When the guy who correctly predicts presidential races down to the electoral vote is thrown off the scent, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that following the weekly College Football Playoff horse race is not the best use of time.
As the season wrapped up Saturday night, Nate Silver posted that FiveThirtyEight’s statistical model pegged TCU as 91.1 percent likely to earn a playoff spot, a more solid prediction than even undefeated Florida State.
Nevertheless, Silver wrote he believed Florida State was more safe than the model indicated and TCU less so. Silver’s gut turned out to be more on point than the statistical model.
By Sunday morning, Ohio State was in and TCU was out. A victory for the 8.9 percent chance.
Let’s not be harsh on Silver, though. This the same person whose statistical models predict presidential and congressional races with regular accuracy. He gets a mulligan on trying to predict a process that has no precedent.
The playoff selection committee threw everyone off in the final rankings. Certainly, there was a sense that Ohio State, on the strength of a 59-0 win over Wisconsin and a Big Ten title, could move from No. 5 to No. 4 even though TCU defeated Iowa State 55-3. It also remained plausible Baylor, facing the top opponent of any of the three in No. 9 Kansas State, could move ahead of TCU.
But anyone Saturday night saying they were certain Ohio State would end up in the playoff was simply guessing.
Listen to the College Football Playoff Committee podcast:
For six weeks, the selection committee met, deliberated, ranked a top 25 and explained why each team fit in each spot. Each week, TCU ranked ahead of both Ohio State and Baylor.
Ohio State slowly gained on the top four, and Baylor inched closer and closer to the team it defeated on Oct. 11. All the while, though, TCU maintained the upper hand.
In the only ranking that matters, Ohio State moved to No. 4 followed by Baylor and TCU in a complete about-face to the earlier top 25.
Not that the movement is unjustifiable — Ohio State played in one more game than the two teams from the Big 12, and that game ended in a 59-0 rout on a neutral field over a top 20 team that entered the game as a four-point favorite.
And hours after the committee released the top six, it revealed another significant change in its rankings: Mississippi State finished No. 7 and Michigan State finished No. 8. A week earlier, the Spartans were two spots ahead of the Bulldogs.
This flip-flop occurred despite neither team playing in the final week. Moreover, the two teams that defeated Michigan State (Oregon and Ohio State) went on to win conference titles in the final week of the season compared to the one for Mississippi State (Alabama).
That move may not seen substantial, but it allowed Mississippi State to take a spot in the Orange Bowl, the bowl destination anticipated for Michigan State. The Spartans instead will go to the Cotton Bowl.
Now, unless you’re a Michigan State fan who already booked travel to Miami, this isn’t a big deal. It simply underscores that the weekly reveal of the rankings and the weekly meetings were little more than TV programming.
The weekly top 25 in the end offered little insight into what the selection committee actually would do when it came time to fill out a bracket and send teams to bowls.
The process displayed transparency but only to a point. Committee chair Jeff Long ably spoke to the media each week and justify one ranking or another. At the same time, Long dodged any mention of which of the 12 voices held the most sway, if any, or which committee members dissented.
And in the end, the weekly rankings did little to predict how the final rankings would end up.
The weekly rankings deserve skepticism for this exact reason. The entire process left Long explaining why a team that was ranked third five days ago and won 55-3 in the last week of the season ended up sixth.
And this is what we wanted, too, even if no one said it. The polls had a formula and generally stuck to it late in the season: Keep winning and you won’t move down — even if you beat 2-10 Iowa State while the teams behind you picked up comfortable wins over top-20 teams. Wrote Silver:
In other words, the committee appears to engage in a more thorough reassessment of the teams with its final rankings. For better or worse, it’s more concerned about getting the “right” answer in the end than in being consistent from week to week.
The question now is if the committee will go through the same process of producing what now seem to be meaningless weekly rankings.
That is for the bureaucracy to decide.
“I think that the committee will look at this year, look at this season, look at how the entire process went,” Long said. “We will discuss it as a committee and we will discuss it with the management committee and we’ll probably make some recommendations, but it’s up to the management committee how the process will change and if those weekly rankings will change.”
The process could remain the same. Perhaps the committee will release fewer rankings. Maybe it will follow the basketball committee’s lead and simply let the bracket speak for itself.
In any case, we’ll all watch. Just don’t expect us to take it too seriously.