As TCU knows, college football rankings provide problems and little else in playoff era

TCU head coach Gary Patterson hoists the Peach Bowl NCAA college football trophy on Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014, in Atlanta. TCU won 42-3. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curtis Compton)

College football polls lived a largely static, uncomplicated life for the better part of eight decades. The AP rankings debuted in 1936 with the intent of concentrating national perception and proclaiming a national champion at season’s end. It fended off the intrusion of the UPI poll and the oddity of the Harris Poll. It struck a comfortable peace with the USA Today Coaches Poll, a come-lately that showed up in 1991. It had a dalliance with the Bowl Championship Series rankings. Like the sport they tracked, the AP and Coaches polls trafficked in debate and thrived on controversy. Ultimately, they gave a 25-school semblance of order to the sport and declared a winner. Their aim was true and purpose clear.

Last season altered the place of traditional polls in the college football landscape. The introduction of the College Football Playoff meant a new, different set of rankings — released by selection committee — nudged aside the polls each week starting in November, and that the method of determining the national champion would happen in a four-team tournament. Their purpose became . . . what, exactly?

The AP poll persists, still wildly popular and universally cited by fans, schools, players, coaches — everyone but the College Football Playoff, which decrees that the selection committee not take any outside factor into account when making its choices. Consider the challenge of ignoring the polls, and you understand how ingrained they are in the sport.

The preseason poll remains a huge attraction, an event in and of itself. Michael Giarrusso, the AP’s global sports editor, said the release of the first AP poll generated the highest traffic of the year on both the AP’s mobile and Web site. Fans flocked to Twitter to gloat or complain or rip the writers who failed to see the greatness of their preferred team.

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It can also serve to mislead. As much of the playoff selection committee vows not to be swayed, preseason polls create perception that can last deep into the season. TCU began the season unranked in both polls; if it had started in the top five, might that have changed the selection committee’s view?

“Those polls have no effect in the committee room,” College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock said. “Frankly, we have a better method — 13 dedicated people evaluating the data, watching video and then comparing small groups of teams in detail, with a fresh start every week. The polls were never discussed in any of the meetings last year. And, believe me, the committee members discussed everything else under the sun.”

“You’d have to pay attention to people that make a living doing what they do,” TCU Coach Gary Patterson said. “Both the writers and the coaches make a living at what they do. They don’t deal in speculation. They deal in fact. . . . I always think you should take in mind all the people that have kind of a knife in the fight. Do I think they made any difference on the committee? I don’t know. I had to believe what I was told. I was told, ‘We would watch film, and we pick the best four teams off watching the film.'”

“I would say, if I were on the committee, it would be human nature for me to see the number in parentheses next to the team name on television,” Giarrusso said.

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For years, the AP and Coaches polls provided the only number on the screen. Starting Nov. 3, when the College Football Playoff releases its first rankings, those will become the default, and certainly most meaningful, numbers to place inside parentheses.

The wisdom of the CFP coming out with a poll at all came immediately into question last season. Hancock said the CFP decided to release rankings for two reasons. First, he said, “we wanted to be transparent and give fans a glimpse into the committee’s processes and thinking before selection weekend.” Second, the CFP feared that if it didn’t produce rankings, “the other rankings would become the rankings by default. We didn’t want folks to be misled.”

A lot of folks, especially those in and around Fort Worth, turned out to feel misled. In the penultimate set of rankings last year, TCU ranked third, with Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor behind them. That Saturday, the Horned Frogs beat Iowa State by 52 points while FSU narrowly won the ACC title game and Ohio State stomped Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.

When the final rankings came out, TCU had dropped to sixth, behind OSU, FSU and Baylor. Ohio State proved its worthiness, and then some, once it arrived, but not without the gnawing feeling that TCU missed an opportunity it deserved.

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“I understand that people perceive TCU as having dropped, because that’s the old paradigm for college football rankings,” Hancock said. “But the committee starts from scratch every week. The last week’s rankings reflected the fact that Ohio State, Florida State and Baylor each significantly improved its resume by defeating a quality opponent. It’s a new day.”

Hancock said the CFP “reviewed the entire process,” but there was “no sentiment” to stop the weekly rankings. In its first year, though, the process seemed to sow more confusion than shed light. Ohio State, which had won 12 consecutive games and just taken the Badgers to the woodshed, would have seemed absolutely worthy of selection if it hadn’t been placed behind TCU the week before.

“Boxing judges don’t tell the boxers what the score is during the fight,” Giarrusso said. “Do you want transparency, or do you want to avoid looking inconsistent?”

Patterson insisted he had spent none of his offseason preoccupied with the late-season rug-pulling, even after TCU trounced Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. If he wanted solace, he could have looked at the AP poll. There, the Horned Frogs were ranked third.

Giarrusso pointed out that while the playoff rankings aren’t supposed to take the AP poll into account, AP voters don’t have to use the playoff to determine their champion, either. If in some zany season a team on NCAA probation sweeps a powerful conference and no other contenders emerge, the AP poll could still vote that team No. 1.

“The biggest change with the College Football Playoff is it’s made our postseason poll less crucial to the impression of who the national champion is,” Giarrusso said. “That’s why we started the poll. However, it is not out of the realm of possibility that a team could win the AP national championship without winning the college football playoff’s national championship.”