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College Football Playoff rankings reaction: Did the committee get it right?

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Or, rather, let's examine what criteria the committee *should* be using.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Are you angry right now? Or were you Tuesday night? As our Ben Goren likes to say, were you mad online? If so you probably aren't, or weren't, alone. When the College Football Playoff rankings were released after the final weekend of the regular season, many expected the 10-2 Northwestern Wildcats to rise into contention for a New Year's Six bowl. They did not. Instead, the committee stuck them at No. 14, ending any hopes of a New Year's Six bowl bid.

The committee is probably wrong — well, if a committee that defines its own criteria on the fly can be considered wrong, that is. Technically, you might say, the committee is right, because its criteria each week seem to be its own temporary invention. Based on that criteria, whatever they are, it has probably correctly placed some teams ahead of others.

But what you were mad online about is the criteria themselves. So let's talk about the criteria. Let's talk about résumés. Let's talk about margin of victory. Let's talk about game control. Let's talk about the eye test. Let's talk about whether those last three things are the same thing. Let's talk about whether or not they should matter.

There's a difference between picking the best teams and picking the most deserving teams. I'm not sure which the committee does, or which it claims to do, but I think many people would agree that the committee should be picking the most deserving teams. If stats and the eye test label Team A as "good," but Team A goes 8-4, it should not be ranked ahead of a Team B that goes 11-1 against an equivalent schedule but that stats and the eye test label as "not as good as Team A."

Personally, if we're talking about which teams are more deserving, I don't think the committee got it right. I think Northwestern should be ahead of Florida State and Baylor. NU's résumé is really good — even if the Wildcats do have the same record as TCU, Oklahoma State and Florida, and, per ESPN, have a worse strength of schedule than all three of those teams. Northwestern, in my mind, should be higher than 14th.

But stop. Northwestern shouldn't be ahead of Stanford or Notre Dame, as some have suggested it should be. It probably shouldn't be ahead of Ole Miss either. The Wildcats didn't quite do enough to deserve a top 10 ranking. That's because the résumé shouldn't be the only consideration.

There's a happy medium to be found. Even if the point is to pick the most deserving teams, not the best ones, that doesn't mean solely looking at résumé — wins, losses, and the strength of the teams against whom those wins and losses came — is the best way to do that. For every team in a college football season, you have so few data points, and even fewer that can be compared like apples to apples, that you can't make reasonable decisions solely based on résumé.

Notre Dame is a perfect example. The Irish played a really tough schedule this year. They played two elite teams on the road, and three more top 25 teams, one on the road and two at home. They won all three games against that second grouping of teams, and also won at a decent Pittsburgh team. But they lost both games against the elite teams.

So how do we rate Notre Dame? Clearly somewhere in between those two elite teams and that next grouping of teams. But there's no way to definitively pin down exactly where in that range the Irish should fall. To determine which tier they belong closer to, the individual games have to be considered. The Irish lost by two points at No. 1 Clemson, and by two points at No. 7 Stanford. Basically, given that they were on the road, the Irish proved in those two games that they were on the same level as two of the country's best teams. In beating No. 20 USC by 10, No. 22 Temple by four, and No. 23 Navy by 17, they also showed they were a significant step above those three teams.

On the other hand, let's look at Northwestern. The Wildcats have a win that Notre Dame can't touch. Sure, it was at home, whereas Notre Dame played the same team on the road, but it's extremely impressive. It's certainly one of the 10 best wins of the year in college football. However, as we have learned, one game doesn't define a résumé; it's just one of 12 data points. In Northwestern's three other games that are comparable to those we discussed with Notre Dame, the Wildcats lost to an elite team, lost to a mid-top-25 team, and beat a just-barely-unranked team.

Both of those truncated résumés, solely viewed in terms of wins and losses, look like those of teams in the No. 10-12 range in the rankings. But because there are so many other résumés that look like they should be placed in a similar range — Ole Miss, TCU, Michigan, Baylor, Florida, North Carolina, Florida State, etc. —  the individual games themselves have to be considered. Northwestern didn't just lose to an elite team, lose to a mid-top-25 team, and beat a fringe top-25 team. It got spanked by the elite team, got destroyed by the mid-top-25 team, and was a questionable, even if technically right, refereeing decision away from losing to the fringe team as well.

So it's not so much style points. Beating Nebraska on the road is a nice win, whether it's by two points or by 13. Beating Purdue is... well, it's a win, even if only by seven. That's not what hurt Northwestern. What hurt Northwestern is that in its four chances to prove itself, it played one great game, one mediocre game (outstanding defensively, pathetic offensively), and two atrocious games. You might say that calling the effort against Wisconsin "mediocre" is harsh, but if Northwestern is being judged as a potential top 10 team, that's exactly what it has to be viewed as. Those games showed the committee that NU didn't belong ahead of teams that had similar résumés, even if you could argue that those résumés were slightly inferior.