Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Debunking the College Football Playoff Rankings

If there’s one topic that could compel me to resurrect my blog after a two-year hiatus, it’s college football!

So let’s get straight to it. I'd like to address the main concerns that people have had with the final playoff rankings.

TCU shouldn’t have fallen from No. 3 to No. 6

The biggest issue that most everyone has is with how TCU, despite crushing Iowa State in the final weekend of play, fell from third place to sixth. Didn’t the Horned Frogs’ dominance against a Big 12 bottom-feeder make them a lock for the playoff?

Maybe in the BCS, but not in the CFP system, which evaluates teams on more factors than just plain old wins and losses. It's clear that this new, dynamic method of analysis will take a few seasons to sink in for a lot of people. Remember: The CFP rankings don't function like traditional rankings that we've all grown accustomed to—simply winning doesn't necessarily hold your position from week to week. It's a fluid situation.

But still, how did TCU drop three spots after winning by such a big margin?

As committee chairman Jeff Long explained, it wasn't about what TCU did or didn't do—it was more about Ohio State (more on that below).

Although everyone is hung up on TCU falling from 3 to 6, it's not that hard to make sense of. But it requires us to look at how TCU got to be No. 3 in the first place. All we need to do is flash back to the previous week (Week 14; Week 15 in the CFP rankings). The committee had the teams ranked in the order shown below, and I've added each game result from that week:
  1. Alabama: Got revenge on in-state enemy and No. 15 Auburn, 55-44, to retain the No. 1 spot.
  2. Oregon: Won the Civil War against Oregon State, 47-19, to retain the No. 2 spot.
  3. Florida State: Looked like themselves in nearly losing another game to a lesser team, hanging on against 6-5 Florida, 24-19. Jameis Winston had one of his worst performances, throwing a game-high four interceptions. As a result, the Seminoles dropped a spot to No. 4.
  4. Mississippi State: Lost 31-17 to archrival Ole Miss, dropping them to No. 10 and 10-2 on the season.
  5. TCU: In a game in which Texas had become the trendy upset pick, TCU ran away with a decisive 48-10 road victory against the Longhorns on Thanksgiving night.
  6. Ohio State: Ohio State’s 42-28 win over archnemesis Michigan was enough to bump them up one spot to No. 5, but the Buckeyes were only winning by a touchdown heading into the final frame (28-21). A typically inept Wolverines offense ended up finishing the game with 376 yards and their second-highest point total against Power Five competition this season.
  7. Baylor: Somehow, people forgot that Baylor gave up over 700 yards this week to Texas Tech freshman QB Patrick Mahomes in a 48-46 loss. Bears star quarterback Bryce Petty left the game in the third quarter with a concussion when his team was up 35-17, but note that Petty does not play defense for Baylor. Despite the near-defeat as a 25-point favorite, Baylor moved up from No. 7 to No. 6 once Mississippi State fell to No. 10.
So, to recap how TCU got to No. 3 in the first place: (1) Florida State looked bad in victory, (2) Mississippi State lost their second game of the season, (3) Baylor almost lost as a heavy favorite, and (4) TCU handled Texas. It all adds up when you look at it beyond a surface level.

But the question remains: How does TCU fall from 3 to 6 in the final rankings? Let's take a look:
  • First, the committee moved Florida State from 4 to 3 after surviving a good Georgia Tech team in the ACC Championship Game and finishing their season undefeated. Even though the Seminoles may have been most deserving of the fourth spot, the committee reserved a spot for them at No. 3 because they knew that they couldn't leave out an undefeated team. So that drops TCU to 4.
  • Then, with Baylor beating No. 9 Kansas State 38-27, the Bears closed with a strong win in the final weekend to finish with an identical 11-1 record as TCU, where their 61-58 head-to-head win over the Horned Frogs could no longer be ignored. At this point, Baylor is now 4 and TCU is 5.
  • And then you have what Ohio State did. Being a small underdog to Wisconsin in the B1G Championship Game, the Buckeyes looked nothing of the part and shocked the college football world by manhandling No. 13 Wisconsin to the tune of 59-0—with a third-string quarterback making his first career start, no less. Ohio State’s dominance in a conference championship game had to be weighed accordingly, and it didn’t hurt that putting the Buckeyes at fourth also resolved the Baylor/TCU conundrum as justifiably as possible.
So there you have it. TCU’s fall from 3 to 6 all adds up, especially if you take chairman Jeff Long at his word when he said that the committee felt that all three teams were separated by a “razor-thin” margin: “I know it looks like a long drop from three to six, but they were really 3A, 3B, 3C and 3D," he said. "I mean, they were that close.”

He's right. But people getting so superficially hung up on the 3-to-6 drop has led them to declare that the prior weekly rankings were a showbiz sham and the final rankings are the only ones that mattered. The latter is a true statement in a pure sense of finality with playoff pairings, but as I’ve shown above, not in the case of TCU or with learning how the committee was dynamically evaluating teams in their first year. Not when you really look at it.

Baylor suffered because of their nonconference schedule

Let’s be clear: Baylor’s nonconference schedule (SMU, Northwestern State, and Buffalo) certainly didn’t do them any favors, but I don’t believe it hurt them as much as analysts would have you believe. Because when compared to TCU’s nonconference schedule (Samford, Minnesota, and SMU), the only real difference is Minnesota, which is a good (but not great) out-of-conference win.

My beef is that when critics have compared TCU and Baylor’s resumés, they fail to discern that Baylor would probably have beaten Minnesota by a similar score as TCU (30-7 in Fort Worth), so the whole Minnesota factor should have been relatively moot. Baylor’s real issues stemmed from its league, which did not declare them outright Big 12 champions or have a conference championship game that would have allowed for that possibility.

So all that's to say: Let’s forget about the Golden Gophers.

Now, when comparing Baylor to the other playoff contenders, there’s no doubt that having a key nonconference victory over, say, UCLA or Michigan State, would have helped their case in claiming the fourth spot, especially as TCU remained the eye-test favorite in the weeks following their close road loss to the Bears.

Ohio State was the most deserving team for the fourth spot

Alabama vs. Ohio State is a beautiful matchup on paper. But the Sugar Bowl’s biggest storyline being Urban Meyer vs. Nick Saban is indicative of why the Buckeyes may not be the best choice for No. 4: Their third-string QB is making his second career start against Alabama’s defense. That's the matchup that doesn’t sound so good on paper. Sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones may have gone 12/17 with 3 TDs against a sound Wisconsin defense, but it's one that hadn’t seen the caliber of athletes as Ohio State’s all year. Linesmakers agree with my sentiment, as the Buckeyes currently stand as 9-point underdogs, one of the biggest spreads among all bowl games.

However, that’s not to say that Jones and the Buckeyes don’t have a chance. Alabama gave up long touchdown passes to Auburn and Missouri in their last two games, so there is hope for Ohio State. But to think that Jones—with his one-game body of work—has better odds of leading Ohio State to victory over Baylor’s Bryce Petty or TCU’s Trevone Boykin is a hard sell for me, but apparently not with the committee. Hence, the conspiracy theory that the committee chose the bigger name brand among the three.

To add more credence that Ohio State isn't as deserving of the fourth spot as Baylor or TCU, sports-betting analyst Danny Sheridan told ESPNU's College Football Daily on December 12th that both Baylor and TCU would be favored over Ohio State by 4–7 points on a neutral field.

(And so much for the season-long perception that the Big Ten was the nation's most inferior Power Five conference.)

Between Ohio State, Baylor, and TCU, Ohio State had the worst loss

This is true—but only superficially. In the final week of the season, it amazed me to still hear some critics argue that Ohio State should be excluded from the playoff based on their 35-21 home loss in Week 2 to an eventual 6-6 Virginia Tech team, without qualifying it with the obvious—it was freshman quarterback JT Barrett’s second college football game ever, and only after learning he’d be taking over for Braxton Miller about three weeks prior. In the weeks that followed, Barrett made a huge turnaround, leading the Scarlet & Gray to a big road upset of Michigan State, setting multiple school records, and putting his name up for Heisman Trophy contention before a season-ending ankle injury against Michigan.

So by the end of the season, it should’ve been clear to everyone that Week 14 JT Barrett would have handled the Hokies with ease had he existed in Week 2. Remember, the CFP doesn't just evaluate how a team played early in the season, but more importantly how they're playing at the end of it as a finished—or at least current—product.

As for TCU, their lone loss was on a last-second field goal at Baylor, made possible by two questionable pass interference calls on the previous two drives. But as critics scratched their heads about why TCU was ranked higher than Baylor for all but the last week, one of the obvious factors that they kept overlooking was who Baylor lost to: West Virginia, 41-27, the week after the miraculous comeback against TCU.

Sure, the Bears probably had little left in the tank after that emotional victory, but the point here is that TCU beat the Mountaineers in Morgantown in Week 10, 31-30, on a last-second field goal. I never understood why it took people so long to realize that Baylor had the worse loss of the two, especially as West Virginia tumbled down the stretch to finish at 7-5.

But even though TCU seemed like they were the better team at the end of the season, the committee absolved themselves from any further controversy by finally moving Baylor one spot ahead of TCU in the final rankings (for what it's worth).

Controversy was inevitable, but the path the committee took was the least controversial possible.


howdy said...

I found this difficult to read. You might consider 2 spaces after periods. It would seem more professional and legible.

Ken Devine said...

Lol. Two spaces is cool if you're using a typewriter. And nice Internet stalking, btw.