College Football Playoff debate: best versus most deserving

The committee will need to decide if the best or most deserving teams get to play for the title. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In college basketball, the debate over the "best and most deserving" teams has been ongoing for years. Around the beginning of March, you are bound to hear a debate that goes something like this:

-- Team A has a better record.

-- Team B played a tougher schedule.

-- Team B beat Team C, who lost to Team A.

-- Team A was a regular-season conference champion.

-- Team B would beat Team A if they were to play right now.

-- Team B has been dominating its opponents.

And so on ...

After two years of the College Football Playoff, these same debates, with a lot more at stake than just seeding, appear to be going on within the selection committee, whose members are tasked with selecting the four best teams in the country. Key factors in their decision include strength of schedule, head-to-head results against common opponents, conference championships won and other factors.

An often overlooked piece is that there are often two totally different concepts being debated –- the idea of best versus most deserving.

Although there are teams -- such as Alabama in 2014 and 2015 –- that are both one of the best and one of the most deserving teams in the country, a couple of teams each year fall into one bucket but not the other. To explain the difference, let’s begin with a fresh example from the 2015 season:

-- After losing to Michigan State at home on Nov. 1, Ohio State finished the regular season 11-1 and on the outside looking into the Big Ten championship game. Having played one of the easiest schedules of any Power 5 school, Ohio State's situation generated little discussion as to whether the Buckeyes deserved a playoff spot.

Nonetheless, with a roster that featured 12 picks in the 2016 NFL draft and a number of other top recruits, Ohio State would likely have been favored against most teams on a neutral field by Las Vegas or any other system. In that sense, Ohio State was one of the four best teams in the country but not one of the four most deserving.

-- Contrast Ohio State’s season with that of another Big Ten team: Iowa. The Hawkeyes cruised to a 12-0 regular-season record, highlighted by a four-point win over Wisconsin in conference play. As Big Ten West champions with a perfect regular-season record, Iowa encountered few arguments before the Big Ten championship game about whether it deserved being in the playoff discussion. Taking nothing away from the Hawkeyes' impressive season, they likely were not one of the four best teams in the country (judged by what was widely predicted to happen if they had lined up against other top-tier programs such as Alabama or Stanford on a neutral field). Unlike Ohio State, Iowa was one of the most deserving, but not one of the best.

When discussing teams most likely to make the playoff, it is important to make the distinction between best and most deserving. ESPN’s analysts have been doing it for years (watch here), so as fans we need the tools to discuss the same topic.

To reflect these ongoing debates, ESPN’s Sports Analytics Team has developed two different metrics over the past few years. One is a forward-looking power rating (FPI) that reflects how good a team is going forward, while the other is a backward-looking résumé rating (strength of record) that is a measure of accomplishment. Both metrics have value, but they need to be used in the correct context for maximum impact.

Determining the 'best' teams

ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) is designed to answer the question, “If two teams met on a neutral field, which one would win and by how many points?” It is a forward-looking measure of team strength used to predict future games and season outcomes.

Like most power ratings, FPI looks beyond a team’s win-loss record to determine how it won its games and whom those wins came against. The formula behind FPI is complex (full description here), but ultimately its main goal is not to rank teams 1 through 128; rather, it is to get its game predictions and season projections right.

Therefore, FPI doesn’t care if Team A lost two more games than Team B; some teams are stronger than their record (lots of close losses), and others benefit from fluky plays or favorable schedules. Ultimately, FPI reflects how good a team is and how it would perform if it were to face any other team in the country on a neutral field.

Determining the “most-deserving” teams

ESPN’s strength of record (SOR) is designed to answer the question, “Which team’s W-L record is most impressive, given its schedule?” It is a backward-looking measure of team accomplishment that evaluates how difficult it would be for an average Top 25 team to achieve a team’s record, given its schedule to date.

Strength of schedule has always been a major topic of discussion, but strength of record takes SOS a step further by incorporating how a team performed against that schedule. We all acknowledge going 11-2 against Appalachian State’s schedule last season is not the same as going 11-2 against Oklahoma’s. But how did Oklahoma’s 11-1 record compare to Iowa’s 12-1 mark entering playoff selection? Strength of record can answer that question.

Unlike FPI, strength of record doesn’t care about how a team won its games; it simply cares about the difficulty of a team’s schedule and the result (win or loss). Everything that goes into FPI’s SOS rankings -- opponent strength, game site, distance traveled and rest –- is used to capture the difficulty of a team’s schedule. Thus, amassing a number of “good wins,” no matter how the game was won, will boost a team’s Strength of Record.

Despite the committee’s mantra of selecting the “four best teams in the country,” it appears that in the first two years of playoff selection, the committee favored team accomplishment over team strength. So if you are trying to predict what the committee will do, take a look at strength of record, because seven of eight teams to make the playoff ranked in the top four of that metric before playoff selection. Then FPI can be used to predict which teams will ultimately come out on top.

It’s unknown if the committee will put a greater emphasis on best or most deserving going forward, but remember that this is a debate worth having when discussing the playoff field.