Sports analytics from Laura Albert's team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering

will the best teams make the playoff?

Our methodology uses math to consistently rank teams based on game outcomes and strength of schedule. The method implicitly assume that the “best” teams–those that are ranked the highest–will make the playoff.

It’s worth noting that the committee may not be interested in selecting the best teams. In reality, a committee of humans ranks the teams to determine who is invited to the playoff. The committee members are subject to biases that enter the process. They also may be interested in selecting the most deserving teams rather than the best teams. This is a key issue. The most deserving teams generally have the best records (teams in weak conferences like Marshall are an exception), whereas the best teams may have a non-embarrassing loss or two and a very strong strength of schedule. In the past, undefeated teams are almost always selected over arguably better teams with a single loss.

At present the Selection Committee’s current top teams are actually underdogs or weak favorites to teams that are ranked much lower. This is evidence that the committee is ranking teams according to who is most deserving rather than according to who is best.

To be sure, our method is biased by the outcomes of the games, and game outcomes are an imperfect way to capture which team is “best.” Teams that lose on a fluke play (such as Alabama last year) are dinged in the rankings. But in general, our method will try to rank the teams from best to worst, not from most deserving to least deserving. This is one reason why our end of the season rankings will differ from those of the committee.