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Playoff Committee Year 1: What We Learned

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After one year of the college football playoff, let's see what the committee valued and how this could affect the Irish down the road.

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After seemingly endless debate, discussion, takes, and tweets the playoff committee has selected the four teams that will participate in the first ever College Football Playoff. While they were tasked with finding the "best four teams" and given a set of criteria to use, no one really knew what they would end up doing. With the committee's job done for the first time, there are a few conclusions we can draw about the new selection process and see how they might affect Notre Dame in the future.

The Weekly Top-25 Doesn't Matter

Despite being a constant source of discussion every week, the committee actually started from scratch for every new version of their top 25. People everywhere thought TCU was a lock to make the playoff when they were ranked third in the penultimate week's rankings. Despite blowing out Iowa State in their final game, TCU dropped to six after Baylor, Ohio State, and Florida State beat ranked opponents in their final games of the season. Fans have long complained about "poll inertia" in the AP and Coaches Polls and were worried that by releasing weekly rankings, the committee would end up being affected by it. Based on the selections this year, however, it looks like the committee actually starts with a blank slate each week. Even outside the top 4, Michigan State and Mississippi State flipped spots this week despite neither team playing. ESPN will undoubtedly keep televising the weekly release of a top 25, but it's clear they can be mostly ignored until the end of the season.

The fluidity probably works slightly against a hypothetical playoff contending Notre Dame. Due to not playing the first weekend of December, ND could be passed by teams playing on conference championship weekend. Simply being 3rd or 4th after Thanksgiving weekend is no guarantee they'll be in the field in January. It's possible that Notre Dame could work with another independent team to play the last week of the season, but as it stands Notre Dame won't be able to play a P5 opponent after Thanksgiving to match other potential playoffs teams' conference championship game.

Strength of Schedule and "Game Control" Matter

Frequently the traditional polls simply arranged teams based on the number in the loss column and little else. By placing an undefeated Florida State behind one loss Alabama and Oregon, the committee demonstrated it isn't going to just order teams by number of losses. Rarely has an undefeated P5 team been ranked behind a team with a loss in the AP or Coaches Poll. Additionally, Florida State looked somewhat unimpressive in their wins, and they seemed to be punished for it. While no one seems to be able to say what "game control" actually is, the committee seems to be taking how a team looked in their wins into account. I think it's doubtful that the committee would ever leave an undefeated P5 team out of the playoff entirely based on poor schedule and performances, but it looks like teams won't be punished for losing a game. This is especially true if the loss is early, and they play a strong schedule.

Rewarding strong schedules definitely works in Notre Dame's favor. While this season's schedule ended up weaker than expected, a one-loss ND would have a very similar resume to Ohio State. The committee specifically mentioned Ohio State playing ten bowl eligible teams as a factor in their decision. TCU played seven, and Baylor played just six. Notre Dame faced eight bowl eligible teams this season and future schedules will probably contain a similar number. Additionally, the top of this year's schedule was also comparable to Ohio State's which had wins against #8 Michigan State, #18 Wisconsin, and #25 Minnesota. ND faced four ranked teams, although it's probable that Southern Cal and possible that Louisville wouldn't be ranked with a loss to ND.

Good Wins Are More Important Than Bad Losses

Of the last three teams fighting for the last playoff spot, Ohio State looked to have the worst loss. This didn't seem to matter since they got the 4th spot. Baylor lost to a better West Virginia team, but was left out due to poor OOC scheduling. TCU had the "best loss" of the three, but finished behind the other two. It's possible that TCU would be ahead of Baylor if their loss was to different highly ranked team removing head-to-head from consideration, but a "good loss" doesn't seem to be as important as who you beat. This would have worked against this year's team had they finished with just the one loss to Florida State, but this could help Notre Dame in the future. Due to scheduling at least nine P5 opponents, a generally decent Navy team, and no FCS opponents every year, ND "risks" losses to an unranked but still decent P5 team. These would be similar Baylor's loss to WVU and Ohio State's loss to VT. It would probably be in ND's best interest if these types of losses are "forgiven" by the committee.

Conference Championships Might Matter; A 13th Game Definitely Matters

Much was made of the Big XII's unfortunate use of the phrase "One True Champion" and subsequent declaration of co-champions. While it's possible that by declaring Baylor the champion, the Big 12 would have been gotten the Bears placed ahead of Ohio State, the Buckeyes blowing out Wisconsin in an extra game was probably a bigger factor in the B1G team making the playoff. By playing in conference championship games, the champions of the Big Ten, SEC, PAC-12, and ACC will get an additional game against a quality opponent to improve their resume. Of course, had any of the underdogs won a conference title game last weekend, the narrative would have flipped completely. It's unclear whether the committee punished Baylor and TCU for being co-champions, but the extra game and their performance in it undoubtedly helped move Ohio State past the two Big XII teams. To learn whether being a conference champion is truly important, we'll have to wait to see if the committee is willing to place two teams from the same conference or ND in the playoff at the expense of an undisputed conference champion.

While the conference championship criteria might hurt ND, the lack of a 13th game definitely hurts the Irish. Unless ND wants to start playing at Hawaii every year, there's no way for the Irish to play a 13 game schedule as an independent. While it's unclear whether ND would be hurt by not being a conference champion, playing a twelve game schedule puts ND at a disadvantage compared to the champions of four of the five power conferences. I'm not suggesting that Notre Dame immediately join the ACC, but it is something for AD Jack Swarbrick to consider. Conference championships are part of the criteria the committee uses to determine the playoff field, but we can't know how the committee will compare Notre Dame to a team with a similar resume and conference championship until they are put in position to do so.

We Might Not Know Anything

While we assume that the selections and process used this season will set a precedent for future years, it's possible that next season, everything could change. This year, having quality wins seemed to outweigh a bad loss, but this could flip next season. Additionally, with turnover on the committee (members serve a three-year term), the 2017 playoff committee will contain entirely different members and could operate completely unlike than the 2014 version. Ultimately, with so many teams playing different schedules, it's impossible to create an objective system for choosing the playoff field that fans, coaches, players, and administrators will agree upon. For Notre Dame as well as the rest of college football's P5 schools, it's probably necessary to go undefeated to completely guarantee a spot in the playoff, and even this is not a guarantee of the top seed. After that, how the committee will choose who else is one of the four best teams is anyone's guess.