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Playoff Selection Review and What We Would've Done

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The College Football Playoff is finally here - it's the dawn of an exciting new era in college football. Seriously!

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The final playoff selection committee rankings were released last night, and man, were there some major changes with only a handful of games played this weekend. First, let's take a look at the first ever playoff bracket at the top level of college football:

#1 Alabama (-9.5) vs. #4 Ohio State at the Sugar Bowl

#2 Oregon (-8) vs. #3 Florida State at the Rose Bowl

Let's set aside for the moment whether the committee got this right - we'll get to our opinion on that in a moment. For now, let's just consider that with those two match-ups, it's hard to say they got it wrong. You could quibble over who #4 should be, and we certainly would, but these are all high-quality teams and whoever comes out of this bracket will deserve an undisputed national championship. I can't wait to watch it unfold.

Breaking Down the Playoff Teams

1. Alabama: As frustrating as it is to see them back here at #1 again - as both a non-SEC and a non-Alabama fan - it's really hard to argue that anyone has a better body of work this year. They made it through the murderer's row of the SEC West, which even without ESPN hype or vast media conspiracies is clearly the toughest division in the country, with one close loss, and absolutely destroyed a respectable Missouri team to claim the SEC title. They deserve the #1 seed. Their performance in title games is well documented and likely to be repeated in this semifinal, but how will they handle the quick turnaround to another elite opponent in the championship?

2. Oregon: Our own Jamie Uyeyama commented in an email thread among the staff the other day that he felt the committee was treating Oregon as undefeated because they were short some healthy bodies in the loss to Arizona. I think he's dead on; the way Oregon dominated every opponent after that loss, they seem like a pretty clear choice for #2. Notre Dame's 1993 national championship squad had three 20+ point wins - the Ducks haven't had a game closer than 20 points in seven weeks. After their vengeful demolition of Arizona in the Pac 12 title game, they seem to peaking at the right time.

3. Florida State: The 37-35 win over Georgia Tech in the ACC title game was the Noles' seventh single-score win of the year, and their fourth single-score win in the last four games. Forget all the off-field drama around this team - they have enough to worry about on the field, where they'll face a truly elite team for the first time this season. I had them at #2 in my rankings last week, but I have no problem with the committee having them #3. Vegas agrees, installing the undefeated defending champs as 8-point underdogs against the Ducks. #BlameJameis, and everyone else too.

4. Ohio State: What a dramatic turnaround from the conclusion of their horrific loss to 6-6 Virginia Tech in week 2; I'd call it a Cinderella story, but with Urban Meyer at the helm it's really more like Cruella DeVille getting the puppies in a twist ending. Speaking of Urban, I have to begrudgingly admit that this is probably the best coaching job of his career - yes, the Big Ten is Charmin soft, but still, impressive job by Meyer this year. The clock will likely strike midnight - or Cruella will let the puppies slip through her grasp, depending on how you look at it - when they face the Tide, but they'll always have the Big Ten title, and that's all that really matters. Right?

Predictions:

The guess here is that Alabama and Oregon will both win comfortably in the semifinals, setting up a classic clash of styles in the title game. I think Oregon will win that game somewhat easily, but to be honest I wouldn't be all that surprised by any kind of result - these are two high-powered offenses that can put a lot of pressure on the opponent if they get rolling. Well, alright, I would be surprised by a 13-10 final, but that seems so outside the realm of possibility that it's not even worth considering. Ducks by 10 to claim the first-ever CFP trophy, which will keep Mariota's Heisman from getting lonely in Oregon's shiny trophy case.

Collected Thoughts

Committee Logic:

We've been banging this drum for a while, but we'll say it again: despite rampant claims of conspiracy theories to support certain teams or conferences from one week to the next, the committee's ranking system has actually displayed a remarkable level of consistency. The one recent blip was putting TCU #3 last week ahead of Florida State, but they corrected for that this week - I would say over-corrected, but that's just me - as the Frogs fell back to #6.

The criteria roughly seem to be weighted in this order:

  • Least number of losses
  • Number of quality wins (wins over ranked teams), apparently with additional weight given to high-quality wins (wins over top 10/15 teams)
  • Conference championship
  • Strength of schedule
  • Quality of performances - essentially, the eye test
  • Other mitigating factors (injuries suffered or recovered from, etc.)
The wild card is the "other mitigating factors," which it seems can take on an arbitrary amount of weight depending on the circumstances. Note that I don't use arbitrary here in a pejorative sense, nor do I believe that assigning an arbitrary amount is a bad idea. We never wanted - or at least I certainly didn't want, and I'd imagine a lot of fans didn't want - the committee to rubber-stamp a set of computer rankings. As soon as they do anything other than that, there's a significant subjective element to the process. But we want that, right? We want knowledgeable, dedicated people (and Ty) to look at the body of work of all these teams and occasionally rank one above the other when it makes sense, regardless of what some of the numbers might say.

Everyone's favorite example of committee craziness is Oregon and Florida State. Florida State is undefeated and "deserves" to be #1, so the thinking goes. Let's dig deeper than that, though, and try to understand why the committee disagrees:
  • Just about every computer ranking system puts Oregon's strength of schedule ahead of Florida State's, in many cases substantially ahead. [EDIT: This isn't true anymore, much to my surprise - read on below.]
  • Oregon had key health issues in its one loss, which was a close loss to a highly-ranked team.
  • Florida State has recorded single-score wins seven times - seven!  - this year, including five times over teams that are currently unranked.
  • In contrast, Oregon has eight 20-point wins and plays in a much tougher conference.
  • Florida State's quality wins include the current #12, #17, and #21 (all ACC teams). Their average margin of victory in those games is 6.3.
  • Oregon's quality wins include the current #8, #10, #14, and #22 (one Big Ten and three Pac 12 teams). Their average margin of victory in those games is 23.3.
Number of quality wins favors Oregon. Conference champion status is a push. Strength of schedule favors Oregon has shifted recently to a push. The eye test very heavily favors Oregon. Mitigating factors - injuries that may well have caused their lone loss on the season - favor Oregon. Taken together, those all outweigh Florida State's advantage in the least number of losses test.

EDIT: As noted above, Oregon no longer has a "substantially higher" consensus strength of schedule rating than Florida State. FEI currently has Oregon's schedule ranked 22nd and FSU's 15th, while Sagarin has Oregon's schedule ranked 33rd and FSU's 37th. I don't when exactly that flipped, but apparently Oregon's closing three of Colorado, Oregon State, and Arizona were considered much weaker than FSU's closing three of Boston College, Florida, and Georgia Tech. It's worth noting, though, that FEI also has Oregon at #1 and FSU at #4, while Sagarin has Oregon at #3 and FSU at #15. Advanced metrics still favor the Ducks considerably.

Biggest Winners:

Fans. The fans win in a few ways. First, the playoff itself should be very compelling theater - I'd be shocked if we get three stinkers. Second, we get to debate endlessly about who should be in, who shouldn't, and who should get what seeds; the playoff doesn't kill the age-old debate around the end-of-year elite, it just changes the tenor somewhat. Finally, the return of the New Year's Eve/New Year's Day extravaganza is a fantastic side effect of the playoff selection process.

Ohio State. Left for dead by the majority of the country after that loss to Virginia Tech and on the outside of the playoff last week, they're certainly a surprise addition.

The Big Ten. Ridiculed by non-Midwesterners all year, the conference gets the second-to-last laugh by grabbing the last chair when the music stopped, while the Big 12 was left seatless and bewildered. With their sudden windfall comes momentary credibility on the national stage. I say "second-to-last" and "momentary" because they'll likely lose all that credibility immediately, much like the Irish did in 2012.

Biggest Losers:

TCU. You think Irish fans were upset about a bad flag? At least ours ultimately didn't mean much given the way the rest of the season unfolded. TCU was hosed twice in the closing minutes against Baylor in their only loss, which is probably the difference between being the outright Big 12 champs who hold the #2 playoff seed and being the second team out of the playoff. Ouch. They draw Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl as three-point favorites in what should be an interesting game. If TCU comes out focused on both sides, this could get ugly.

Baylor. Yep, the other Big 12 co-champ (more on that in a moment) is our co-biggest loser. On the one hand, there shouldn't be much "if only" for them, given that they were manhandled by West V0irginia in their one loss. On the other hand, West Virginia (7-5, 5-4 Big 12) is probably better than Ohio State's only loss, Virginia Tech (6-6, 3-5 ACC). Whoever the fifth team would be, that team and their fans were bound to be bitter - that it went down the way it did in the Big 12 makes it tougher. I don't buy the Cotton Bowl line that opened as Baylor -3 over Michigan State - I think Baylor will be plenty ticked and might break the scoreboard.

The Big 12. Believe it or not, in the only Power 5 conference where every team plays the exact same conference opponents, the conference rules say that teams with identical records are co-champs regardless of head-to-head results. Not to put too fine a point on it, but, well, that's pretty stupid. To make matters worse, the one Power 5 conference that was shut out of the first-ever playoff had the first two teams that were left out. If I had told you preseason that one conference would have teams at #5 and #6, you'd figure the SEC, right? Nope, Big 12. Thanks for playing, guys.

Anyway, the finish to the regular season was an unmitigated disaster for the Big 12. It's pretty clear that in the committee's eyes the lack of a championship game - and perhaps the lack of an officially-defined single champion as well, although I'd hope not - hurt both Baylor and TCU. Not surprisingly, on the day the rankings were released Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby was already talking about potentially adding teams to get to the necessary size to host a conference championship game. Oops.

What Would We Have Done:

To close out, here are some quick-hitters from the OFD staff on who we would've put in the playoff if it were up to us. As I hear from everyone I'll update the page here. Let the debate begin!

Brendan: 1. Alabama, 2. Oregon, 3. Florida State, 4. TCU

Jim: 1. Oregon, 2. Alabama, 3. FSU, 4. TCU

ndistops: 1. Oregon, 2. Alabama, 3. FSU, 4. Baylor

ndroyalsfan: 1. Oregon, 2. Alabama, 3. Florida State, 4. Ohio State

pburns2010: 1. Oregon, 2. FSU, 3. Alabama, 4. Baylor

PunterBro: 1. Alabama, 2. Oregon, 3. Florida State, 4. TCU

RandomMovieLines: 1. FSU, 2. Alabama, 3. Oregon, 4. Ohio State