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Which Four Teams Would Make a College Playoff in 2013?

We can officially declare the BCS dead (1998-2013). As it turns out, the final edition of the BCS rankings was not controversial. It took awhile, but with the losses by Ohio State and Northern Illinois, Florida State was the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision to finish the year without a blemish. The champion of the Pac-12 had two losses, while the one loss champions of the Big 12 (blowout loss) and Big 10 (one win against a team in the SRS top 25) had unimpressive resumes compared to the one-loss SEC Champion (4-1 record against teams in the SRS top 25). No team distinguished itself from the AAC or any other the other conferences, nor did any of the independent teams. That left the voters with two easy choices to fill two slots.

But starting next season, there will be a four-team playoff in college football. In general and on average, a four-team playoff is preferable to a two-team playoff: leaving out the fifth best team is easier to stomach than leaving out the third place team. A four-team playoff may not be ideal, but it’s the system we will have. So which teams would be deserving of the third and fourth golden tickets if the playoffs began in 2013?

There are only four legitimate candidates: Alabama, Stanford (Pac-12 champion), Baylor (Big 12 champion), and Michigan State (Big 10 champion). Any other team could be dismissed quickly: Fresno State, Northern Illinois, Central Florida, and Louisville each lost just one game, but easy schedules make that accomplishment less impressive. Among two-loss teams, Stanford had the most difficult schedule and was the only to win its conference: South Carolina, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Clemson were good teams, but don’t have elite resumes. The two teams that could make the best case would be Oregon and Ohio State, but both teams can’t make credible arguments after losing their conference to another team in consideration.1 Which team you would pick out of those four would say more about the voter than the team in question. But before we go through the criteria, first, the final college football SRS ratings.

RkTeamConfConf RkGMOVSOSSRSREC
1Florida StACC11332.733.966.613-0
2BaylorB1211224.336.160.411-1
3AlabamaSEC11222.537.359.811-1
4OregonP1211219.738.758.410-2
5StanfordP1221312.844.457.311-2
6Arizona StP1231311.845.357.110-3
7Oklahoma StB1221217.537.655.110-2
8Ohio StateB1011320.434.655.112-1
9AuburnSEC21314.74054.712-1
10MissouriSEC31315.139.454.511-2
11WisconsinB1021217.236.353.69-3
12UCLAP1241211.241.652.89-3
13WashingtonP1251211.141.452.58-4
14ClemsonACC21215.336.852.110-2
15South CarolinaSEC4121240.252.110-2
16LSUSEC51212.738.851.59-3
17Michigan StB1031314.9355012-1
18Texas A&MSEC6129.839.549.38-4
19GeorgiaSEC7126.941.848.78-4
20Southern CalP126136.242.248.49-4
21OklahomaB123129.738.34810-2
22ArizonaP127126.840.947.77-5
23Brigham YoungIND1129.537.647.18-4
24Kansas StB124127.838.546.27-5
25LouisvilleAAC11219.22746.111-1
26Notre DameIND2124.740.745.38-4
27IowaB104126.937.844.78-4
28TexasB125124.839.744.58-4
29UtahP12812-0.144.344.25-7
30Oregon StP129122.441.7446-6
31MichiganB10512637.9447-5
32Georgia TechACC3129.134.843.97-5
33MississippiSEC8124.338.943.27-5
34Bowling GreenMAC11317.225.943.110-3
35Utah StMWC11311.831.142.88-5
36Boise StMWC21212.430.342.88-4
37Virginia TechACC4124.937.642.68-4
38Central FloridaAAC21212.529.742.211-1
39Miami FLACC5127.734.442.19-3
40North CarolinaACC6124.837.1426-6
41Northern IllinoisMAC21315.726.241.912-1
42Washington StP121012-142.841.86-6
43Fresno StMWC3121427.741.611-1
44DukeACC7136.834.641.410-3
45HoustonAAC31210.530.741.28-4
46Mississippi StSEC912-0.141.241.16-6
47TCUB12612-0.84140.34-8
48MinnesotaB106123.73639.78-4
49East CarolinaCUSA11213.52639.59-3
50NebraskaB107124.534.739.28-4
51Texas TechB12712336.239.27-5
52MarshallCUSA21316.422.839.19-4
53FloridaSEC1012-3.342.238.94-8
54VanderbiltSEC11124.53438.58-4
55IndianaB10812-1.339.638.35-7
56Penn StateB109122.135.837.97-5
57PittsburghACC812-0.838.737.96-6
58Ball StMAC31214.323.537.810-2
59Boston CollegeACC912136.737.77-5
60CincinnatiAAC41211.425.937.29-3
61NavyIND3115.531.336.87-4
62North TexasCUSA31211.525.136.68-4
63NorthwesternB101012-1.53836.55-7
64TennesseeSEC1212-4.840.936.15-7
65ToledoMAC4123.832.336.17-5
66BuffaloMAC5128.427.535.88-4
67MarylandACC1012233.635.77-5
68RiceCUSA4138.42735.410-3
69Colorado StMWC4135.528.834.37-6
70SyracuseACC1112-2.335.833.56-6
71West VirginiaB12812-6.538.5324-8
72IllinoisB101112-637.931.94-8
73San José StMWC512-2.133.431.36-6
74Wake ForestACC1212-3.634.831.24-8
75Iowa StB12912-9.340.431.13-9
76ArkansasSEC1312-939.730.63-9
77ColoradoP121112-1141.430.44-8
78Florida AtlanticCUSA512327.230.26-6
79UNLVMWC6120.229.930.17-5
80Texas-San AntonioCUSA612-0.330.4307-5
81Louisiana-LafayetteSUN112722.829.88-4
82NevadaMWC712-6.235.729.54-8
83San Diego StMWC812-3.232.429.27-5
84Middle Tennessee StCUSA7123.725.429.18-4
85Western KentuckySUN2125.523.5298-4
86TulaneCUSA8123.225.728.97-5
87South AlabamaSUN3123.725.128.86-6
88North Carolina StACC1312-8.336.428.13-9
89KentuckySEC1412-10.738.427.72-10
90Arkansas StSUN4122.424.927.37-5
91RutgersAAC512-1.828.8276-6
92SMUAAC612-632.826.95-7
93VirginiaACC1412-13.139.926.92-10
94MemphisAAC712-5.63226.43-9
95Ohio U.MAC6121.524.826.27-5
96TempleAAC812-5.330.725.42-10
97Kent StMAC712-5.430.825.44-8
98CaliforniaP121212-20.745.224.61-11
99KansasB121012-14.738.7243-9
100ConnecticutAAC912-9.833.423.53-9
101Hawai`iMWC912-10.834.223.51-11
102AkronMAC812-7.730.622.95-7
103WyomingMWC1012-4.526.822.45-7
104TroySUN512-2.324.622.36-6
105Central MichiganMAC912-4.126.1226-6
106South FloridaAAC1012-13.83521.22-10
107Louisiana-MonroeSUN612-5.626.721.16-6
108TulsaCUSA912-12.332.820.53-9
109PurdueB101212-20.140.320.21-11
110ArmyIND411-5.625.720.13-8
111New MexicoMWC1112-10.12918.93-9
112Texas St-San MarcosSUN712-2.72118.46-6
113Air ForceMWC1212-13.729.615.82-10
114Louisiana TechCUSA1012-6.321.815.54-8
115Alabama-BirminghamCUSA1112-14.428.4142-10
116Western MichiganMAC1012-15.829.613.81-11
117MassachusettsMAC1112-19.231.512.21-11
118UTEPCUSA1212-14.726.111.42-10
119Georgia StSUN812-17.528.611.10-12
120IdahoIND512-23.633.29.71-11
121New Mexico StIND612-19.929.59.62-10
122Southern MissCUSA1312-20.628.47.81-11
123Miami OHMAC1212-22.430.17.70-12
124Eastern MichiganMAC1312-22.228.86.72-10
125Florida Int'lCUSA1412-22.727.85.11-11

Let’s go through some of the criteria the committee might use to pick the two teams to join Florida State and Auburn in a four-team playoffs.

Team Quality (SRS Rating)

With “resume” being the buzz word this time of year, it’s often easy to overlook something pretty important: which are the best teams? Of course, you can’t take this to the extreme (Auburn ranks 9th in the SRS) but one could argue that it is a very useful tiebreaker.

In that case, Baylor and Alabama would be the two picks, with Stanford a close third and Michigan State a very distant fourth. Why does the SRS “hate” Michigan State? The Spartans finished 14th in (adjusted) margin of victory and just 56th in strength of schedule. Those numbers simply don’t hold up compared to the rest of the sextet:

SRS RkTeamMOV RkSOS Rk
1Florida St166
2Baylor251
3Alabama344
5Stanford193
9Auburn1521
17Michigan St1456

The Spartans beat Western Michigan, Purdue, and South Florida by a total of 42 points; all three of those teams ranked outside of the top 100. Those ratings really drop Michigan State’s rating, and the amount of weight to put on those games is something a committee will have to consider (and I’m not sure there’s a right answer to that question).

Strength of Schedule

Many of the criteria are correlated with other factors, and that’s obviously the case here. Strength of Schedule is half of the formula in the Simple Rating System, but if you’re looking at resume, you arguably want to put much more weight on the SOS component. This is where Stanford gets the big bump: the Cardinal had the third toughest schedule in college football, and easily the toughest of this quartet. Alabama comes in second, with Baylor and Michigan State far behind.

What if we look at how each team did against the Top 5 SRS teams? Or the top 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, or 40?

TeamTop 5Top 10Top 15Top 20Top 25Top 30Top 40
Stanford1-03-05-05-15-17-27-2
Alabama0-00-10-12-12-12-14-1
Baylor0-00-10-10-12-13-13-1
Michigan St0-01-01-01-01-02-13-1

It is here that the Stanford argument begins to take shape: going 5-0 against the SRS top 15 is incredible (Oregon, Arizona State twice, UCLA, and Washington), especially considering the other three teams posted have a combined 1-2 record in that situation (with Michigan State’s win over Ohio State being the biggest head on the wall).

Conference Champion

This will be a factor for the selection committee, and it only complicates the analysis here. Stanford, MSU, and Baylor won their conferences, while Alabama did not even win its division. We left off Ohio State and Oregon for this very reason, so why not do the same to Alabama? Presumably because of the Crimson Tide’s SRS rating, although the fact that Alabama is the two-time defending champion is obviously a factor here, too. Or maybe…

Best Loss

Another factor in Alabama’s favor: the Crimson Tide have the best loss, by far, among this group. In fact, Alabama probably has the best loss of the year: a loss to the #2 team, on the road, on the game’s final second is pretty easy to stomach.

You have to use Stanford’s worst loss for this analysis, so Michigan State would have the next best loss. The Spartans lost by 4, on the road, to a Notre Dame team that ranks 26th in the SRS. The fact that the loss included some questionable calls also tilts things in MSU’s favor.

Picking between Stanford and Oklahoma State for the worst loss of the group is a matter of preference: Baylor got destroyed by a very good team, while Stanford lost to a Utah team that no one respects (the Utes, despite being 5-7, do rank 29th in the SRS thanks to the country’s fourth-toughest strength of schedule).

Record

Like the “Conference Championship” qualifier, this one is pretty simple but not that helpful. Alabama, Michigan State, and Baylor all lost just one game (although MSU does have the best record at 12-1), while Stanford lost two. Of course, the reason the Cardinal are even included is because of the tough schedule Stanford faced, owing to the fact that they played in the toughest conference in the country.

Strength of Conference

ConfTmsMOVSOSSRS
P12124.142.546.6
SEC145.339.444.8
B12103.638.542.1
B10123.93740.9
ACC14436.140.1
AAC101.130.631.7
MWC12-0.630.730.2
MAC13-2.828.325.5
CUSA14-2.326.824.5
SUN8-1.224.723.5

I know, I know, ESS EE SEE fans, but the numbers say the Pac-12 was the toughest conference in college football. There were only two head-to-head matchups between teams from the SEC and Pac-12: in one, Oregon crushed Tennessee, the #12 team in the SEC (although it’s worth noting that no other team, including Alabama and Auburn, beat Tennessee by as much as Oregon did). In the other, Washington State — the 10th best team in the Pac-12 — lost by 7 on the road to Auburn. So I don’t think the SEC wants to look at head-to-head instead of the computer ratings.

To be fair to Alabama, the SEC West was the toughest division in college football, as the West teams had an average SRS rating of 47.2 compared to 42.4 for the East. The Pac-12 was much more evenly distributed, with the South (46.8) coming in just a hair ahead of the North (46.4)

Michigan State plays in the Legends division — which was actually the better division this year (42.3, compared to 39.5 for the Leaders) — but the top two teams in the conference (Ohio State and Wisconsin) were in the Leaders division, and MSU avoided both of them in the regular season.

Conclusion

Michigan State finished the season strong, but come up a tier behind the other three teams in this analysis. True, MSU has one argument over each of the three three contenders — fewer losses than Stanford, more conference championships than Alabama, a better worst loss than Baylor — but that’s only enough to be in the conversation. The Spartans have the worst SRS rating, on the back of the weakest strength of schedule, courtesy of playing in the weakest conference. Against that schedule, the Spartans needed to dominate, and they did not. The loss to Notre Dame would have been excusable had Michigan State dominated the rest of the conference the way the Seminoles laid waste to the ACC.

But picking the two most deserving out of Alabama, Baylor, and Stanford is an exercise in hair splitting. There’s only one reason to leave out Alabama, but it’s a pretty big one: they didn’t win their conference (or division), and why have a final four of two SEC teams when that wasn’t even the toughest conference?

You could leave out Baylor because of the Bears’ weak schedule, or because its one loss was a disaster, or because it played in the weakest conference of the three. But Baylor also ranked ahead of Bama and Stanford in the SRS.

For my money, I’d choose Stanford and Alabama. I’m less concerned with two losses than I am with recognizing the champion of the best conference in football. We should expect the best team from the best conference to emerge with a couple of blemishes. In most years, I’d pick Baylor over Alabama, but the disparity in the loss for each team makes me pick Alabama. The Bears looked overmatched against the best team they faced, while the Tide went toe-to-toe with the 2nd best team in the country on the road, and lost on the final second of the game.

  1. I will leave the argument as to whether head-to-head is the best tiebreaker, particularly between Ohio State and Michigan State, for another day. []
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