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As I wrote on Sunday, the college football playoff looks pretty clear, absent any big upsets on Saturday.

One spot will go to Oklahoma, the 11-1 champions of the Big 12.  The Sooners have been an early favorite of the SRS: OU ranked 2nd in the first edition, produced after five weeks, and regained that #2 spot three weeks later, despite the loss to Texas in the interim.  The Sooners finished the regular season as the #1 team in the SRS.

Alabama, at 11-1, is the 2nd-ranked team in the SRS.  The Crimson Tide represent the establishment in college football, and that title is well-earned.  Alabama is great every year, and this season is no different.   A win against Florida in the SEC Championship Game seems predestined: the SRS makes ‘Bama a 13-point favorite, while the Vegas line is up to 17.5 points (likely because Florida is playing worse now than it was in the beginning of the year, with an eligible Will Grier).

The final two spots will go to (i) the winner of the Big 10 Championship Game between Michigan State and Iowa, and (ii) Clemson, if the Tigers defeat North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game.  That would make for a very boring selection show, except for just one thing: seeding.

I think most observers would say that the two best teams in college football are Oklahoma and Alabama.  That’s what the SRS says, what Vegas says, and ESPN’s FPI takes an even stronger view: Oklahoma is 1, Alabama is 2, Clemson is 6, Michigan State is 14, and Iowa is 26!  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you agree with the following:

  • Oklahoma and Alabama are the two best teams;
  • Clemson is a tier below those two teams;
  • The B10 Champion is (at least) a tier below Clemson

That will make for an interesting seeding decision for the committee.  Right now, the current standings are:

  1. Clemson
  2. Alabama
  3. Oklahoma
  4. Iowa
  5. Michigan State

If those standings hold, that would put Clemson against the B10 champion in the first round of the playoff. At this point, it would seem difficult for the committee to justify vaulting Alabama over Clemson: the Crimson Tide face Florida this week, ranked 18th by the committee, while Clemson faces #10 ranked UNC.  Absent a blowout by Alabama and a razor-thin win by Clemson, what justification would there be to put Alabama at #1?1

That would seem to put Alabama and Oklahoma on a collision course for a first-round matchup, which… well, I just have a feeling the committee is not inclined to do.2  I think in ESPN’s (and therefore, the playoffs’) perfect world, Alabama and Oklahoma face off with national title implications for the first time in their storied history.

So what could the committee do?  If Iowa wins, I think this is a no-brainer: they simply decide that Iowa’s 13-0 season is more impressive than Oklahoma’s 11-1 year, and the committee moves Iowa up from #4 to #3.  If Michigan State wins, it will be harder to make the case, but the committee could play up Michigan State’s one loss as marred by poor officiating, and note that wins over Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan, and Oregon trump Oklahoma’s wins over the Big 12 teams and Tennessee.  And that’s not an unreasonable position to take.  Either way, by sliding Oklahoma into the 4 spot, the committee keeps open an Alabama/Oklahoma national championship possibility.

On the other hand, there is something else to consider. If the Tigers are a deserving number one, shouldn’t they get the “weakest” of the four playoff teams in the first round?  But I just have a feeling that’s not going to happen.

What do you think?

  1. Using the methodology described here, a team would have to have an SRS rating of 69.0 to go 13-0 against Clemson’s schedule 50% of the time; that’s because going 3-0 against Notre Dame, Florida State, and UNC is really, really hard (those teams rank 6-7-8 in the SRS).  Meanwhile, a team would “only” need to have an SRS of 62.5 to have a 50% chance of going 12-1 against Alabama’s schedule, mostly because of a lack of top-end games.  The toughest game on Alabama’s schedule was a road game against Mississippi State. Start including margin of victory, and then maybe the Tide can make a case.  But otherwise, an undefeated Clemson deserves to be #1. []
  2. There is another thing to consider for this year. Given the fact that ratings are already in jeopardy given the New Year’s Eve date, maybe the committee goes for broke and schedules Alabama/Oklahoma for the 8PM slot? Would that be enough to get viewers to tune in?  Or is that too risky: would ESPN risk having few people tune in for say, Iowa/Clemson, and then people with NYE plans skipping out on the matchup between the two bluebloods?  But an Iowa/Clemson 8PM game has almost no chance of getting any ratings on New Year’s Eve. []
  • These types of discussions are fascinating and I am often surprised how little feedback you get on this site of college football coverage (I look forward to all the SRS posts and discussions each week and finally got un-lazy enough to start adding in comments so you feel like at least someone reads these!)

    I have a feeling they will arrange things in a manner which you suggest, i.e. Sooners and Tide won’t face off until the championship game, if both win in the opening round. I believe you referred to this phenomenon as “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” last year when the Buckeyes jumped into the playoffs over Baylor and TCU (I forget the precise final standings before the selection) after their B1G Championship win.

    What is more interesting to me is if they will be forced to make even harder decisions if Clemson were to lose, how would that be handled? Is the committee forced to put their money where their mouth is and select UNC or do they reach out to Stanford? Or do they do the unthinkable and select the Buckeyes (again) at which point all heck breaks loose.

    The NYE scheduling is an interesting angle and I also agree Clemson/Iowa would be a weak draw. The CFP seems to think they will change the way viewers behave on NYE but I am not so sure its going to work that way. I think the games are scheduled for NYE again next year also with only 1 out of the 3 year rotation happening on NY Day.

    • Heh, thanks, John. I know some of my readers are not college football fans, so I do appreciate any comments I get on these. The point of having your own site is to write about whatever you want to write about, so the CFB stuff isn’t going anywhere 🙂

      If Clemson loses, the committee will have an interesting choice to make for sure. But if there’s one thing we learned last year, it’s “Break all ties in favor of Ohio State.” So, yeah, I think the Buckeyes get in. Reasoning will be “Ohio State is defending national champions, they had a harder schedule than UNC, the South Carolina loss was unforgivable, Ohio State lost on the final play of the game, etc.” As for Stanford, it will be “Stanford lost to a B10 team, and not even a good one! Ohio State has 1 loss, so they get in over Stanford. Oh, and Michigan State beat Oregon which beat Stanford, so go Buckeyes.”

      The NYE scheduling angle *is* very interesting. To me, Clemson/Iowa is a nonstarter as the 8PM game. I do think Alabama/OU might be interesting, but it’s really risky. The safe play is something like Oklahoma/Clemson at 4, Alabama/B10 at 8.

  • Trepur

    By F/+ Clemson is ranked ahead of Oklahoma, and by DOD Clemson is ranked #1 and Oklahoma is ranked #6. Though neither of those stats have been updated for last weeks games.

    The point here is though that I’d argue Clemson has been more impressive this year then Oklahoma, and the playoff selectors seem to agree with me.

  • Richie

    I don’t pay much attention to college football. However, I always root for chaos in this because I still think an 8-team playoff is the way to go. It seems like there are usually more than 4 teams with a claim for the championship. Plus, I think it is just “better” if the Big 12, Big 10, Pac 12, SEC and ACC champs all get automatic berths in the playoffs, plus 3 wildcards.

    With conference championship game, it almost means we really have a 13-team playoff.

    • Trepur

      Though with more playoff teams the less likely the best team wins the playoffs, since more luck is required to win three straight games then two straight games.

      I also kinda like the fact that winning a conference championship isn’t enough to guarantee you a playoff spot. There are things I would change in college football, but I’m ok with the 4-team playoff.

      • JeremyDeShetler

        Good point about the ‘best team less likely to win the playoffs’, but a counter to that is that with 8 teams, the best team is less likely to be excluded.

        I went looking for a monte carlo simulation of different systems and of course, it’s in the archives here. 2 years ago. http://www.footballperspective.com/a-monte-carlo-based-comparison-of-college-football-playoff-systems/ I really should check the archives first before I search the web. To your point, it doesn’t seem to matter much as the best team won the title about the same % of the time.

        • Trepur

          Interesting, I’d like to see another Monte Carlo simulation done a few years from now when we know more about how the CFP Selectors chose their rankings, rather then running it based on patterns from the AP rankings.

          But it does look like the 10-team playoff would be best according to that.

          Personally the best system, which I know would be an unpopular one since it makes conferences less important (Most college fans love their conference rivalry matches), would be to do a swiss system:
          You always play a team with an identical record to your own (eg. if you’re 1-1, you face someone who is 1-1, if you’re 3-2 you face someone who is 3-2, etc. Your opponent will be a conference rival if possible, if not then opponent that would require the least amount of travel that you have not yet played).

          After 7 weeks there can only be 1 undefeated team (if any), so by the end you do know the best teams in the country will be the ones with the best records, since the stronger your record is, the tougher your following match is.

          The final week of matches is guaranteed to be 1 vs 2, 3 vs 4, 5 vs 6 etc. which lines up relatively nicely with the traditional bowl system, except it will be done based on rank not based on conference.

          • Richie

            I’ve never heard of this Swiss system. Is this how the whole schedule is designed?

            So, in week 1 of the regular season, everybody is 0-0. You will be matched up with a random conference opponent who is also 0-0? If you lose, then for week 2 you are matched up against somebody else who is 0-1? You continue to do that for 10 weeks?

            • Trepur

              12 weeks, but yeah. That’s the system.

              It’s the system used in chess tournaments when the number of entrants is too large for a double round robin to be feasible as it’s the best system for determining who is the best without simply having everyone play everyone.

              By making tougher teams face tougher teams, you need fewer games to determine which team is best and it also has the advantage of (in theory) making fewer games end in blow outs, as in theory since you’ll almost always be playing someone of a similar skill level as your own they’ll be less one-sided games.

              For sports like Hockey and Basketball, teams play enough games that this system wouldn’t really be needed. But for Football when you have only a few games to decide a best team, a Swiss system would be the one that would most fairly produce the best team as the winner.

              Though I understand why it’s not a popular opinion, as a Michigan fan, all fellow Michigan fans who I’ve talked too about this system have responded along the lines of “So you mean we might not play Ohio State this year if this system was introduced”. Rivalries are too special to sports fans.

              Meanwhile as someone who is obsessed with sports analytics, I’d rather a league designed around more fairly determining the leagues best team over a league designed around rivalries.

              • That’s pretty interesting. I have never heard of the Swiss system, either. I wonder how it would work for a team like the Chiefs, that started 1-5. It would probably take a long time (too long?) for them to ever catch up. What do you think?

                • Trepur

                  @disqus_4XQJjmzSCE:disqus
                  In theory it should be 1st vs worst 2nd vs 2nd worst from last year, to increase the likelihood of all good teams starting 1-0.

                  @Chase_Stuart:disqus
                  Well in some respects it would be easier for them, since they’d start their comeback against weaker teams (and maybe never get to 1-5 since at 1-4 they’d be facing someone like the 49ers rather then the Vikings in week 6).

                  I would be interested in a Monte Carlo simulation of a swiss tournament for either the NFL or college football and see how much better (if it actually is) at getting the best team to win the title.

              • Richie

                So how do the first week matchups get set? Is it just random, or is there some kind of algorithm?

                • JeremyDeShetler

                  @disqus_4XQJjmzSCE:disqus Random…or at least in the swiss tournaments I’ve played in or watched, it’s always been random. If you wanted to, you could assign teams for the opening round, but after that it is somewhat in the hands of whatever results you are given.

                  @Chase:disqus It’s not as long as you would think for the Chiefs although looking at their schedule, 5 of the first 6 games could have been identical in a Swiss system. Only the Week 4 games against the 3-0 Bengals wouldn’t have happened. In a more typical situation, a team like that would have had 2 advantages. 1) they would be repeatedly matched up with bad teams until they stated improving their record (although they did lose to the 1-4 Bears), and 2) when you start winning in a swiss, you have a number of teams right above you that are coming back towards you each week. If you are 1-4 and win (in an NFL scenario), chances are you have 8-to-10 teams that are 2-3 and half of them will be tied with you the following week. It’s not like a regular schedule where, using this season for example, even if the Steelers play lights out the rest of the way, the Bengals have the Browns and 49ers in 2 of the next 3 weeks. With a 3 game lead and that schedule, a mediocre performance by Cincy probably means Pitt has no chance no matter what they do.

                  @disqus_3eegaXy9We:disqus
                  I enjoy swiss formats, and their numerous variations, but it’s more of a tournament concept than a league/season concept. I’ve played in backgammon, 8-ball, and 9-ball swiss tournaments, and seen them used for chess, darts, card games, boards games, and video game tourneys. I would imagine logistics would make it a non-starter for using it for any large team sport. You wouldn’t know where you were playing past Week 1, and I imagine the transportation and accommodations alone would be a nightmare. Plus there’s the fact that conferences and rivalries would be unessential.

                  There are a number of variations you can find on the web & on the wikipedia page. My favorite I’ve seen (haven’t played in yet) is the Indiana Open Backgammon tournament. Players play up to 8-matches. Opening round draw is random. After that, players of ‘similar’ record are matched and it uses the dutch variation, where rematches are avoided if possible. Players are eliminated after their 4th loss, and after 8 rounds, all remaining players advance to a seeded playoff.

                • JeremyDeShetler

                  @Richie
                  Random…or at least in the swiss tournaments I’ve played in or watched, it’s always been random. If you wanted to, you could assign teams for the opening round, but after that it is somewhat in the hands of whatever results you are given.

                  @Chase
                  It’s not as long as you would think for the Chiefs although looking at their schedule, 5 of the first 6 games could have been identical in a Swiss system. Only the Week 4 games against the 3-0 Bengals wouldn’t have happened. In a more typical situation, a team like that would have had 2 advantages. 1) they would be repeatedly matched up with bad teams until they stated improving their record (although they did lose to the 1-4 Bears), and 2) when you start winning in a swiss, you have a number of teams right above you that are coming back towards you each week. If you are 1-4 and win (in an NFL scenario), chances are you have 8-to-10 teams that are 2-3 and half of them will be tied with you the following week. It’s not like a regular schedule where, using this season for example, even if the Steelers play lights out the rest of the way, the Bengals have the Browns and 49ers in 2 of the next 3 weeks. With a 3 game lead and that schedule, a mediocre performance by Cincy probably means Pitt has no chance no matter what they do.

                  @Trepur
                  I enjoy swiss formats, and their numerous variations, but it’s more of a tournament concept than a league/season concept. I’ve played in backgammon, 8-ball, and 9-ball swiss tournaments, and seen them used for chess, darts, card games, boards games, and video game tourneys. I would imagine logistics would make it a non-starter for using it for any large team sport. You wouldn’t know where you were playing past Week 1, and I imagine the transportation and accommodations alone would be a nightmare. Plus there’s the fact that conferences and rivalries would be unessential.

                  There are a number of variations you can find on the web & on the wikipedia page. My favorite I’ve seen (haven’t played in yet) is the Indiana Open Backgammon tournament. Players play up to 8-matches. Opening round draw is random. After that, players of ‘similar’ record are matched and it uses the dutch variation, where rematches are avoided if possible. Players are eliminated after their 4th loss, and after 8 rounds, all remaining players advance to a seeded playoff.

                  • JeremyDeShetler

                    Now that I think about it…a 12-week, FBS Swiss, no conferences, no FCS games, paired/random assignment, limited rematches, teams getting eliminated on their 6th loss, culminating in a playoff of all the surviving teams after 12 weeks….would be awesome.

                    Or maybe I’m crazy. I imagine most fans of a particular school/conference would say, crazy. I like the idea though.

                    • Trepur

                      “Random…or at least in the swiss tournaments I’ve played in or watched, it’s always been random. If you wanted to, you could assign teams for the opening round, but after that it is somewhat in the hands of whatever results you are given.”

                      The only swiss tournament I played in, it was (pre-tourney rankings) 1st vs worst, 2nd vs 2nd worst for the first round, just so that the best players would be more likely to win their first match. I just assumed that’s how all swiss tournaments were done.

                      “I enjoy swiss formats, and their numerous variations, but it’s more of a tournament concept than a league/season concept.”
                      What’s the differnence between a tournament and a sports season beyond time scale?

                      “I would imagine logistics would make it a non-starter for using it for any large team sport. You wouldn’t know where you were playing past Week 1, and I imagine the transportation and accommodations alone would be a nightmare.”

                      Yeah, that’s the biggest downside for a large team sport. The short notice of who you’re playing next week. The go-around that I normally suggest is that the home team must pay for the visiting teams accommodations (and each team has random weeks slated at the start of the season for a home or visitor assignment), that way you can book hotel accommodations at the start of the season and the team bus just needs to know where to travel (which can be decided last minute).

                      “There are a number of variations you can find on the web & on the wikipedia page. My favorite I’ve seen (haven’t played in yet) is the Indiana Open Backgammon tournament. ”
                      I prefer the Danish variant, which allows you to play the same opponent a second time (revenge match games for the win!) but I’d rather not have people eliminated, especially in a season/tournament for a spectator sport, as you want each team to play as many games as possible.

                      “Plus there’s the fact that conferences and rivalries would be unessential.”

                      Yeah, that’s what the (sane) fans that I’ve pitched this idea too have complained about. I’d rather a swiss system then rivalry games (where rivalry’s would then pop up based on how good schools are rather then based on geography).

                      And I’m not big on knock-out tournaments to end the season. They’re too luck based. One thing I like about soccer (I hate soccer it’s boring to watch) is that the EPL is a double-round robin and the team with the most wins gets the league title. It’s the most simply and most fair system in all of sports.

                    • Richie

                      Now you guys are just making stuff up!!

                      “Dutch variant “…” Danish variant “…

                      Lol

                    • Trepur

                      Blame chess nerds and their decision to name tournament formats based on country of origin. lol

                    • JeremyDeShetler

                      Re: random vs pre-tourney rankings, it’s at the discretion of the tournament director. After reminiscing with some backgammon friends, I was reminded that I’ve been in tourneys where the director grouped people; so for that tourney specifically, the top 10-12 played the bottom 10-12, next group of 10-12 played the next to the bottom 10-12…and so on. Most other tournaments I’ve been in for billiards and backgammon though have all been drawn out of a hat, sometimes literally.

                      Re: tournament vs a season. You’re right, time is the only difference. I’ve only seen swiss used as a tournament/short format to attempt to imitate a longer season/format where it was used in place of a knock-out. That one is on my limited thinking because you’re absolutely correct, there’s absolutely no reason you can’t use a swiss for a short season with a large number of participants like the FBS.

                      Re: Logistics. I thought of the pre-set home/visiting idea, but you could easily run into problems with say, after 3 weeks, 13 of 16 designated ‘home’ teams being all 3-0. It’s an extreme example and could be worked around to limit disruption but there could still be a number of headaches.

                      Re: Danish vs Dutch. I’m fine with Danish if it’s a pure swiss with no playoff. In a spectator sport, Danish would be fine, but if there were a playoff tacked on to the end, I’d prefer Dutch for the same reason the tournament I mentioned does Dutch. It matches up the players with a wider variety of opponents. In that tourney, it didn’t allow rematches in the swiss portion, but rematches in the playoffs were allowed.

                      Re: Double round robin. As a soccer fan, I wish MLS would switch to a double round robin. Even if it tacked on a small tourney at the end, maybe 4 teams, I’d be fine with it. But the current format is…not good.

                    • Trepur

                      “Re: Logistics. I thought of the pre-set home/visiting idea, but you could easily run into problems with say, after 3 weeks, 13 of 16 designated ‘home’ teams being all 3-0. It’s an extreme example and could be worked around to limit disruption but there could still be a number of headaches.”

                      Yeah that’s true, I haven’t put too much thought into this, it’s just a over idealistic view on how to run FBS.

                      “Re: Danish vs Dutch. I’m fine with Danish if it’s a pure swiss with no playoff. In a spectator sport, Danish would be fine, but if there were a playoff tacked on to the end, I’d prefer Dutch for the same reason the tournament I mentioned does Dutch. It matches up the players with a wider variety of opponents. In that tourney, it didn’t allow rematches in the swiss portion, but rematches in the playoffs were allowed.”
                      I agree with this with one caveat, Danish and then a (traditional) national championship game between the top 2 teams for the title.

                      That way the national champion can’t be crowned in like week 10.

                      “Re: Double round robin. As a soccer fan, I wish MLS would switch to a double round robin. Even if it tacked on a small tourney at the end, maybe 4 teams, I’d be fine with it. But the current format is…not good.”
                      I don’t like soccer so I don’t watch it, but I agree. Double Round robin (for a league in which its feasible to do, which the MLS certainly is) is always preferable to pretty much anything else.

                      Football obviously can’t do it because too few games in a season.

  • I so rarely get things right, I wanted to pat myself on the back here.