College Football Playoff Thoughts

     The college football regular season is nearly over, and all the talk is about which four teams will advance to the new playoffs.  It’s time to look at each team’s resume and determine who are the best teams in the country, and who will compete in the first ever playoff to determine a national champion.  I have my own opinions about who the best teams are, and I’m going to share my thoughts on the system as a whole, the criterion for which the teams should be chosen, how I feel about certain teams, and who should advance to the national semifinals under different circumstances.
     First off, the playoff system itself is a decent system, and probably better than the BCS system in that actual people will have the ability to rank teams, but still falls to the same flaws the BCS experienced.  Namely, there’s still going to be teams that get snubbed.  A main idea of the playoff system was to eliminate the #3 team in the country from complaining about how unfair the system was, and how they deserve a chance to win the national championship.  However, in actuality the same thing will occur this year, and now teams ranked fifth, sixth, seventh, and potentially anywhere in the top ten will feel they have earned a spot in the top four.  Regardless of the system, someone’s always going to be unhappy, and this problem stems from the nature of the sport as a whole.  It isn’t the NFL where every team plays a roughly even schedule and the teams with the most wins advance to a playoff.  Additionally, college football simply doesn’t have room for a blown up 16 team tournament, or anything like the 68 team bonanza we call March Madness.  And even with 68 teams, good college basketball teams are still snubbed.  The only difference is that a 22-10 bubble team has lost ten games, so it’s easier to understand how a few bad losses kept them on the outside looking in.  In college football, a loss or two and its curtains.
     Now this gives the committee a lot to think about, and some really important decisions to make that will undoubtedly be questioned after the fact.  How do they sort through all the numbers and arrive at a conclusion?  Well it comes from a combination of three different things.  The first two are what everyone constantly talks about: the win-loss record, and strength of schedule.  Obviously an 11-1 team is typically better than a 9-3 team when only the records are considered.  The strength of schedule gives teams from powerhouse conferences a higher chance of getting in, since they’ve worked harder for their wins.  That’s why a 9-3 UCLA is ranked so much higher than 11-1 Marshall.  But the third factor is something I’m a big fan of, and something that just generally isn’t used as much in decision making, and that’s simply the eye test.  How good did a team play in their games, regardless of the final win/loss outcome?  The reason why this parameter is undervalued is simple: it can’t be broken down into a single number.  While a team can have a 10-2 record or the fifth best strength of schedule in the nation, there isn’t a definitive number that can be placed on how good teams are.  However, this is really important, and probably the biggest thing I look at when determining my perception of a team.  What are their strengths, weaknesses, and how do they play to their strengths and manage weaknesses in game to perform at their highest level.  This is why, as I will mention later, I don’t like Florida State as one of the best teams in the nation (or the way they carry themselves, but that’s a way different story).
     The committee also has to be very careful not to fall into certain traps that can easily influence their decision-making.  First off, to repeat myself, there is no one deciding factor in telling who’s best.  No matter how tempting it may be to judge the team with the biggest number in the win column as best, this is not always the case.  Especially considering some conferences have championship games while others do not, judging solely based on win number is dangerous.  So is deciding that the SEC is the best conference, and therefore must have two teams in the top four.  While the SEC’s best have played the best and usually come out on top, only looking at strength of schedule can be dangerous.  Another big mistake is paying too much attention to the AP Top 25 Poll and USA Today Poll.  While these polls do a decent enough job of giving the popular opinion on who the best teams are, and are credible enough since knowledgeable people are voters, they fall into the biggest trap of all.  Rather than base rankings on overall team talent, far too often (nearly all the time) the top teams are judged simply by who hasn’t lost for the longest period of time.  The general rule is that any time a ranked team loses, they fall roughly four of five spots, and the next few teams all move up a spot.  If a loss is particularly bad, a team may fall further (see Ole Miss).  This methodology is flawed and makes it near impossible for team A to jump team B in the rankings unless team B loses or team A knocks off a very highly rated team, despite if game by game performance clearly show one team to better than the other.  I think the College Football Playoff Rankings committee has done an excellent job of avoiding this, by controversially moving Alabama and Oregon above undefeated Florida State.
     So enough talk about the system and the committee, and let’s get down to the nitty gritty.  Which four teams would I have ranked as the top four prior to the start of this current week?  Well, the same four the committee did, and probably in the same order, and actually the same down through at least the top seven.  I know, what an anti-climax.  The only difference is that I may have slid made Mississippi State my #3 and moved Florida State down to #4 or flipped Ohio State and Baylor at #6 and #7.  But the fact that my thoughts basically match exactly those of the committee is great, especially considering the AP Poll still ranks the 11-0 Florida State Seminoles (Criminoles) #1, and has Baylor leapfrogging TCU at #5, both of which I strongly disagree with.  Here’s my breakdown of how this top seven looks, because outside of the top seven no one really stands too much of a chance, especially given UCLA’s loss to Stanford on Friday.
     Alabama is the number one simply for how dominant they have been constantly throughout the season, especially on defense, where Nick Saban’s teams always shine.  They haven’t allowed more than 23 points in a game this year (crazy given how most college games are shootouts).  They’ve done it in the SEC West, the hardest division of the hardest conference, and recently defeated the then #1 team in the nation in Mississippi State.  Their only loss is on the road by 6 to a strong Ole Miss team.
     Oregon has lit up the scoreboard in another very difficult division, the Pac 12.  No one has been able to slow down Mariota’s offense, and they’ve beat four ranked teams including two in the top ten. Their only loss has been to a 10-2 Arizona team who, at #11, will move into the top ten next week, by seven points.   Another great one-loss team who lost a close one to a very good team.  They deserve their spot.
     Now for the polarizing and undefeated reigning national champions.  I give Florida State tons of credit.  It is so difficult to be undefeated, especially this late in the season.  They have been incredibly resilient, coming back after trailing several games at halftime, and have not let the pressure of going perfect again make them falter.  However, let’s look at this team a little closer.  I don’t think anyone would argue with me that Florida State plays in the weakest of the big 5 conferences, the ACC.  They are the only ACC team ranked in the top 15 of both the AP rankings and College Football Playoff Rankings, and they haven’t beat anyone in the top 20.  Their only ranked wins are an overtime win over #21 Clemson and a 42-31 come from behind victory against #22 Louisville.  Jameis Winston has been nowhere near as good as he was last year.  His TD/Int ratio last season was 40/10, and this year it’s 19/13 with two games left before the national semifinalists are announced.  His QB rating has dropped from 184.8 to 147.3.  Now to take the focus off Jameis, because he is just one player, let’s look at some of Florida State’s scores.  37-31, 56-41, 31-27, 30-26, 20-17.  These are games against unranked opponents, and as you’ve probably noticed, are really close, except for one exception, where they still allowed 41 and had to come from behind to beat a 6-5 NC State team.  As you can see, they’ve been barely escaping wins week in and week out, and are by no means the best team in the nation.
     Mississippi State is quite simply a less dominant version of Alabama.  Also in the SEC West, they’ve defeated many of the same opponents, and have also been very strong defensively.  Now looking back on it, I think I would throw them at #3, because their only loss was by five points on the road against #1 Alabama, and since when is that a bad loss?  That’s about the best loss any team could possibly have.
     Now outside of the top four there are three teams that still remain strongly in contention.  I’ll talk about Baylor and TCU together because of how similar they are.  #5 TCU (10-1) and #7 Baylor (9-1) are very similar, in fact almost as similar as two teams can get in terms of play style, record, and schedule.  They both play in the Big 12, so they both play the same conference opponents.  The only difference is that TCU has already beaten #12 Kansas State, who Baylor has not yet played, and beat West Virginia, a once ranked team, whom Baylor lost to.  Also, TCU took down #18 Minnesota 30-7 out of conference while Baylor was beating up on Northwestern State and Buffalo.  So since they are so similar, yet TCU has three more good wins, what are we debating here?  That’s what you’d think until you heard that Baylor beat TCU.  Thus begins the long argument of schedule vs. head to head.
     Does the fact that Baylor defeated TCU when they played supersede TCU’s better overall resume?  This is the big debate going on right now.  This is a great example of how just looking at the wins can be misleading, and how everyone that says “the only thing that matters is the number in the W column” is so wrong.  The game was 61-58, and Baylor was home.  The home team should always be expected to win a dead even game, and they did.  The line on the game ended up with Baylor as seven point favorites.  TCU covered the spread, put up 58 points, and led for the majority of the game.  Nothing in that game suggests that if TCU was home, or even on a neutral field, that TCU wouldn’t be favored to win or wouldn’t win a majority of the time.  Now the question becomes this: if Baylor wins their last two games and takes the Big 12 title, beating Kansas State in doing so, do they then jump TCU?  My answer is still no, not unless TCU loses.  Their win against Minnesota, road win against West Virginia, and overall play including their thrashing of Oklahoma State, all combined are worth more to me than a three point away loss to Baylor.
     The final team with a realistic chance is Ohio State, and the Urban Meyer led team has managed to be in the running once again.  The 10-1 Buckeyes have defeated #10 Michigan State and #18 Minnesota, both on the road.  However, the Big Ten is not as strong as the SEC, Pac 12, or Big 12, and their loss to Virginia Tech looks bad.  For me, they have the lowest chance of making it, although a win in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin might be enough to turn the tides their way.
     So that’s where we are now.  But every team probably won’t run the table.  So what happens if teams lose?  Can any of the top four afford a loss and remain in the top four?  I think Alabama can.  They’ve just been too strong, and with all their wins, a loss against #15 Auburn or #17 Missouri in the SEC title game won’t be enough to sink them, especially because they’re getting another high-quality win if they beat the team they don’t lose to out of Auburn and Missouri.  Losing to both would certainly doom them, but Alabama could probably still finish #3 or #4 with a loss.
     Oregon is an interesting case.  Assuming they win against Oregon State to close out the year, they will play #11 Arizona in the Pac 12 title game, and by that time Arizona will be up to probably #8 or #9 after their win against Arizona State.  A loss to Arizona would still likely take them out (if everyone under them wins out), but if, say, two of the other top teams in the top seven also lose, they could still find a way to sneak in.  However, even more interestingly, if for argument’s sake, Oregon, Florida State, and Baylor all lose, the top four would probably look like this: Alabama, Missisippi St, TCU, Ohio State.  But the question is would Arizona’s win put them in the discussion for the fourth spot, jumping OSU?  This would give them two wins over Oregon, the only team to defeat the Ducks, and finishing the year with three wins against ranked teams (Utah, Arizona State, Oregon) in a tough conference.  At 11-2, that just might be enough.  Maybe.  But probably not.
     Outside of the top two, everyone else simply needs to win out.  A loss for a top four team throws TCU in the semis, another loss would throw in OSU or Baylor.  The only top team not talked about is #9 Georgia.  They can still pick up a nice win over #16 Georgia Tech, but by not winning the SEC East, they lost out on a huge opportunity.  If Missouri would have lost another game, Georgia would get to play Alabama in the SEC championship, and a win there would have moved them into contention.  Unfortunately, that will not happen, and as long as everyone ahead of them doesn’t lose, they probably have less of a chance than Arizona, especially since three SEC teams is out of the question.  Well that’s a pretty thorough look into the big question the committee is facing over the coming weeks.  Hopefully the next few games will clarify the picture for them, because they do not want to get this wrong.
     Thanks for reading,
     Connor

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