College Football Playoff: Three potential nightmare scenarios
GRAPEVINE, Texas — On Thursday, myself and 16 other college football writers from around the country played the roles of College Football Playoff committee members in a mock selection exercise involving the 2008 season. We sat in the same room of the Gaylord Texan resort around the same desk using the same voting software and statistical database they will, and presumably ate the same hotel food, too. For one day, at least, I was Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.
Following five hours of extensive and often animated debate (ESPN’s Holly Rowe, for one, emerged as a powerful voice in the room) and a meticulous balloting process (it took 20 rounds of votes to reach 25 teams), we felt quite confident in our results, highlighted by the following Top 4:
Penn State, 11-1 Big Ten champion, was the unfortunate No. 5 team.
With our work done, we then reverted to reporter mode and proceeded to grill our committee chairman, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples, just as we will Arkansas AD Jeff Long on Dec. 7. How could he possibly justify the committee — us — choosing USC, which suffered a 27-21 loss to 8-4 Oregon State, at the expense of a Penn State team that beat those same Beavers 45-14? And whose only loss was by one point on a last-second field goal at 8-4 Iowa?
As Andy initially went into defense mode, I realized that no matter how sound the committee’s reasoning for picking the four teams they do, there will still be perfectly valid counterarguments for the teams that get snubbed. Rarely will there be a definitive right or wrong four, and based on the way the current season is shaping up, that will almost certainly be the case this December.
I’ll bring the discussion back to 2014 in a moment, but first, a few key takeaways from Thursday’s exercise:
• No two committee members take the same approach. At one point we stopped the rankings process to go around the room and have each person say what criteria they value most. Some were big on data, while others preferred the eye test. Some emphasized margins of victories, others found them misleading. Those variances make for provocative discussions in the room, but may prove maddening to fans that get easily frustrated by the inherent subjectivity of ranking football teams.
• That being said, nearly all of us made a point of following committee protocol of emphasizing conference championships. Pac-10 champ USC (No. 4 vs. No. 5), Big Ten champ Penn State (No. 5 vs. No. 8) and ACC champ Virginia Tech (No. 13 vs. No. 19) all came in higher in our rankings than in the final 2008 BCS standings.
• Good defenses stand out more than powerful offenses. We were supplied extensive data on each contender, including a stat that compares how opponents fared against a team’s offense and defense than it did the rest of its schedule. USC’s Brian Cushing/Clay Matthews/Rey Maualuga-led defense jumped off the page when you see that opponents managed just 28.1 percent of their usual points scored when facing the Trojans.
• The little guys will not fare well. In the AP or coaches poll, a team like Ball State, which won its first 12 games that year before losing to Buffalo in the MAC title game, inevitably rises due to the teams above it losing. When starting from scratch, though, the fact is Ball State played absolutely no one. It did not make our Top 25. Neither did 10-2 BYU, 16th in the BCS.
With just six weeks worth of data on the 2014 season, it’s hard to predict at this point what nightmare scenarios the real committee will have to deal with. But you know it will be something.
Here now are a few possibilities, and how, based on Thursday’s experience, the real committee might address them.
1) Multiple SEC West teams merit Top 4 consideration.
Currently the SEC West boasts the No. 2 team (Auburn) and co-No. 3s (Mississippi State and Ole Miss) in the AP poll. It’s not inconceivable that one could win the SEC — say at 12-1 — with one or two more finishing with the same record. If so, the committee would run into the same conundrum we did with 2008 Texas and Oklahoma.
As you may recall, the ‘Horns, Sooners and Texas Tech all finished tied for first in the Big 12 South at 7-1 and went 1-1 against each other. OU won the tiebreaker based on having the highest BCS ranking and went on to beat Missouri in the now-defunct Big 12 title game. Coming into Thursday’s exercise I thought for sure we’d have the good sense the BCS voters didn’t to rank Texas above the Oklahoma team it beat 45-35, but it’s just not that simple. Our charge was to look at the teams’ overall bodies of work, which includes their non-conference schedules, of which OU’s was stronger, and to reward conference champions, however a league chooses to determine theirs.
A real headache for the committee would be if Auburn loses to Mississippi State this week, but the Bulldogs lose to Ole Miss, which itself loses to Auburn. All three tie for first. According to colleague Clay Travis, the tiebreaker could come down to something fairly arbitrary — the combined record of each team’s cross-division opponents. Ole Miss, which plays Tennessee and Vandy, is most likely to be the odd man out in that scenario, putting Mississippi State in the SEC title game, but Ole Miss would have the same record and a head-to-head win.
My guess is if things get that convoluted the committee will reward the champion first but will not hesitate to give a second bid to a team in the same division if it believes that team to be one of the four best. I can tell you that we barely discussed the fact the Big 12 South would have two playoff teams in our bracket. It wasn’t even a factor. Both teams belonged in the Top 4.
2) There are not enough teams with one or fewer losses.
Would it surprise anyone if we end up with multiple two-loss champions among the Power 5 leagues? In our case, we had to compare multiple one-loss teams, and it becomes tempting at times to fixate on who the team’s loss came to. See the USC example above. I, however, was among several who felt that evaluating who a team beat over the course of its other 11-12 games is far more enlightening than singling out the one game it lost.
Once you get into two losses, though, I’d imagine it’s tougher to maintain that distinction. Say ACC champion Florida State goes 13-0 and Big 12 champion Baylor goes 11-1, claiming two of the four spots. The other two come down to 12-1 Big Ten champion Michigan State, 11-2 SEC champion Auburn and 11-2 Pac-12 champion UCLA. The Tigers and Bruins would likely have more quality wins than the Spartans, which play in a weak Big Ten. But what if the Utah team UCLA lost to last week finishes 6-6? Or Auburn stubs its toe against 7-5 South Carolina? Meanwhile, Michigan State’s sole loss remains to Oregon, which finishes 10-3.
Again, the committee has to go by strength of schedule. But also, they do watch games. We referenced many we remembered from ’08 when discussing the teams. If the majority of members think Auburn is better than Michigan State, regardless of record, than they’ll rank Auburn higher. But I doubt they would do that for a two-loss team that did not win its conference.
3) There is no Top 25-caliber team among the other five conferences.
In the new system, the highest-ranked champion from among the American, Conference USA, Mountain West, MAC and Sun Belt is guaranteed a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowls — no matter how low it’s ranked. In our exercise, it didn’t take long to come to that team. Utah, then in the Mountain West, went 12-0, beat a good Oregon State team out of conference as well as 10-win teams TCU and BYU. We dinged the Utes a bit for an overall weak schedule but they still came in seventh. Two other non-power teams, 10-2 TCU and Boise State, finished 10th and 11th, respectively, and thus also qualified for major bowl berths. The lowest-ranked team on our board that landed a spot was No. 14 Virginia Tech, which, as ACC champ, would be contractually placed in the Orange Bowl.
Still, we went through the motions of completing an entire Top 25, and let me tell you, you wind up parsing some pretty unimpressive resumes by the end of the day. And the real committee, which will meet for two full days, may have to do just that to find the Group of 5 champ. As of today, No. 19 East Carolina is the only such team in the Top 25. Unranked Marshall is the only remaining undefeated team in the group. If ECU suffers a couple conference losses, this part could become quite a chore.
Worth noting: Long sat in on the proceedings with us, taking notes throughout. “I’m learning as much from this as you are,” he said at one point. The actual committee has done several of these mocks themselves. He said our conversations were “more animated” but the discussions fairly similar.
But most notably, he said when the committee did its own 2008 simulation, it did NOT pick the same four teams. As I said earlier, there’s not going to be one clear answer when they do this for real. Which means someone’s going to be ticked and be perfectly justified for feeling so.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.