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What, Exactly, Are We Doing?

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Beyond deciding upon the four "best" or "most-deserving" teams, we must, in a system without consistency, determine what those distinctions actually mean.

Before we set the College Football Playoff field, philosophical questions should be answered. Beyond just deciding upon the four "best" or "most-deserving" teams, we must, in a system without consistency, determine what those distinctions actually mean. I'm not sure that has ever really been done. Given that rankings have long been slotted by records and split by affiliations, our own preconceived notions may need to be recalibrated. Is this a puzzle, where certain parameters must be met, or is it a race, with visceral reactions coming in fast and furious? As I struggle for an answer, yes is probably the most fitting response.

Instead of projecting ahead, let's, first, take a look back. A year ago, I was a strong advocate for Alabama's inclusion because I didn't think, and don't think, that the final four should come with some sort of regional mutual exclusivity. Just because a team is second in its own division, or even third in its own conference, doesn't mean that it still couldn't be in the top four in the country. Candidates shouldn't necessarily be punished for playing, and even losing to, the best -- if the experience is an exclusive one. If I'm being fair, that pretense of open-mindedness, in various forms, should continue throughout. 

There is something ironic about final picks being made fresh off Championship Saturday, given the inequitability of the final weekend. On Saturday, top-ranked Alabama played 4th-ranked Georgia, 2nd-ranked Clemson played a Pittsburgh team that now has six losses, 3rd-ranked Notre Dame was off, the Bulldogs played the top-ranked Crimson Tide, 5th-ranked Oklahoma played 14th-ranked Texas, 6th-ranked Ohio State played 21st-ranked Northwestern and 8th-ranked Central Florida played unranked Memphis. Thought it may initially seem counterintuitive, could Georgia's battle-to-the-finish against Alabama actually be more impressive than any of the other team's wins? It's definitely worth considering. 

Discrepancies only deepen from there. The strength of league schedules vary considerably. Non-conference slates are dramatically wide-ranging. Finding parallels is largely impossible. Using the transitive property, for example, Oklahoma lost to Texas, who lost to Maryland, who lost to Temple, who lost to Villanova, who got shutout by New Hampshire. Ohio State scored 63 points in a victory over Michigan, but scored only 20 in a no-show at Purdue. Georgia's loss on Saturday came on the final play to the defending national champions. How does one process all of that with any sense of justice?

Though winning and losing is the bedrock of evaluation, context simply has to come with it. Clearly, we in the college football community don't believe that records are the end-all-be-all; see Central Florida, who I very much sympathize with. In a perfect world, every respective institution would have an opportunity to compete for a national championship. If only to be fair to Golden Knights, if not our own principles, that premise should start from the top down. It is undoubtedly easier to rank-and-file based on wins and losses, but the seriousness of the situation requires more nuance. Hence, a room full of experts: the College Football Playoff Committee.    

The end result is an interesting one, a meeting with endless information, but no outside influences. As has been discussed at-large, all peripheral considerations have to be kept out. From past results to future considerations, current comparisons simply cannot be effected by either what has been or what could be. By definition, that includes conference representation and repeat matchups. Voters must operate as if this college football season is the only college football season, no memories or possibilities clouding their views. For human beings, admittedly, that's hard. It remains the expectation, nonetheless.    

Though the playoff is good for college football, the final four is an incomplete representative format for a grouping that is already very uneven. 

For me, and this is just my perspective, who you play has to be considered a central part of who you are. Otherwise, just stack teams up in numerical order by wins and call it a tournament. In theory, a 10-2 resume can certainly be more impressive than an 11-1 or 12-0 resume. Albeit on a much larger scale, college basketball implements this idea every March. While the outcomes of games have to mean a lot, so, too, do the circumstances. If there isn't standardized scheduling, then assessments, correspondingly, can't be streamlined either.    

Talking myself through what it means to compare and contrast elite teams, the only conclusion I've come to is that every person has to use their own set of parameters. I guess there is beauty in that bias. All of this, design to determinations, is arbitrary.    

Since I'm not quite sure which distinction we are actually in pursuit of, or if we are actually ready to be true to those declarations, I'm sharing two separate lists. Admittedly, I don't think I feel great about either one of them. The fluidity around these contenders, in talking points alone, spin even as the season has stopped.   

Four Best Teams
Here, I'm less beholden to the sheer rigidity of records assuming a certain threshold is met. Looking more at the full body of work, I think Georgia's level of competition, and performance on Saturday, stands out. The Bulldogs beat four ranked (at the time) teams, including two then-top ten foes. Their two losses came to top ten teams, including top-ranked Alabama. Oklahoma defeated two ranked teams, one of which the Sooners also lost to. Georgia's overall resume, even with the extra loss, is more impressive. With this categorization, I consider the Bulldogs' performance against the Crimson Tide an asset. Did Georgia look like a top four team in an extra game against number one? I say yes. The Bulldogs were ranked ahead of Oklahoma already, an optical advantage I don't think they should lose after going toe-to-toe with the game's premier team. These rankings, in my mind, come with more subjectivity. 

1. Alabama
2. Clemson
3. Notre Dame
4. Georgia

Four Most-Deserving Teams
The fact that Oklahoma avenged its lone loss plays more of a factor here. Though arguably a less complete team, the Sooners fit the more traditional framework as a one-loss Power Five conference champion. Also, Georgia lost a game, at LSU, by 20 points. That does matter. This layout, to me, has a little less room for interpretation in considering wins and losses and values winning one's league slightly more. Simply put, Oklahoma did what it had to do.     

1. Alabama
2. Clemson
3. Notre Dame
4. Oklahoma

In review, multiple compelling arguments, from Athens to Columbus, to Norman to Orlando, can be made. Until more specific guidelines are set, however, controversy will likely outrank conviction.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports