The first College Football Playoff rankings of the 2021 season were released on Tuesday, and they are starkly different from what the old system, the BCS, would have shown through nine full weeks of college football.
To date, both the BCS and the CFP have had the same four teams at the top of the rankings by the end of the season. Currently, they are wildly different.
Very top remains the same, top 10 is jumbled otherwise
If the BCS still ruled college football and the matchups were finalized today, Georgia and Cincinnati would face off for a chance at the national title. The committee thought otherwise, releasing current matchups between Georgia and Oregon plus Alabama and Michigan State.
It was clear entering Tuesday that Georgia would be the No. 1 team in all polls. The intrigue began right after that. The initial rankings were the biggest deal for Cincinnati, as they have little excitement remaining on their schedule.
The biggest takeaway from Tuesday: the committee favors a Power Five schedule. Cincinnati fell all the way to No. 6, one of the larger deviations between the BCS and CFP.
There are six teams at least four spots away from their BCS ranking, and three of them are in the top 10. In addition to Cincinnati, Oregon is five spots higher in the CFP rankings than in the BCS, while Oklahoma fell five spots. The Ducks are one spot ahead of an Ohio State team they beat in Columbus on Sept. 11, demonstrating the committee values head-to-head matchups.
Penn State is the only Power Five team in the BCS rankings left out of the CFP rankings, while the committee liked Mississippi State, Minnesota and Pittsburgh enough to rank them. Mississippi State is No. 17, 15 spots higher than they would be in the BCS rankings. That is by far the biggest jump. The Bulldogs are 5-3 and have won three of their last four games, all against the SEC. They jumped Kentucky in the CFP rankings, whom they beat Saturday.
The CFP also likes BYU and NC State more than the computers, as they are four and six spots, respectively, higher in the CFP rankings than in the BCS standings.
SEC: six BCS, seven CFP
Big Ten: six BCS, six CFP
Big 12: three BCS, three CFP
ACC: two BCS, three CFP
Pac-12: one BCS, one CFP
Independent: two BCS, two CFP
Group of Five: five BCS, three CFP
The main difference in the conference breakdown is that just one of the Group of Five teams is ranked in both the BCS rankings and the CFP: Cincinnati. Otherwise, UTSA, Houston, Coastal Carolina and SMU find themselves exclusively in the BCS standings, while Fresno State and San Diego State are only featured in the committee’s rankings. BYU is also in both sets of rankings as an independent, although they do function as a Group of Five team in the playoff era. They currently have five wins over Power Five teams.
SMU’s absence in the CFP rankings is notable because that would have been Cincinnati’s only remaining ranked contest. They no longer have a ranked opponent on their remaining regular season schedule.
Ranked matchups galore in final games of the season
There is something positive to take away from the current rankings for Cincinnati fans. Michigan State and Ohio State have a date on Nov. 20, and Georgia will likely meet Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. In other words, there will be movement at the top.
On the flip side, Michigan will have its shot at Ohio State Thanksgiving weekend and could jump the Bearcats to replace the Buckeyes in front of them if the Wolverines pull out the win. Oklahoma has resume-boosting games against No. 11 Oklahoma State and No. 12 Baylor remaining as well.
While they are both likely out of playoff contention, the Auburn–Texas A&M game this weekend is the most intriguing matchup of Week 10. The Aggies are the only team to have beaten the No. 2 Crimson Tide, while the Tigers have their annual Thanksgiving weekend matchup with them that could have some added intrigue depending on how the next few weeks go for Auburn.
From BCS to CFP
Prior to the current CFP system, college football was governed by the BCS, whose final rankings were computer generated, and two teams faced off in the national championship to conclude the season. The system also created matchups for four additional prestigious bowl games: the Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl.
The BCS formula used a number of factors to produce its list. There were three components to the rankings, with a mix of human and computer generated thoughts: the Harris Poll, the Coaches Poll and the computer rankings. All three parts were weighted equally.
The Harris and Coaches Polls had values assigned to each spot in reverse order. For example, in the Harris Poll of 25 teams, the top team receives 25 points, the second team receives 24 points, etc. The Coaches Poll had a similar scoring system, although there were fewer voters involved.
The third part, the computer rankings, included six additional polls: Anderson & Hester, Richard Billingsley, Colley Matrix, Kenneth Massey, Jeff Sagarin’s USA Today and Peter Wolfe. In the end, the final values assigned to each team in the three categories are averaged, and the BCS rankings were produced.
Beginning in 2014, the CFP replaced the BCS. Two semifinal games are played around New Year’s Day, and the games take place on a rotating basis at six of the country’s top bowls – the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl, Peach Bowl, Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. The two winners advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship. That game is played on a Monday night in the second week of January.
The CFP selection process is more subjective than the BCS, as the teams are decided upon by 13 people and there is no longer a strict computer component. The selection committee is composed of athletic directors, former coaches and student-athletes, and others in the college administration world. The current chair of the committee is Gary Barta, the athletic director at Iowa.
“The selection committee ranks the teams based on the members’ evaluation of the teams’ performance on the field, using conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, and comparison of results against common opponents to decide among teams that are comparable,” the website says.
Additionally, there is a board of governors made up of presidents and chancellors from the 10 FBS conferences plus Notre Dame which governs the administrative actions of the CFP.
Alabama is the reigning national champion and holds the most CFP wins at eight. In total, the SEC and the ACC each have eight playoff appearances, driven largely by Alabama and Clemson’s near-constant presence at the top in recent years. Technically, all FBS teams have equal access to the playoff; there are no automatic qualifiers.
College football remains the only college sport in the country without an officially NCAA-sanctioned championship. At its core, the CFP is really a television contract currently owned by ESPN.