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The 10 Most Important Things We Learned about the College Football Playoff

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For a playoff system that produced a mere three games and four teams in championship contention, the first College Football Playoff left us plenty to dissect.

In the name of transparency (and publicity and TV ratings), the selection committee released a weekly top 25 starting in Week 10 and sent committee chair Jeff Long out to field questions on camera and off about the process.

Whether all this weekly information was necessary is still up for debate, but the run-up to the final selection show at least pulled back the curtain on the thought process of the committee as a whole, even if we may never know the thoughts of each of the 12 members.

What we learned from the selection committee varied from week to week, even moreso in the final week when the committee was tasked with picking one team out of the pool of three for the final spot of the playoff.

Here’s what we think the most important lessons were this season:

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Recent results mattered most

We’re not ready to say definitively that the Big 12 is going to be hurt in the playoff because it doesn’t have a championship game. What we can say is that Ohio State’s 59-0 rout of a top-15 Wisconsin team on a neutral field in the last game of the season put the Buckeyes over the top. None of the teams in the playoff lost later than Oct. 4 (Alabama to Ole Miss). The top two teams left out lost on Oct. 11 (TCU to Baylor) and Oct. 18 (Baylor to West Virginia). Ohio State lost early, allowing the Buckeyes to show significant improvement after a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech.

The committee paid attention to personnel

This was an early lesson: Oregon opened the rankings at No. 5 and never fell any lower despite a home loss to Arizona. At the time, the Wildcats didn’t look like a team that would win 10 games and win the Pac-12 South. Instead, the lesson was that the committee evaluated Oregon with a healthy offensive line down the stretch was much better than the Ducks team that faced Arizona without tackle Jake Fisher. Perhaps more telling is the performance of Ohio State and their two backup quarterbacks. The Buckeyes were allowed to show improvement from week to week under J.T. Barrett since his disastrous performance in his second career start. When Barrett went down, the committee essentially told backup Cardale Jones it would be watching his performance in the Big Ten title game in particular.

The weekly rankings were not predictive

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The weekly top 25 from the selection committee that started on Oct. 28 was probably necessary for transparency’s sake and at least proved that this selection committee took its job seriously and could ably speak on each pertinent team. Yet when it came down to the the first six rankings and the final top 25 on Dec. 7, we couldn’t say it helped us predict the final playoff picture. TCU dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 in a week, and Ohio State moved into the semifinal. That’s all fine. One flaw from the BCS era was the pollsters’ devotion to previous rankings. While it’s nice to know the committee is more flexible, we’re not sure if the weekly rankings were a great use of time.

The committee is making this up as it goes along

Again, this is a new process, so perhaps this is to be expected. But the phrase “game control” entered the college football lexicon because Jeff Long uttered it on a Tuesday night. An explanation noting that teams got a leg up because of beating “previously ranked” teams got some run in the media for a time. An imperfect process gave us imperfect answers.

Undefeated doesn’t trump all

Florida State finished the season as the nation’s only undefeated team and was the only unbeaten in a power conference after Nov. 9. Yet the Seminoles never ranked No. 1 in a weekly playoff ranking. The way the Seminoles played the season with a series of second-half comebacks against ACC foes and Florida contributed to his, but this also signaled that the selection committee wouldn’t elevate a team simply because of a zero in the loss column. The idea of an undefeated major conference team spending five weeks ranked behind at least one one-loss would have been a foreign concept during the BCS era.

The rankings changed the polls

Who knows if this would have happened anyway, but the pollsters seemed to follow the lead of the playoff rankings in elevating a one-loss team ahead of the the Seminoles. Florida State was No. 2 in the AP poll for seven non-consecutive weeks this season. The first portion of that, the Seminoles were behind undefeated Mississippi State and the second behind one-loss Alabama.

The Group of 5 is in trouble

Speaking of undefeated, let’s talk about Marshall, which spent all but the last two weeks of the season undefeated. The Thundering Herd never entered the playoff rankings until Nov. 25 at No. 24. By then, Marshall already spent six weeks in the AP poll. Boise State spent only the final three weeks in the playoff top 25. That’s not a hindrance to getting to a major bowl game — a Group of 5 team only needs to be the highest ranked league champ to get to a major bowl game. But it does illustrate how much trouble a team from outside of the Power 5 is going to have getting to the playoff. 

Name recognition matters

Even after Virginia Tech lost 6-3 in overtime to Wake Forest, the committee didn’t seem to view Ohio State’s 14-point home loss to the Hokies as a bad loss. Long refuted as such when asked about that result two weeks before the final ranking.

In the end, head-to-head mattered

One of the criticisms of the committee for weeks was that TCU remained ahead of Baylor despite the Bears’ 61-58 win over the Horned Frogs. Once the season ended — and the bodies of work were complete — Baylor was one spot ahead of TCU. That got neither into the playoff, but at least head-to-head was the defining factor in the final poll.

The committee has to do a better job of explaining schedule strength

All too often, the committee justified its rankings using its own top 25 as a guide — as in Team A beat two teams in the top 25 and lost to a team in the top 10. Using the rankings themselves to explain the rankings may come back to bite the selection committee.