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Fans Are Outraged Over College Football Playoff Rankings

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The pandemic has made this year the strangest college football season in history. The games that weren't canceled were played to little or no crowds. Even the sport's most iconic game, the Rose Bowl, won't be played in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., this year. It'll be played in Texas. There are some traditions still alive, though. The fans' annual rage at the rankings and who will play for the title is back and bigger than ever. And this year, like most years, the fans have a point. Joining us to explain is Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic.

Welcome.

NICOLE AUERBACH: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So the college football playoff was established seven years ago, and it was supposed to make fans happy. The four best teams square off to determine the national champion. Will you just start by briefly explaining how the four best teams are determined?

AUERBACH: Well, they are determined by a 13-person selection committee. And this was created in response to the previous era. And there was a computer algorithm that determined which two teams competed for a national championship. So everyone wanted a human element to this process. They didn't want it to just be automated. There is criteria, like winning a conference championship, beating teams that have better than 500 records and things like that. But really, it can be the four teams that the committee likes best.

SHAPIRO: So this year, it seems like pretty much everyone agrees the top two teams are Alabama and Clemson. But the committee's next best two teams have made people pretty upset. Can you explain what happened?

AUERBACH: So the third-ranked team this year is Ohio State, and Ohio State only played six games this season. And then the fourth spot went to Notre Dame, and they were the first team to lose a conference championship game and then be included in the college football playoffs. So that's an awkward dynamic, too, because they're coming off of a blowout loss to Clemson.

SHAPIRO: One of the highlights of this weird college football season is that schools like Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina kind of came out of nowhere to have undefeated seasons, and yet the college football playoff committee pretty much ignored them. Why?

AUERBACH: I wish I knew. I think that the system is just - the system was set up not to include teams like that. And it's so frustrating to watch because you saw a great Cincinnati team that did everything they could, beat every single team on their schedule, won a conference championship and they were ranked behind a three-loss Florida team.

And what's frustrating about the system is we knew that it was designed to keep teams like Coastal Carolina and Cincinnati out of the top four. But there still needs to be justification for why they are ranked where they are. There are supposed to be principles that are being taken into consideration when ranking teams. And this really just felt like it was an insult to teams outside of the power conferences.

SHAPIRO: So what's the answer? I mean, if you had to scrap the system and rebuild it, what would you do - like, expand it to eight or 16 teams in the playoffs or what?

AUERBACH: Well, I think the reason that you hear so much chatter about expansion is it's not necessarily going to solve the inequities of college football. But what it would do would allow other teams to have access to the system. Even if Cincinnati were to lose and get blown out by Alabama, at least they were playing it out on the field.

This isn't really a playoff. This is an invitational. You're picking four teams and letting those four teams play it out on the field. But if you had an 18 playoff and designated spots for conference champions, a designated spot for a group of five team, it would keep fans and teams and coaches and players engaged in more places in the country. And it would give the little guy a shot. Even if we think they might lose, we don't know for sure unless they play that game.

SHAPIRO: Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic, thanks a lot for talking with us.

AUERBACH: Anytime.

(SOUNDBITE OF SILVER JEWS SONG, "BUCKINGHAM RABBIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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