5 or equivalent teams have accomplished since 1978. The average AP #1 team has finished with 61.2 PP, an 11.3-0.2 record, and 57.5 for SS. The average AP #1 team also averaged 2.9 wins versus AP ranked competition. Basically, 2017 UCF’s resume is nearly identical to the average AP #1 team’s resume under the Power Points System (PPS). Of course, this information might be used to discredit the PPS by those who know 2017 UCF and its opponents are not as good as the average AP #1 team and its opponents and believe that matters, but beyond that, they fail or refuse to spell out what more a team like 2017 UCF must do to get equal value for their season compared to the average AP #1 team.
2017 UCF is one of only two G5 or equivalent teams to go undefeated and beat three AP ranked opponents in 43 FBS seasons. The three non-power teams that finished in the AP, Coaches, and/or BCS top four owned three ranked wins combined. 1996 BYU lost once, had only one ranked win (AP #22 Wyoming), and was ranked fifth. Clearly, non-power teams with arguably lesser resumes have fared much better in the past than 2017 UCF did with the AP or the CFP committee. Again, beauty contest methods fail to explain why. The AP and the committee ranked 2019 Clemson third. The Tigers finished with no wins versus AP ranked competition and one win (#24 Virginia) versus CFP ranked competition. That is three fewer wins versus AP ranked competition and one fewer win versus CFP ranked competition than 2017 UCF. Yet, the Tigers placed seven and nine spots higher in the AP and CFP polls respectively than the Golden Knights. Different seasons might explain one or two spots, but nine spots in the CFP poll with one fewer ranked win versus a lower ranked opponent? The Tigers’ unranked opponents were a combined 53-68 versus FBS competition. Is that worth nine more spots or is it all about identity and perceived ability?
The bottom line is that so long as College Football teams place and advance according to beauty contest methods, the FBS will always have two classes. There must be objective rules that place and advance teams based on the value of their results under the rules in play without regard to identity and perceived ability. Group of Five officials must be better advocates for their teams and leagues and not settle for a format that is less unfair than previous formats. Automatic berths for the top six champions without regard to P5/G5 labels is wonderful, but it is not good enough if we want to retire those labels forever.