Forward Pass: First College Football Playoff poll will shock the system
Larry Scott is one of the 11 people who created the College Football Playoff, yet even he’s been surprised by just how much it’s dominated conversation about the sport this season, starting with all those Final Four projections that came out as soon as the first games were played.
“We’ve got the most compelling regular season in all of sports, in my opinion, yet there seems to be more focus on our postseason right from the get-go than any other [sport],” the Pac-12 commissioner told FOX Sports. “That’s a bit of a paradox to me. But maybe that’s a first-year reaction.”
It’s also an unavoidable byproduct of college football’s inherent subjectivity. Unlike the NFL, with a finite number of teams and a standardized schedule, a committee is picking the teams for a college playoff, breeding breathless speculation. And that was BEFORE we actually saw them do it for the first time.
However pervasive the “who’s in, who’s out” debates have been through the first nine weeks of the season, they’ll ratchet up tenfold after Tuesday night, when Jeff Long, Pat Haden, Condoleezza Rice and the gang unleash their first top 25 rankings on a ravenous and inherently paranoid public.
I’ve spent as much time and energy as anyone chronicling the process the committee will undertake, but even I’ve been guessing as to what it will look like once they do it for real. I’m beyond curious to learn not just who’s ranked where, but what those choices will reveal about their thought process.
“It will be neat to see the contrast in the committee’s rankings and the traditional polls, which of course start off with very wild assumptions about peoples’ programs without seeing anyone play,” said Kansas State AD John Currie, whose 6-1 team currently sits 11th in the AP and coaches polls. “The ability to compare specifically between common opponents and like victories, points allowed, things like that -- those are real things that polls didn’t account for very effectively.”
This is turning out to be a particularly fascinating season for the committee’s first go-around. Following Ole Miss’ 10-7 loss at LSU on Saturday, we’re down to three undefeated teams -- Mississippi State, Florida State and Marshall. If you assume the Bulldogs and ‘Noles are sure things for the top four and the Thundering Herd are surely not (though frankly, I wouldn’t assume anything about a brand-new system), then the committee will likely be choosing from among 16 one-loss power-conference teams for the other two spots. How much distinction really exists between AP No. 3 Alabama (7-1) and No. 14 Arizona (6-1)?
Chances are we’ll see noticeable differences between the committee’s poll and the existing polls for a variety of reasons, but one of them, as Currie noted, is that the committee did not start ranking teams in August. While someone can make a perfectly valid argument why the Tide are 11 spots better than the Wildcats, they are where they are because of where they started the season -- Alabama at No. 2, Arizona unranked. Don’t be surprised if the Wildcats, with that win at Oregon on their resume, are one of several teams that fare better with the committee than the pollsters.
“I talk to Pat Haden on a pretty regular basis, but we have not talked about Arizona at all because I’m told that has no bearing on it at all,” said Arizona AD Greg Byrne. “I’ll learn when everybody else does when the poll comes out for the first time.”
Another reason why both Currie’s and Byrnes’s Wildcats might find themselves higher than most would expect: The names on their jerseys. It’s no secret pollsters gravitate to brand names. If Oklahoma dropped 82 points on Texas Tech like AP No. 10 TCU did Saturday, the Sooners would almost certainly be in the top five.
This is where the committee, in theory, should be an improvement from the old system.
“It’s a lot different sitting around the room with 12 people than just faxing in your vote on Sunday afternoons,” said Currie. “However it works out, the thinking behind it and rationale behind it will be an improvement over what we had previously.”
That’s the hope, anyway. But Tuesday will be the first measuring stick.
Is the committee truly going to value schedule strength over just wins and losses, and if so, should Florida State, undefeated but having played Jeff Sagarin’s 41st-toughest schedule, be concerned? How much emphasis will the committee place on head-to-head results? Will Ole Miss, which fell from No. 3 to No. 9 in the coaches poll following Saturday’s LSU loss, check in ahead of the Alabama team it beat earlier this month? Will defensively dominant teams fare better than high-scoring teams, or vice versa? Or, will there be no discernible thread?
Most importantly, will committee chairman Long adequately explain the committee’s rationale Tuesday night? Flawed as the BCS standings were, at least there was a decimal-point number next to the names that meant something. With the selection committee, we’ll get just a list of 25 teams -- no vote totals or percentages.
“We’re looking for transparency -- as much transparency as you can give without compromising the process,” said Scott. “The idea of doing these standings multiple weeks before the final one -- whether five years from now we’re doing it the same number of weeks, I don’t know, we might tweak it. But for the first year we thought it’s important for the credibility of the system to have multiple occasions to go through the process and for Jeff Long to explain the process.”
There’s only one certainty about Tuesday’s rankings, which Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen encapsulated in his postgame comments to reporters Saturday. “Talk radio Wednesday morning,” he said, “is going to be amazing.”
MICHIGAN STATE’S PLAYOFF DILEMMA
It’s hard for diehard fans to comprehend, but most coaches don’t bleed your favorite team’s colors the same way you do. They want to win, sure, but first and foremost they’re doing a job, one that they’ll trade for another if the paycheck’s right. So when, for example, Urban Meyer refers to Michigan as that Team Up North, he’s doing it more for the rise he knows he’ll elicit than out of some deep-seated hatred for all things maize and blue.
Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, on the other hand, seems to truly detest Michigan. Rarely will you see a coach treat a rivalry as personally as Dantonio has ever since Mike Hart made that infamous “little brother” comment following the teams’ 2007 meeting in Dantonio’s first season. Two days later, the perennially stone-faced Spartans coach proclaimed: “Let’s just remember, pride comes before the fall. ... They want to mock us, I’m telling them, it’s not over … It’s not over and it’ll never be over here. It’s just starting.”
True to his word, Dantonio’s teams had won five of the subsequent six meetings with Michigan heading into Saturday, when players for the 3-4 Wolverines inexplicably deemed it a great idea to plant a stake in the Spartans’ home field prior to the game. You can imagine how well that went over with Dantonio, who made a point of tacking on an unnecessary touchdown in the last seconds of a 35-11 blowout.
"It just felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point,” he said afterward (Michigan coach Brady Hoke issued an apology for the incident Sunday).
It’s refreshing to see a team enjoying a rivalry win for a win’s sake. Let the rest of us worry about the bigger-picture implications.
As well as 7-1 Michigan State has played since its Week 2 loss at Oregon, outscoring its opponents 292-109, the Spartans may get walled out of the playoff due to the Big Ten’s mediocrity. On Saturday, Ohio State went to Happy Valley and eked out a 31-24 overtime win against an undermanned Penn State team. Faced with their first hostile atmosphere of the season, the Buckeyes, which had posted 50-plus points in four straight outings, managed just 17 in regulation and were fortunate that replay officials bungled the review of a first-quarter Vonn Bell interception-that-wasn’t, giving Ohio State short field to score a touchdown.
The Buckeyes will not face their first top-25 foe of the season until a Nov. 8 trip to East Lansing, and their own playoff case gets flimsier by the week as the Virginia Tech team they lost to at home further implodes. And that hurts Michigan State by proxy. The Spartans, whose schedule so far is ranked just 63rd by Sagarin, needs Ohio State to be as respected as possible. So far their lone notable win came against 7-1 Nebraska.
Granted, if they run the table the Spartans will be a 12-1 Power 5 champion. There might not be too many of those come Dec. 7. But beating up on hapless Michigan, while undoubtedly gratifying, does little for Michigan State’s resume.
Earlier I mentioned a few teams that might fare better with the committee than it is in the polls. The Spartans, No. 5 in the coaches poll and No. 8 in AP, may be one of those for whom the opposite holds true. Yes, they went and played at Oregon, something few would volunteer for. But they did lose that game by 19 points. And they might not get a second comparable opportunity to make a statement.
WILL DEFENSE DOOM THE DUCKS?
Late Friday night in the San Francisco 49ers’ media room, a reporter asked Oregon coach Mark Helfrich to assess his defense’s performance this season. “Good in spurts,” the Ducks coach responded. Asked whether he believes in the adage that “defense wins championships,” Helfrich chuckled and replied: “I believe that teams win championships.”
Helfrich’s team had just put up 59 points on 4-3 Cal and led by at least three scores nearly the entire second half, yet he found himself relating to Nick Saban’s frustrations a couple weeks earlier about leading a program with such outsized expectations. The postgame narrative following Oregon’s 18-point win at Levi’s Stadium was less about Marcus Mariota’s five touchdown passes and more about a defense that allowed 41 points and 560 yards.
“There’s a bunch of guys in that locker room that are disappointed that the margin wasn’t different,” he said. “That’s a great thing, but it’s also a frustrating thing.”
How the committee treats Oregon could be one of the more interesting subplots of Tuesday’s first rankings. The Ducks, fifth in the AP poll and sixth in the coaches, boasts that impressive early season win over Michigan State (46-27) but also a home loss to Arizona (31-24). One of the selling points behind the committee concept is that the members will be able take into account factors like injuries. Oregon’s defenders are quick to point out the Ducks were without starting tackle Jake Fisher against the Wildcats and have performed much better with him back in the lineup.
The Ducks’ detractors, on the other hand, will note that Fisher does not play defense, and Oregon now ranks 75th nationally in yards per play allowed (5.65). While the Chip Kelly-era Ducks were known primarily for their high-flying offense, they were pretty darn good on defense, too, ranking 11th in the same category during their run to the 2010 BCS championship game.
“We’re not happy giving up a ton of yards and points,” said first-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum. “That’s not what we’re all about.”
Wherever Oregon’s ranked this week will be moot if it can’t solve recent nemesis Stanford. This week’s game in Eugene will not garner the same national spotlight as the teams’ past four meetings but is still a big deal in the Pac-12 North, where Oregon (4-1) and Stanford (3-2) are the sole remaining contenders. The 5-3 Cardinal finally had an offensive awakening in Saturday’s 38-14 rout of Oregon State, with coach David Shaw saying afterward he and his coaches “streamlined” the offense.
Stanford has physically dominated the Ducks the past two seasons, winning 17-14 and 26-20, but there’s no Stepfan Taylor or Tyler Gaffney in this year’s backfield. Leave it to the perennially sarcastic Helfrich to put the matchup in perspective.
“What are we, 7-1?” he said. “No. 8’s the biggest game ever in the history of college football.”
THIS WEEK’S BOWL FORECAST
Each week, I'll update my predicted lineup for the New Year’s Six bowls based on the latest week's games.
Disclaimer: This could look very different next week when I have a better sense of how the committee views certain teams.
Peach: Mississippi State (at-large) vs. East Carolina (Group of 5)
Fiesta: Notre Dame (at-large) vs. Kansas State (at-large)
Orange: Clemson (ACC) vs. Alabama (B1G/SEC/ND)
Cotton: Michigan State (Big Ten champ) vs. TCU (Big 12 champ)
Sugar (semifinal): No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 4 Oregon
Rose (semifinal): No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 3 Georgia
What? Did I really just move the No. 1 team in the country OUT of my top four? And replace it with an SEC East team coming off a bye week? Pray for my inbox.
In all seriousness, though, I’m not trying to rain on Mississippi State’s parade, as it’s absolutely deserving of that No. 1 ranking right now. I just don’t see a team with the nation’s 68th-ranked defense beating either Alabama or Ole Miss on the road, as the Bulldogs will need to do to reach Atlanta. I may be wrong about Auburn and Georgia, too, with three road games against current top-10 foes still to go, but I have a feeling the SEC cannibalization is just getting started, and I’m not yet ready to say the league will get only one team in.
I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON …
* Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah notched a school-record 341 all-purpose yards in a 42-24 rout of Rutgers and now leads the nation in that category (211.3 ypg). Don’t forget this guy in the Heisman conversation.
* Miami RB Duke Johnson. It’s great to see the electrifying junior finally healthy and productive. Johnson exploded for a career-high 249 yards against Virginia Tech and has already notched his first 1,000-yard season.
* Georgia Southern. The FBS newcomers are 5-0 in the Sun Belt, 6-2 overall, with the losses coming by a combined five points to NC State and Georgia Tech. Unfortunately, the Eagles are not yet eligible for a bowl.
* Colorado. Mike MacIntyre’s Buffs keep coming painfully close to a breakout win. On Saturday they took 25th-ranked UCLA to double overtime before falling, 40-37. Three of their five Pac-12 losses have been by one score.
* The Travis Wilson interception watch. With Mariota throwing his first interception of the season, Utah’s quarterback is FBS’ last remaining full-year starter without a pick. He also threw a game-winning touchdown against USC.
THIS WEEK’S BROYLES AWARD CO-CANDIDATES
TCU co-offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie. What a staggering transformation the Air Raid pair are performing in Fort Worth. Following Saturday’s 82-point explosion, the Horned Frogs lead the nation in scoring offense (50.4). Last year they averaged half that (25.1), good for 88th.
THIS WEEK’S COACH ON THE HOT SEAT
Virginia’s Mike London. The Cavs are notably improved this year, but Saturday’s crushing 28-27 home loss to North Carolina -- on a third-and-15 touchdown pass by Tar Heels backup Mitch Trubisky -- hurt London’s cause. Virginia fell to 4-4 and now must play consecutive road games at 6-2 Georgia Tech and 7-0 FSU.
ON TO NEXT WEEKEND
Three games we’re most excited for:
* No. 2 Florida State at Louisville (Thursday, 7:30 ET). Back in 2002 when Louisville was just an upstart C-USA program it notched a program-turning Thursday night win over the ‘Noles. This one would be even bigger.
* No. 4 Auburn at No. 7 Ole Miss (Saturday, 7 ET). Auburn survived a scare from South Carolina, but its offense is still averaging nearly seven yards per play. Ole Miss lost to LSU, but its defense is still allowing one touchdown per game.
* No. 10 TCU at No. 20 West Virginia (Saturday, 3:30 ET). The Mountaineers, 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the Big 12, sit in an ideal position, as both the Horned Frogs (6-1, 3-1) and first-place K-State (6-1, 4-0) have to visit unruly Morgantown.
Three games you shouldn’t miss:
* Stanford at No. 5 Oregon (Saturday, 7:30 ET). Stanford has been Marcus Mariota’s Kryptonite, and this year’s defense is David Shaw’s most dominant yet. Oregon needs this one for reputation’s sake.
* No. 18 Utah at No. 15 Arizona State (Saturday, 11 ET). After fending off one ranked divisional foe, USC, the Utes must turn around and face an even higher-ranked one. And one-loss Arizona still awaits both teams after that.
* Florida vs. No. 9 Georgia (Saturday, 3:30 ET). It sounds like there’s a decent chance you’ll be seeing reinstated Todd Gurley in this one. If not, you still get the latest installment of the Will Muschamp Train Wreck Reality Show.
One under-the-radar gem:
* No. 6 Notre Dame vs. Navy (Saturday, 8 ET). Navy is rarely an easy out for the Irish, or anyone for that matter, and Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds is coming off a career-high 251-yard rushing performance against San Jose State.
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.