There were several moments on Tuesday evening, in the midst of ESPN’s hour-long College Football Playoff rankings show, when the parties involved admitted that they were arguing about ideas that would ultimately prove meaningless. It’s the kind of thing you don’t see very often on a major television network; it felt almost like an existential peek behind the curtain. It’s too early in a season like this one to know what the answers are, but this is the beauty of college football: No other sport embraces its obfuscatory soul with such gusto. No other sport can render Joey Galloway into Jean-Paul Sartre.
In case you missed it, the oligarchic committee that is impossibly tasked with sifting through the subjective chaos of a sport where 11 Football Bowl Subdivision teams were undefeated put Clemson at No. 1 for now. This is a perfectly safe play, given that the Tigers have several quality wins, just as it was a perfectly conservative choice to rank LSU second, Ohio State third and a one-loss Alabama team in fourth. It was safe because if there’s one thing we learned from last year’s exercise in three-card monte, it’s that the standings in early November don’t really mean a damned thing, because many of these teams will knock each other out before the month is complete.
“I know you guys gotta sell advertising, and that type of stuff,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said while wearing an orange gingham shirt that appeared to have been salvaged from the tablecloth at his team’s summer picnic. And say what you will about a man who’s really into evangelicalism and self-serve entrails, but he’s totally right: This was a show, and everyone played their role, including playoff committee chairman Jeff Long, who essentially admitted there was little to no difference at this point between the team ranked at No. 4 (Alabama) and the team ranked at No. 10 (Florida).
And so what the committee appeared to do, given this dearth of information, was pile the teams with the best wins and strength of schedule on top. This largely penalized the Big 12’s three undefeated teams – Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State – who wound up at Nos. 6, 8, and 14, respectively, yet suffer from strength of schedule issues and the overarching perception that their entire conference would allow 600 yards in passing to a Pop Warner squad. It’s an understandable strategy, except as is the case with everything else the committee does, it was utterly inconsistent and riddled with logical loopholes. If you’re going by that rationale, how do you justify Ohio State (No. 46 in strength of schedule) being ranked ahead of Notre Dame (No. 5 in strength of schedule, with the Irish’s lone loss to the Clemson team ranked at No. 1)? Are we presuming, given the place of Ohio State and Alabama in the top four, that the resumes of previous seasons somehow matter? And wasn’t the point of the playoff committee to eliminate historical biases like that one?
Much of this inexplicable logic at the top will sort itself out eventually. But much more concerning is the stuff that may not sort itself out. I am speaking, most prominently, of the undefeated team ranked at No. 13. That would be Memphis, who beat Ole Miss out of the Southeastern Conference by two touchdowns, and whose strength of schedule (No. 53) is equivalent of Iowa and Baylor. And yet Iowa was ranked ninth and Baylor was ranked sixth. In addition, two other undefeated teams from outside the Power Five conferences, Houston and Toledo, were thrown in at 24th and 25th, respectively, as if they were being endowed with last-second participatory ribbons. Hours later, Toledo would be upset by Northern Illinois, thereby forfeiting said ribbon.
Now, maybe if Memphis wins road games against Houston and a very good Temple team back to back, and maybe if serious absurdity ensues in the major-conference ranks, the Tigers could make the leap into the top four. But once again, I doubt it; once again, that felt to me like another part of the show. Once again, it seemed like the committee had chosen to place its judgment in scheduling criteria that may prove impossible for a team like Memphis to overcome. Once again, the committee was weighting itself in favor of the powerful.
But hell, I suppose that’s why oligarchies exist, and I suppose that’s yet another reason why college football is the most American of sports: Because it knows how to ply the masses with reality television. Because it never fails to deliver a fascinating brand of nonsense.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb