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:
- 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?
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]