Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What is that CFB Playoff Committee thinking?

The college football playoff rankings were updated last night, and everyone and their dog has some kind of opinion on why they're wrong. (Especially if that dog is from Iowa.) I'm going to buck the trend and explain why they're right.
First, let's be clear about what these rankings are. What the committee is doing is predicting which teams they think will be in the playoff. That's not the same as ranking which team looks best right now, or looking at which team has the fewest losses thus far. Yes, they take performance in the season thus far into account, and margin of victory/strength of schedule/etc do play a role. But what really determines rank is where the committee members believe the team will be when the playoffs start.

So let's look at this week's rankings in that light:

  • Number 1: Clemson (9-0). No stretch here. To remain undefeated, they only have to win their last three regular-season games against Syracuse, Wake Forest, and South Carolina (combined record 5-15) and then the ACC Championship game. That will likely be against North Carolina, and is likely the toughest test remaining for the Tigers.
  • Number 2: Alabama (8-1). The fact that the Crimson Tide have lost a game makes this probably the most controversial ranking. It was a very un-Saban-like game with multiple mistakes and turnovers, and some extreme good fortune for Ole Miss on the other side (helmet bounce TD, anyone?) but it's still a loss. But remember, we're predicting here, not looking back. The reason you put Alabama at #2 is that (A) you believe they will win every game from here on, which includes Mississippi State next up, and the Iron Bowl, and the SEC Championship Game; and (B) you believe everyone else not in the top 4 will either also have 1+ losses or be Houston.
  • Number 3: Ohio State (9-0). Despite looking fairly weak in a couple of their wins, the Buckeyes haven't lost yet. They have three significant games left: Michigan State, Michigan, and the conference championship game against (very likely) Iowa. This ranking means the committee believes they'll win all of those.
  • Number 4: Notre Dame (8-1). Another team with a loss! Shouldn't Baylor or Oklahoma State or Iowa be here instead? Well, let's look ahead. Since Ohio State is #3, that means Iowa is effectively a one-loss team in the committee's minds. Since Baylor and OK State play one another, one of them is a one-loss team also. Both also have to play Oklahoma, and Baylor still has TCU as well. It's not a stretch to think that both Baylor and OK State will end up having lost a game after that Big 12 gauntlet has been run. If that's what you believe, then putting Notre Dame at #4 above those three teams makes perfect sense. Of course, the Irish will have to win out, including a big showdown with Stanford, or it's likely you'll see the Cardinal in this spot instead.
What about Houston, who are also 9-0? They still have to beat Memphis, Navy, and (likely) Temple to stay undefeated. That alone would keep them out of the higher end of the rankings, because none of those are creampuff games. Even if they do win out, a weak strength of schedule is likely to keep them out of the top 4. So from a prediction standpoint, there's no reason to put Houston anywhere near the top, and indeed they're way down at #24.

So, if you believe that...
  1. Clemson won't clemson away any of their remaining games.
  2. The fear of Saban has been put into the Tide such that they won't screw up another game like they did against Ole Miss.
  3. The Buckeyes will sweep the Mitten State and beat Iowa in the Big 10 championship.
  4. Notre Dame will win out, including that big last regular-season game against Stanford.
  5. The Big 12 teams will beat on each other such that none of them remain undefeated.
...then this is exactly what the rankings should be. Don't like something in there? All your team has to do is prove one of those things wrong.

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