Monday, November 2, 2015

What to Expect From the Playoff Committee

By Joe Messineo

We are 10 weeks into the 2015 college football season, just the second ever that will culminate in a four-team playoff to decide the national champion. The playoff committee will be releasing its first ranking of the year the first of November, finally giving schools and fans a general idea of this morass that is the top of the standings.

Last year, the first ever for the playoff committee voting, things were straightforward. It was a much simpler time. Entering week 10, only two (relevant) undefeated teams remained in the country, Mississippi State and Florida State. Marshall was also undefeated at the time, but didn't warrant top 15 consideration, let alone top four.

By Week 13, Mississippi State had lost and by the end of the regular season, only six teams were even in the discussion for the College Football Playoff. TCU and Baylor ended up getting left out, so the final group of four was made up of three teams at 12-1 and FSU at 13-0.

This year, the committee surely thinks back fondly on 2014; things were easier back then.

With just one game still to play before the rankings are released, 12 schools remain undefeated, eight of which are members of Power 5 conferences. What is a committee to do??

These rankings aren't set in stone by any means, especially with so many games still left to play. However, the first set forms the basis for how the remaining iterations will be shaped. From last year, we already know the committee values conference championships very highly. That isn't yet a factor here, though. How do they feel about "bad" wins? Is screeching by a very weak opponent (think Notre Dame over Virginia) actually better than losing to one of the best teams in the country (think Notre Dame against Clemson)? How will the committee feel about teams with weak out-of-conference schedules like Baylor? Will they also mark teams like Baylor down for injuries? Bears quarterback Seth Russell is out for the rest of the season, clearly making the team worse. But they have yet to play a contest without him and may not show any negative effects this week against a weaker opponent.

And then there are the Power-5 disrupters, the undefeated teams still remaining outside of the main conferences. What does the committee do with Memphis, Temple, Toledo and Houston? Some of them have quality wins on their resume, but the general conference schedule they've had to traverse to this point doesn't stand up to the rigors of a schedule out of the Pac-12 or Big 10, etc.

If that batch of schools isn't slotted somewhere near the top 10, we will know they don't have a chance of making the playoff at the end of the year. There will simply be too many schools to pass and not enough resume-building opportunities to do it. As a Utah or Florida State loses, an Oklahoma or Ole Miss creeps back up. Teams from the American or MAC are not the direct beneficiaries.

As it stands, according to the latest AP poll, 14 teams are superior to the best of this bunch, Memphis. That group includes Utah despite its latest loss. It also includes five other schools already with one loss even though it could be argued that Memphis' win over Ole Miss in October was a better single victory than some of these schools have.

Here are the teams in play for being placed in the top four when the first ranking is released: Clemson (7-0), LSU (7-0) and Baylor (7-0) are comfortably the top three; then come TCU (7-0), Michigan State (8-0), and Ohio State (8-0) in some order.

Clemson is ranked third in the AP. It is the number one team in the country according to ESPN's FPI efficiency rankings. The Tigers have dominant wins over good teams as well as a top-10 win over Notre Dame. (The Irish are ninth according to FPI.)

LSU is fourth according to the AP. These Tigers have already banked three wins over ranked schools though. And even though their win at then-No. 25 Auburn looks worthless now, the FPI still ranks Auburn 31st.

Baylor is second in the polls. If the committee doesn't hold it against the Bears that their quarterback is not coming back (like NCAA basketball voters who famously take injuries into account when seeding for March Madness), this team should easily be among the top four. Baylor doesn't have a signature win yet, but it has been the most dominant team thus far this season, never winning by fewer than 18 points in any contest.

There is a legitimate gap between the three previously listed squads and the three remaining. It will be close as to who gets the final spot.

The TCU Horned Frogs have a poor defense but an elite offense. TCU has one quality victory, over Texas Tech, but it came down to the final possession to get it. It has another incredible win, that being over Texas, though the Longhorns weren't a credible opponent at the time.

Michigan State is 8-0, but will be hard-pressed to crack the top four. It has two good wins that look worse when examining them. Oregon was seventh when MSU beat it, but the Ducks are hardly even a top-30 school now. And the win over Michigan was as fluky as victories come. Besides that, the Spartans have struggled in nearly every other game, no matter the opponent.

Lastly is Ohio State. According to FPI, the best team Ohio State has played this season was Virginia Tech week one. The Buckeyes struggled in that one and struggled most weeks since. OSU is Michigan State without the good wins; it's Baylor without the domination. It started at number one, which is why the poll voters left it there, but it doesn't deserve to be number one when the committee votes.

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