The College Football Playoff is facing an identity crisis. After a few years of minor arguments, the CFP has reached a full-on controversy in 2020.
The problem isn't that Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame made the semifinals. No matter whether you agree with the final two selections over Texas A&M, they're at least justifiable. The issue is a blatant disregard for less prestigious programs from non-Power Five conferences—the Group of Five.
And in particular, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina.
Cincinnati finished 9-0 and won the American Athletic Conference but slowly fell in the rankings, even dropping behind two-loss teams. Coastal Carolina finished 11-0 and shared the Sun Belt title but never cracked the Top 10.
Let's make this clear: This is not meant to convince you Cincinnati or Coastal Carolina should be in the playoff. This is, however, a look at how the selection committee defied its own explanations as a way to avoid seriously considering a Group of Five team.
One more thing: This is not to suggest a top-ranked Power Five team is not deserving. This is, however, a dive—using the committee's own logic—into how Group of Five teams are not given fair shots.
While the committee spokesperson constantly cited its "tools" for evaluation, they weren't utilized consistently. The 13-member panel randomly decided when one criterion mattered most.
First stop: The Buckeye State. Or, perhaps, the Buckeyes' state.
Cincinnati opened the season with seven straight wins of 14-plus points—including six of at least 21—before a three-point victory over 5-2 UCF on Nov. 21. It debuted at No. 7 that Tuesday, but after COVID-19 issues and a couple of idle weekends, it started to drop.
"We haven't had a chance to see them play since Nov. 21," CFP chair Gary Barta said Dec. 15, when the Bearcats fell from No. 8 to No. 9. They had already been behind 8-1 Florida and 8-2 Iowa State, and the Gators lost to LSU that weekend to move to 8-2. Georgia surpassed Cincinnati by improving to 7-2 with a win over Missouri.
"Other teams around them have been playing and have been adding to their resume," Barta said.
During that time, Ohio State played just one game, beating 2-3 Michigan State, but remained at No. 4. That's only "adding to their resume" in the sense that the Buckeyes routed a bad team.
One program had smashed bad teams, beaten four with winning records and held an 8-0 mark. The other had smashed bad teams, beaten one with a winning record and held a 5-0 mark. There was no objective reason to place the latter team higher than the former.
Nevertheless, the committee ranked Ohio State at No. 4 while burying Cincinnati at No. 9.
So, subjective rulings had come in. Barta had cited Ohio State's offensive firepower as justification for a high ranking. Fair! However, Cincinnati fit a similar mold and boasted a better defense.
With only conference title games to play:
- Ohio State had averaged 46.6 points and allowed 23.2 during wins over 2-5 Nebraska, 3-5 Penn State, 3-5 Rutgers, 6-1 Indiana and 2-5 Michigan State.
- Cincinnati had averaged 40.9 points and allowed 15.0 during wins over 0-3 Austin Peay, 8-2 Army, 1-8 South Florida, 7-3 SMU, 7-3 Memphis, 3-4 Houston, 3-6 East Carolina and 6-3 UCF.
Worse yet, the rewards were unequal, too.
On Selection Sunday, Ohio State moved up a spot following an ugly win over No. 14 Northwestern and Notre Dame's loss to Clemson. The Buckeyes trailed for more than 31 minutes before managing a 22-10 victory.
"In the end, they won their conference championship and they were undefeated, so they moved into that third spot," Barta said.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, was passed by Oklahoma despite beating a ranked team (No. 23 Tulsa) to win its conference title and finish undefeated—exactly what Ohio State accomplished. Barta cited the Bearcats' last-second field goal to beat the Golden Hurricanes and the Sooners' three Top 25 wins (No. 10 Iowa State, No. 20 Texas, No. 21 Oklahoma State) as the reason.
How is that right?
The only rationale—the only one—is a subjective belief that Ohio State (and evidently OU) is better than Cincinnati. Probably! I'd take the Buckeyes in that matchup. Again, this isn't an argument that the Bearcats should be in over the Buckeyes or even Notre Dame or Texas A&M.
But Cincinnati never received anything more than a disingenuous "the committee has great respect" comment. It was never considered a viable contender.
That, quite simply, is ridiculous.
Rodger Sherman @rodger
Cincinnati: —undefeated, unlike A&M or Notre Dame —conference champ, unlike A&M/ND —More Top 25 wins than A&M/ND —More above .500 wins than A&M/ND —better opposing win% than A&M/ND —5th in SP+ (ND 9th/A&M 12th) —3rd in SRS (ND 5th/A&M 29th) —3rd in Colley (ND 5th/A&M 15th) https://t.co/aOtCbnJOpm
Additionally, as Power Five conference teams are unequally rewarded when compared to Group of Five programs, they're also provided substantially larger margins for error.
On Dec. 15, Barta noted Coastal Carolina needed a last-minute touchdown to defeat 5-6 Troy. Which is true. Yet if that's a reason to knock CCU, why wasn't Texas A&M penalized for edging Vanderbilt? Iowa State had to put together a 14-point comeback against visiting Baylor. Georgia needed a fourth-quarter score to survive Mississippi State.
Power Five teams are allowed bad showings as long as they win. And they should be! Winning is hard. When it's a Group of Five team, though, that forgiveness is not afforded.
Coastal Carolina defeated every opponent—including 9-3 Appalachian State—by 11-plus points except No. 19 Louisiana, No. 16 BYU and Troy. If Oklahoma moved up thanks to its Top 25 wins, the Chanticleers should have had a strong backbone for their resume. But they didn't, since, well, reasons.
When pressed on Coastal Carolina, Barta gave an answer that was an unhelpful version of because we said so.
"Coastal Carolina is right behind Indiana and right ahead of USC," he said. "So the conversation—and Oklahoma is ahead of them. We evaluate the teams in groupings, and when it came to that conversation, the 13 people evaluated them and had them at 12."
The final frustration has two parts.
The committee does an excellent job considering head-to-head results and common opponents. Those criteria are a direct product of why the playoff exists in the first place: The former system (the BCS) had several major controversies that stemmed from on-field results being overlooked by the computers.
However, the CFP protocol also gives license to say head-to-head or common-opponent results can be disregarded when two teams are not deemed comparable. That's reasonable. It prevents 4-5 LSU from jumping 8-2 Florida after an upset win. It stops 3-5 Penn State from leaping 6-1 Northwestern because Penn State beat Michigan State and Northwestern did not.
This was properly considered most of the time.
Florida never jumped Texas A&M but never trailed Georgia. North Carolina leaped Miami after beating the Canes. Northwestern was always ahead of Iowa. Texas closed the season one spot above Oklahoma State, which finished ahead of Tulsa.
Iowa State, however, landed an unmatched level of forgiveness for a 17-point loss to Louisiana.
The Ragin' Cajuns had beaten the Cyclones, only lost to No. 12 Coastal Carolina and were 9-1. Iowa State had lost to Louisiana and also to No. 21 Oklahoma State and was 8-2. Louisiana never climbed within 10 spots of Iowa State until the final poll.
Coastal Carolina, like Iowa State, had two Top 25 wins—including one over a team Iowa State did not beat. Given the common opponent and their superior record, how were the Chanticleers in a grouping with Indiana and USC and not Iowa State? Even after ISU finished 8-3 and CCU 11-0, the Chants were still behind the Cyclones.
We can have the conversation about Iowa State being a superior team. And, on paper, I agree.
But when an actual game showed otherwise, the gap separating Iowa State and Louisiana should not exist. To not consider Iowa State and Coastal Carolina as comparable teams—again, this meaning the Chanticleers are better than given credit, not that the Cyclones are worse—is laughable.
The committee is allowed to utilize its tools to value teams differently. But 2020 made painfully clear the leash it's willing to provide Power Five teams and not give Group of Five programs—all while disregarding actual on-field results.
Undefeated records are supposedly vital, yet strength of schedule (read: losses to Power Five teams) can outweigh wins. Results against common opponents are meaningful, but only sometimes. Wins over Top 25 teams and squads with winning records are critical parts of resumes, unless they're not.
There is no evidence the selection committee legitimately considered a Group of Five team.
And without compelled change, there's no reason to expect anything different in 2021 and beyond.