‘Twas The Fight Before Christmas: College Football Rankings

Silhouette of a football player running with the ball

by John A. Tures, Professor of Political Science. LaGrange College

It’s been said that in Britain, the national sport is gambling. In America, our true national pastime is arguing about what team is best, and who should be ranked ahead of whom. And the epicenter of it occurs every Christmas, and it primarily involves college football.

For many, it may come as a shock that National Champions were once chosen by reporters, and it was decided before the Holiday Bowl Season. Those matches were more like exhibitions.

Then someone got the bright idea that Rose Bowls, Sugar Bowls, Orange Bowls, Cotton Bowls and later Fiesta Bowls and Peach Bowls, could be games with meaning. But we still had problems. Writers still made the picks. And bowls locked in deals with different teams: Big 10 would always play PAC-10, SEC would go the Sugar Bowl and the Big 8 would always go to the Orange Bowl. The Cotton Bowl always had the SWC Champ (that’s Southwestern Conference). In other words, no conference champion would ever play another. Multiple champions would be crowned.

So the system needed improvement: We got a Bowl Championship Series (BCS). We got to watch #1 play #2. It should have solved all conflict, except for arguing who was first and who was second. We were promised computers would pick the winners, but they relied on stats by, you guessed it, the writers.

Then a playoff system came around, where four would make it. But we argue about the four. We have writers who put Alabama ahead of Texas, with the same record, even though Texas defeated Alabama. Ohio State lost their last game, and didn’t make the Big 10 Championship, but writers are going all out to put them in.

Then there’s the case of Finebaum v. Florida State (2023), involving the sports pundit Paul Finebaum, who is doing his best to eliminate the undefeated Seminoles. And on Wednesday morning’s episode of ESPN’s First Take, Finebaum phoned in and bluntly stated that he’s doing what he can to leave Florida State out of the College Football Playoff.” Once again, where back to subjectivity, where games are decided in the minds of “experts,” instead of on the field.

By the way, whenever you hear a commentator claim to use “the eye test,” to determine who is best, it means they don’t have any real evidence. They’re just personal favorites.

Computers were supposed to solve this, but wait until you see what they’ve come up with. Take, for example, ESPN has an “FPI” where Ohio State outranks Michigan, who defeated OSU. The number one team, Georgia, is 5th. The Oregon Ducks are ten spots ahead of Washington, who defeated them. Alabama outranks Texas. Florida State is tied with Louisiana State, who they throttled at the beginning of the year. In fact, the 7-5 Texas A&M, who fired their coach, Jimbo Fisher, would be in a 16-team playoff that’s being proposed.

How did FPI pick teams? It’s largely based on “simulations” and speculations, not on actual games played and won.

For too long, we’ve allowed too much power to some slanted journalists, and tried to create a system that will avoid all arguments. What we need is agreement before a season on what separates the teams at the top. Schools would get points for winning all of their games, and more points for wins against Power 5 conference teams, ranked at the time they play each other. And 16 teams with four extra games would wear any team down. Just stick with the final four. Also-rans can still play those bowl games that have become part of the holidays.

And remember that we’re Americans, and we like to argue, especially about sports. No system, however well-designed or badly-flawed, can ever change that.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. His views are his own, and do not speak for LaGrange College faculty, students, staff or administration. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.