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Digging up Dark Memories: On TCU and How Much Head-to-Head Matters

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Baylor v TCU Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Justifications for the Rankings are Worse than the Rankings Themselves

I am sorry to do this to you all. But do you remember the weekly frustration of watching Jeff Long, after a weekly overproduced, excessively-dramatic CFB Playoff Rankings Reveal Show, bumble around and throw around nonsense when defending rankings? Specifically, do you remember his answers for why Baylor—who had the same record as and had already beaten TCU—was always ranked behind TCU? They seemingly changed every week, and did nothing but inflame any and all interested parties. One week it is “well TCU has more top 25 wins,” and the next it is “strength of non-conference schedule.” It all felt like a rule-less game meant to inflict as much pain as possible. The best was Long often saying “TCU has one loss, and it is to a top ten team,” to which I expect every Baylor fan shouted at their TV “Yeah, to BAYLOR you nimwit!”

The main thing that bothered me was the seeming randomness of explanation, and his fixation on one criterion. As many commentators have noted, if you just look at the rankings on a sheet of paper, they are often quite anodyne with minor/major quibbles here and there, but when the chairman appears on TV to defend them, the nonsense used to justify them serves to undermine the entire system.

Major bonus of Baylor not sniffing the top 25 over the past couple years: I have not watched a single of these reveal shows since Baylor finished #5 in 2015.

So, why do I bring this up?

Well, I was listening to the most recent episode of The Solid Verbal, a CFB podcast by Dan Rubenstein and Ty Hilderbrant. They were discussing the potential for this year’s version of 2015 Baylor/TCU: Michigan and Notre Dame. In case you’ve forgotten, Notre Dame handed Michigan a narrow defeat in Week 1, and both teams have not lost since. Thus, Notre Dame is undefeated and Michigan has 1 loss. One of the co-hosts, Ty, is a massive Notre Dame fan, and the other co-host Dan wanted to know how Ty feels about the argument that Michigan should rank above Notre Dame, despite the head-to-head loss.

Dan set it up as thus: even though Michigan has lost to Notre Dame, when you look at the rest of their comparative schedules, Michigan has looked much better overall against a better schedule. As far as Ty goes (he usually shows little to no emotion) he was borderline apoplectic, responding that the argument was “ridiculous.” Furthermore, he said the words that inspired me to write this article (paraphrasing from memory): “As far as I am concerned, the only thing that matters is head-to-head.”

One of the First Lessons I Remember My Mom Teaching Me Was “Always be Wary of Absolutes...”

By the way, this advice, unintentionally for her, was the best piece of test-taking advice I ever received.

Anyway, Ty’s “head to head is the only thing that matters” argument immediately struck me as wrong, and emblamatic of what often goes wrong when we discuss difficult/complicated topics: we fixate on one thing and eschew everything else.

Here’s my basic argument for why Ty is wrong. If you can think of anything else that is relevant besides head-to-head, then head-to-head can’t be the only thing that matters. This strikes me as a way of thinking that has been around in human thought since the advent of writing, perhaps some philosophy majors can identify a name for it. One can put this argument in moral terms: if there ever exist a circumstance where it is OK to kill someone, then killing isn’t always wrong. Etc. Etc.

Thus, let me put a hypothetical forward: If Notre Dame played the absolute worst schedule in the country (say 3 FCS teams, and then a list of the other 8 worst teams in FBS) would that be relevant as to whether they deserve a playoff spot? Certainly so. Of course, this is not close to reality. Notre Dame’s schedule is fine, but not too bad. Michigan’s, on the other hand, is elite and they have walloped that tough competition.

Always At Least Be Open For Discussion

But once you accept that a hypothetical exists where other information is relevant, you should still consider that other information at all times. Even if the other information is weak, then argue it is weak and not as relevant, but there is no need to nonsensically create a one-criterion system for no reason.

In my eyes, the proper response to Dan’s argument is “Michigan has undoubtedly played better against tougher competition. But it has only been marginally so, and when you compare that to Notre Dame’s head-to-head victory over them, it is not enough.” I don’t think I agree with that argument—I think Michigan has been demonstrably much better this year— but at least it considers all factors.

I suppose this article has been an excuse for a soap-box. But I want to know what y’all think. Was Baylor’s head-to-head victory of TCU the only thing that mattered in 2015? Is Notre Dame’s victory over Michigan the only thing that matters if Notre Dame loses another game and they both finish with one loss?