The College Football Playoff Rankings don't really matter until they do matter. But last Saturday, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino managed to make the rankings slightly more compelling by bringing up the age-old questions of margin of victory and style points.
It appears we have an ornery Louisville on our hands. At least there will be some drama for the weekly exercise of mock rankings, which seem to have stressed out Petrino, with good reason, the way presidential polls are freaking out Americans.
The Cardinals made the cardinal sin of struggling in a come-from-behind win Oct. 29 over two-win Virginia, only two weeks after Louisville's tight win over Duke, which is winless in the ACC. Coupled with a weaker strength of schedule, Louisville was ranked No. 7 in the first CFP Rankings behind fellow one-loss teams Texas A&M and Ohio State.
Ticked off by this development, Louisville piled up the points in a 52-7 win Saturday over Boston College. Then Petrino suggested that running up the score is necessary to make a better impression with the CFP Selection Committee.
"I guess we do," Petrino said at his postgame news conference. "It's sad because there's something called sportsmanship, but maybe I made a mistake. Maybe looking back at it, in Florida State [a 63-20 Louisville win on Sept. 17], we should have kept all the starters in and scored 80 points and did that. But I don't understand why it's like that. I really don't. And then you look at Clemson and the schedule they beat, the guys in the top 10 that they beat, and what Alabama has done, why isn't Clemson rated No. 1?"
There's a lot to unpack here, and like any committee, there's a good amount of gray attached to the answers. The committee members are humans, not computers, spitting out preferences. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, especially when making judgments on an incomplete body of work.
It can't be a coincidence that these scores emerged after the first week of the CFP Rankings: No. 2 Clemson 54, Syracuse 0; No. 3 Michigan 59, Maryland 3; No. 6 Ohio State 62, Nebraska 3; and No. 7 Louisville 52, Boston College 7. This is the piling-on portion of the CFP campaign, the time of year when coaches love blowouts to give the often-correct impression they're trending up.
Clemson recorded its most lopsided win over an FBS team this season. Michigan simply did more of the same with another blowout. Ohio State produced its most lopsided win over a top-10 team ever. Louisville put up 52 points in three quarters against the nation's ninth-ranked defense.
CFP committee chairman Kirby Hocutt has stressed that margin of victory is not incentivized. This isn't the old BCS days, when two-thirds of the ranking formula was based on humans who couldn't possibly see most of the games each week. Back then, seeing the score "Louisville 52, Boston College 7" would be enough for voters to click the box that says, "The Cardinals did what they had to do."
Today, there's so much more discussion and analysis of the playoff contenders. There are point people on the CFP committee whose job it is to follow teams from each conference and brief the other members. If someone is trying to run up the score, that will presumably be duly noted.
"We do not incentive margin of victory in any way," Hocutt said last week. "Winning is important, but the committee over the last two days as well last year, serving on this body, we do not talk about margin of victory. We look at quality wins and the performance of that particular team up until this current week's ranking."
But there's some gray area in that statement. While margin of victory may not be explicitly discussed, the performance of a team is often linked to margin of victory in some form or fashion, whether a team won convincingly or barely shows up on the scoreboard.
Talk to Florida State in 2014 about whether margin of victory matters directly or indirectly to some committee members. The undefeated Seminoles were never in serious risk of dropping out of the top four, but the committee made a statement by moving down Florida State as it needed come-from-behind wins against weaker opponents.
"I've voiced before, there are some that really believe Florida State's ability to overcome the deficits and rally and win and keep winning is a strong statement, and there's others that looked at the way those games have progressed, the fact that they've at times struggled against three unranked opponents the last three weeks," then-CFP committee chair Jeff Long said when the Seminoles finished at No. 4 in 2014. "That debate goes on in the room."
Also, committee members have relative offense and relative defense statistics available to see during deliberations. These stats measure how a team compares in scoring offense and scoring defense relative to others that played those same opponents. Hocutt has said he looks at relative stats are the statistics he looks at the most, in addition to reviewing the flow of games. So why wouldn't a playoff contender look to mercilessly pound an opponent even if margin of victory isn't explicitly discussed?
Still, the reality is Louisville was ranked No. 7 in the first week based on strength of schedule and losing the wrong game, not an inability to run up the score even more. Louisville has one win over a team with a winning record (Florida State) and its opponents are a combined 29-43.
Last week, Texas A&M and Ohio State had stronger schedules and each had quality road wins (Texas A&M beat Auburn, and Ohio State beat Wisconsin and Oklahoma.) You can argue strength of schedule may get applied too much -- go ask Washington, which had a good case to be No. 4 based on the eye test -- but that's how it played out last week.
As written here before, one unintended consequence of the CFP is that, if you lose, it's better to lose to a bad team than a good one. Louisville is a really good team, but it barely lost to Clemson, a very good team in its same division.
So Petrino isn't wrong to be concerned about how the Cardinals get into the playoff without winning the ACC. Louisville's game at Houston on Nov. 17 has lost some luster because the Cougars are struggling. What he's wrong about is that putting 80 on Florida State during a blowout win instead of 63 would matter except to unnecessarily put Lamar Jackson's health at risk. If Jackson goes down, so does Louisville.
The most interesting part of Petrino's complaint received less attention. Petrino questioned why strength of schedule is being held against Louisville but didn't help Clemson, which was ranked No. 2 last week behind Alabama.
Part of this concern is due to how the committee publicly summarizes two days of discussions over rankings that don't matter yet. To simplify all of the votes and discussion, the chairman often speaks about teams' wins over opponents ranked in the CFP's top 25. Wins over CFP top 25 teams become a catch-all phrase that don't characterize the deeper analysis.
As of last week, Clemson had wins over No. 7 Louisville, No. 9 Auburn and No. 22 Florida State with the last two coming on the road. Alabama had one top-25 win at the time (No. 4 Texas A&M at home). Hocutt suggested Alabama was the committee's clear No. 1 since he said there was strong debate between Clemson and Michigan at 2 and 3.
Hocutt didn't say this, but Clemson struggled to beat unranked Troy and NC State. Alabama had yet to be seriously tested, something that changed Saturday in the Crimson Tide's 10-0 win over LSU. So presumably to committee members, Alabama passed the eye test last week at No. 1.
Instead of the committee explicitly discussing margin of victory, we're led to believe the members look at how the game was played. Was it close for a while? Were there lead changes back and forth? Did one team gain control in the second half and finish the game?
Louisville didn't beat Virginia until a touchdown pass with 13 seconds left. Louisville didn't finish off Duke until a touchdown with 1:40 left to go ahead 24-14. Clemson needed a missed NC State field goal to get into overtime. Clemson led Troy by three points through three quarters.
We're three years into the CFP with this "game control" mentality, and it remains indigestible to some coaches who believe a win is a win and/or the committee's standards vary too much by team.
Texas A&M was No. 4 last week based on a better strength of schedule. It's fair to point out the Aggies didn't take the No. 1 team (Alabama) down to the wire on the road as Louisville did against the No. 2 team (Clemson). No matter. Texas A&M blew up this debate by laying an egg against Mississippi State, a team with a losing record and a loss to South Alabama.
The bottom line: Louisville was likely properly ranked No. 7 last week, Alabama was likely properly ahead of Clemson, and Petrino was likely properly concerned Louisville needs to win the eye test to a chance. All of those statements can be true in a subjective system that allows for different standards to be applied.
The system isn't rigged, and Petrino isn't wrong to defend his team. Weekly rankings create this unnecessary tension, not unlike how the fluctuation of presidential polls and talking pundits helped stress out America for months before the only opinions that matter on Tuesday.
But look at the bright side. While America freaks out Tuesday night over the election, the CFP and Petrino are offering a diversion: Freak out about where college football teams are ranked on Nov. 8.