This is the second statement in the College Football Playoff Committee’s selection protocol:
2. Principles. The committee will select the teams using a process that distinguishes among otherwise comparable teams by considering:
• Conference championships won,
• Strength of schedule,
• Head-to-head competition,
• Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory), and,
• Other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.
In a normal season, this is a fancy way of saying “pick at least three Power Five conference champions, and if you have another Power Five team (or Notre Dame) with a better overall record than the two remaining P5 champs, give them a spot.” Barring a widespread blue-blood meltdown, there’s no room for a Group of Five team in a system already eliminates at least one Power Five champion automatically.
But you knew that already!
Adjusting the Playoff in some way to account for the unusual circumstances of 2020 would probably be smart, and it would certainly be defensible. But much like the AP Poll, the Playoff will instead be charging forward as though everything’s normal.
Mark your calendars!— College Football Playoff (@CFBPlayoff) August 24, 2020
The dates for the 2020 @CFBPlayoff selection committee rankings have been announced!
It all leads up to #2021Miami. Who’s in?
Details » https://t.co/gRe4sLdwKX#CFBPlayoff • #NationalChampionship pic.twitter.com/EyaJg4TMuV
And I suspect they’re about to have a very bad time, because a few key assumptions of the Playoff don’t exist this season.
1. They can’t just pick four Power 5 conference champs
The Playoff Committee would like to avoid drama whenever possible, because drama leads to questions and questions lead to making answers up on the fly with phrases like “body clock.” In their ideal scenario, the Committee can pick four strong Power Five conference champions, knowing that most fans won’t feel bad for the champ who’s left out.
But if we assume the 2020 ACC, Big 12, and SEC champions are all automatically in, what is the committee supposed to do with the last spot?
The Group of Five conferences are definitely going to notice that fourth bid, and hooboy, the online ruckus the committee will unleash if they give it to another Power Five school this year. On the other hand, if they reward one of the G5 teams, they’ll have at least one (and probably more like three or four) Power 5 fanbases screaming at them about what an absolute gauntlet the ACC/SEC/Big 12 are compared to the bowling-with-bumpers the Group of Five calls a conference schedule.
Unfortunately, this problem is about to become even more complicated thanks to the next problem.
2. The measuring sticks don’t work
The Big 12, SEC, and ACC have no games scheduled against one another. Five ACC schools grabbed an FCS opponent for their sole non-conference game, and three picked Liberty. In the Big 12, three programs will play their non-conference game against an FCS school. The American Athletic Conference, historically the G5 closest to crashing the Playoff party, has three matchups against the Power 5: SMU at TCU, Tulsa at Oklahoma State, and UCF at Georgia Tech.
What that leaves is an incredibly insular setup (hell, in the SEC it’s entirely insular) where, if the committee’s comparing teams from different conferences, they have extremely limited tools at their disposal. There are no big head to head elimination games between Power Five teams, and it’s unlikely the best Group of Five teams will have had a shot at a Power Five program. There are no common opponents to analyze. And “strength of schedule” pretty quickly turns into “Which conferences seem toughest, absent any meaningful cross-conference information?”
There’s also the last bullet: “Other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.” In 2019, we thought that might come into play when Tua Tagovailoa got hurt mid-season, possibly as an argument to give Alabama a playoff spot despite their loss to LSU. (Then the Tide lost to Auburn and saved the Committee the trouble.)
But in 2020, “relevant factors” could mean an entire starting position group missing a game.
Holy cow. Lincoln Riley won't say which position group it is, but says he had one group essentially wiped out -- all but one -- by a COVID test. He said it's a position group that needs "multiple" guys on the field together. #Sooners— Jason Kersey (@jasonkersey) August 25, 2020
How is the committee going to judge games where multiple players can’t play because of COVID or related complications? Do those losses count as mulligans of sorts? Do the wins lose some value in the committee’s eyes? I don’t know the answers, but I’m not on the Playoff Committee, am I?
Don’t worry, it gets dumber!
3. Even the most basic calculations won’t be consistent
When in doubt, the simplest Playoff formula works like this:
Step 1: Put all the undefeated Power Five teams in
Step 2: Put all the one-loss Power Five teams in if you have room
Step 3: That’s it, you’re good, because no team has never made the Playoff with two losses
That formula, however, relies upon the assumption that every team has played about the same number of games. There’s some small natural variation where conference championships add to a total while a few games get canceled due to natural disasters, but broadly speaking, every team is working off a twelve-game schedule.
In 2020? Big 12 and SEC schools are playing ten games. ACC teams get eleven. The Sun Belt, Conference USA, and the American are all using an eight-game conference schedule and giving their teams the option to schedule four non-conference matchups. (Some have lined those up already and some haven’t; FAU, for example, has a ten-game schedule at the moment, while Southern Miss will play twelve times.)
And all of this is describing an optimistic scenario, where none of these games get canceled. If that happens, the Playoff Committee might be tasked with judging a 9-1 Big 12 team with a win by forfeit against a 9-2 ACC team that played all its games against a 12-0 AAC team.
There is one piece of good news: The committee rules about recusal are far less likely to come into play this year. The current chairperson is Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta, and several other voters work for or have connections to schools that aren’t playing this fall, including Arizona State, Wyoming, Colorado, USC, and Penn State. Now those voters will get to travel across the country and meet in person every week to discuss a Playoff their schools and conferences can’t even contend for!
Oh yeah, the College Football Playoff Committee is still planning on face-to-face meetings involving multi-state travel even though they could do the whole thing over a conference call. This whole thing is gonna go great.