College Football Playoff: Florida St. doesn't look like true contender
Tuesday night’s first-ever College Football Playoff rankings could send shockwaves across the sport if the selection committee truly eschews traditional voter-poll logic and looks at the teams through a fresh lens. That includes the possibility the committee will deviate from 78 years of precedent that says the one criteria more important than all others is how many games you’ve lost.
The committee’s intentionally vague charge is to rank “the best four teams,” and it’s not inconceivable they would decide a one-loss team is better than one of the few remaining undefeated teams. Specifically, it could well elevate Alabama, Auburn or another such team over -- brace for it -- defending national champion Florida State.
For one thing, the words “defending national champion” should never once enter the committee room discussion. Their job is to evaluate the 2014 season, not 2013. We’ve had a problem with that ourselves among our 13-member FOX FOUR panel, with a few voters referencing the “until someone beats them …” line. It’s possible someone in the real committee might subscribe to the same theory, but here’s guessing the group isn’t spending two days of deliberations in Dallas only to rank a team based on what it did last year.
Our group is also unanimous that undefeated Mississippi State and Florida State are currently the top two teams. Neither got any votes lower than that. The ‘Noles have wins over AP top 10 Notre Dame and top 25 Clemson, the latter without the services of suspended star quarterback Jameis Winston. So why would the real committee operate any differently?
Because, we’re told, they’re taking the time to dig deeper than just the final scores. And if you take the time to truly examine the 2014 Seminoles, you’ll find that beyond Winston’s spectacular play, they haven’t been particularly great at anything else.
In interviews with committee members this summer, several mentioned an instructive exercise conducted by their official data provider, SportSource Analytics, that looked at the statistical categories in which past top four teams have most commonly excelled. “What I’m going to focus on is those categories that historically have proven to be a common thread of championship teams,” West Virginia AD Oliver Luck told FOX Sports.
I’ve done my own similar research several times over the years. Without failure -- and just as any coach would tell you -- those teams excelled both at running the ball and stopping the run. That’s no coincidence. If you can run effectively, you keep your offense out of third-and-longs, and if you can stuff the run, you make your opponent one-dimensional. That trend has continued even as the sport has become more and more of a passing game in recent years.
Here’s how the past six national champions have ranked in both rushing categories, as well as the more commonly cited total offense and total defense numbers, using the tempo-free yards-per-play metric (via CfbStats.com). National rankings are in parentheses.
2008 Florida: 5.94 (4) rush O, 3.35 (19) rush D, 7.13 (3) total O, 4.46 (10) total D.
2009 Alabama: 5.01 (11) rush O, 2.83 (6) rush D, 5.96 (32) total O, 4.08 (4) total D.
2010 Auburn: 6.12 (2) rush O, 3.41 (14) rush D, 7.37 (3) total O, 5.36 (56) total D.
2011 Alabama: 5.49 (7) rush O, 2.43 (2) rush D, 6.46 (12) total O, 3.32 (1) total D.
2012 Alabama: 5.59 (6) rush O, 2.43 (1) rush D, 6.95 (5) total O, 4.18 (2) total D.
2013 FSU: 5.63 (10) rush O, 3.26 (10) rush D, 7.67 (1) total O, 4.09 (2) total D.
And now, here’s where 2014 Florida State stacks up in those same categories through its first seven games.
2014 FSU: 3.99 (80) rush O, 3.66 (39) rush D, 6.48 (24) total O, 5.09 (41) total D.
None of the past six champions ranked lower than 11th in rushing offense; FSU is currently 80th. None of the six rated lower than 19th in rushing defense the ‘Noles are 39th. Only one team, 2009 Alabama, ranked lower in total offense, and only one team, 2010 Auburn (an extreme outlier), ranked lower in total defense.
Mind you, these numbers don’t take into account strength of opponents. The committee will have access to opponent-adjusted data. But that doesn’t help FSU’s case, either. In Bill Connelly’s latest S&P+ efficiency ratings, adjusted for opponents, the ‘Noles check in all the way down at No. 22-- as in, the nation’s 22nd-best team.
“They’ve only looked good when they absolutely had to and not a moment before,” said Connelly, who admits his rankings are still “unstable” at this point in the season. “The best teams are usually the best all the time.”
Of course, if we’re going to pick apart FSU, it’s only fair to perform the same examination on this year’s other prime contenders. Here’s how the rest of the AP top five fared in the same categories.
Mississippi State: 5.62 (19) rush O, 3.37 (26) rush D, 6.79 (14) total O, 5.56 (68), total D.
Alabama: 5.08 (30) rush O, 2.71 (5) rush D, 6.96 (9) total O, 4.45 (8) total D.
Auburn: 5.96 (10) rush O, 3.37 (26) rush D, 6.91 (10) total O, 5.07 (37) total D.
Oregon: 5.33 (29) rush O, 4.35 (74), rush D, 7.45 (3) total O, 5.65 (75) total D.
Consensus No. 1 Mississippi State doesn’t exactly fit the championship mold, either -- but no one would question whether Josh Robinson and the Bulldogs can run the ball. Alabama is the only one of the group that ranks in the top 10 in three categories.
Committee members who’ve watched both the Tide and ‘Noles might argue, justifiably, that Alabama is the better team, even with that Ole Miss loss on its resume. But then again, the Tide don’t have a win to their credit the caliber of FSU’s over Notre Dame.
Just for kicks, let’s look at the rest of the AP Top 10 to see if there’s anyone lurking the committee might find more impressive than do the pollsters.
Notre Dame: 4.35 (63) rush O, 3.09 (14), rush D, 5.92 (51) total O, 5.07 (37) total D.
Ole Miss: 3.87 (91) rush O, 3.23 (21), rush D, 5.86 (56) total O, 4.35 (9) total D.
Michigan State: 5.34 (23) rush O, 3.29 (24) rush D, 6.74 (16) total O, 4.67 (18) total D.
Georgia: 6.14 (8) rush O, 3.04 (11) rush D, 6.57 (20) total O, 4.68 (19) total D.
TCU: 5.48 (22) rush O, 3.15 (16) rush D, 6.86 (12) total O, 4.88 (24) total D.
Interestingly, Georgia, the fifth-highest ranked team in its own conference, fits the national championship mold the most of any team in the top 10. Even without Todd Gurley their past two games the Dawgs boast a top-10 rushing offense and the second-best rushing defense of any team mentioned here. On the one hand, they suffered a bad loss at 4-4 South Carolina in their second game. On the other hand, it’s plainly obvious they’re much better now.
And TCU isn’t far behind. In fact, the Frogs, Dawgs and Spartans all rank higher than Florida State in all four categories.
The point here is not to rag on the Seminoles (though I’m sure their fans feel differently). It’s to show that if the committee’s goal is to truly rank the best four teams, they’ve got a lot of factors to consider beyond just “losses.”
All of this may be moot as soon as Thursday night, when FSU visits Louisville, or Saturday, when everyone else on this list faces their own respective tests. I won’t make the folly of trying to predict what the committee’s list will look like Tuesday night -- who can predict something that’s never been done before? -- but don’t be surprised if it treats certain teams much differently than the AP and coaches.
And ranking a team that’s won 23 straight games below a team that’s lost one of its last three or four would certainly send quite the message that we’ve truly embarked on a new era.
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.