NFL

Connelly: A new way to do CFP rankings, including a BCS-style formula

    Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

“A good scout, a good analyst, they go and they watch the game. Your eyes see the game much better than the numbers. But the numbers see all the games. And that’s a big deal.” That’s what Dean Oliver, statistician, author of the seminal “Basketball on Paper,” onetime head of analytics for ESPN’s Stats & Information Group and former front-office employee for multiple NBA teams, told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck back in 2015. I’ve seen Oliver give a similar quote many times, and I always get jealous that I didn’t come up with it first.

Numbers see all the games. They connect the dots in a way we never could. While people sometimes try to treat them as the end of the conversation, I like to think of them more as a grounding force, a way to start the conversation in the right place. And I can’t stop myself from wishing they played more of a role in the College Football Playoff rankings.

To be sure, numbers are involved. The CFP committee is given a lovely dashboard for comparing teams, with green and red dots to signify superiority in certain categories, and their references to terms like game control or strength of record show that they internalize the numbers they see to some degree.

Plus, as I always feel the need to mention when quibbling over how the committee does its job, it mainly gets it right when it comes to picking the playoff’s participants. Of the 32 teams that have made the playoff to date, I may have had minor complaints about a few. I wished Cincinnati had gotten more of a look in 2020 (mainly at Notre Dame’s expense) and I wouldn’t have complained if Baylor or TCU had gotten the fourth spot in 2014 instead of Ohio State (though I didn’t have a problem with the Buckeyes either). I was annoyed by the treatment of unbeaten UCF in 2017, though I probably wouldn’t have put the Knights in the top four. Still, the committee’s picks have been more than acceptable. So when we complain, it’s more about process than outcome.

The process still matters, though. And the importance of the process will certainly not be diminished in the future, when the committee is tasked with choosing 12 teams to play for the national title instead of four (and choosing which of those teams will receive byes or first-round home games). The CFP proudly refuses to use power rankings or résumé rankings of any kind in any direct fashion, choosing instead to throw numbers at its committee and ask each member to create their own, untested power ratings in their respective heads. That is never going to be the most advisable approach.

So as we work through the week-to-week rankings routine, knowing that in the end the result will likely be acceptable and predictable, let’s think about the role numbers could play in this process.

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