Last year, the CFP selection committee gave us their highly-subjective and never-quite-explained “game control” way of deciding how to rank teams. We have no idea if or how that will continue this year. Also, we don’t know exactly what it means. Sometimes, game control just seemed to be a way to say “margin of victory” without actually using the phrase. At other times, it felt like it meant actual control of the game, even if the final score ended up closer than the way the game was played.
This year, we will have an excellent test as to how the committee will rank teams and use its “game control” metric. The team to look at, when the rankings debut in two weeks, will be Michigan State. The Spartans have beaten every team that has come up to face them and really haven’t been threatened in too many of the games. Sure, Purdue was too close for comfort. But the Spartans led the entire game and the Boilermakers were never across midfield with a chance to take the lead. They did not play well against Rutgers, but the Spartans still led for most of the second half.
The only two games in which Michigan State’s win probability was ever significantly below 50% were against Oregon and this most recent game against Michigan. Now, Oregon is far from who we expected them to be, but they are still a decent team and should be a nonconference bowl win. Sure, Michigan State didn’t blow anyone out. But their other games were not particularly close.
The point of this is not to defend the Spartans or talk them up. The point is that, by an honest “game control” measure, the Spartans are not as bad as some pundits and polls would want you to believe. On the other hand, if “game control” really just means looking at margin of victory, then Michigan State is in a lot of trouble. Michigan State still has a lot of improving to do if they want to beat Ohio State or be serious contenders for the national championship. But their position is not as precarious as many think.
Of course, all of this probably isn’t relevant anyway. If Michigan State wins out, they are a lock for the Playoff. If the Spartans lose a game, they probably won’t be able to win the Big Ten anyway (unless they somehow lose to Penn State but beat Ohio State). There was talk in the preseason of the potential for both Ohio State and Michigan State to make the Playoff. But with Oregon’s lack of success this season, the Spartans probably don’t have the resume to get into the Playoff as the Big Ten’s second team. If we see real chaos around the country in the next few weeks, we can revisit this situation. But for now, Michigan State’s underwhelming season has probably made it undefeated or bust for the Spartans as far as the Playoff is concerned.
Week 7 CFP Implications: Teams Still in Playoff Contention
To this point, we have been slowly eliminating teams that lost their chance at the Playoff for this year. Now, though, it’s a lot easier to list those remaining in contention than those out of it. It’s seven weeks into the season and we’re already down to just 33 remaining contenders, after eliminating Syracuse, Kentucky, Arizona State, USC, and Washington . And, if we’re being honest with ourselves, Toledo never really have a chance anyway.
AAC: Houston, Memphis, Temple
ACC: Florida State, Clemson, Duke, Pitt, North Carolina
Big Ten: Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin
Big XII: TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State
Mountain West: None
Pac 12: Utah, Stanford, California, UCLA, Arizona
SEC: Florida, LSU, Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Auburn
Sun Belt: None
Independents: Notre Dame
It is still too early to really get an idea of the conference pecking order in terms of preference for the Playoff. We can see who gets talked up more and who gets more air time on the mainstream networks, but that doesn’t quite indicate who the best teams are.
Let’s take the ACC to start. Conventional wisdom right now is that it’s either Florida State or Clemson or bust for the conference. And that either of those teams has to be undefeated to really get into the Playoff. But there are plenty of 1-loss teams left, especially in the Coastal Division. North Carolina, Duke, and Pitt all have only one loss. All three of those losses were nonconference games against Power 5 teams. Sure, North Carolina’s loss to South Carolina wasn’t so great (and it was a game that the Tar Heels really should have won), but they also have a solid nonconference win against a likely bowl team from a power conference (Illinois). Duke’s loss to Northwestern is probably to a ranked team and Pitt’s only loss is on a last-second field goal to a team that is likely to end the regular season undefeated. All three of these are serious Playoff contenders if they can run the table. None of them will meet Florida State or Clemson in the regular season, which means a potential Top 10 win in ACC Championship Game. That 1-loss ACC champion might be behind most 1-loss SEC or Pac 12 champions in line, but they will definitely be on equal footing with a 1-loss champion from the other power conferences.
We did not eliminate Michigan with their loss to Michigan State. They only have two losses on the season, each to undefeated teams who are currently in the Top 10. Those aren’t bad losses in the slightest, and Utah is looking like a serious Playoff contender right now. If they win out, they could end the season with wins over 11-1 Ohio State, 12-1 Iowa, and up to two other ranked wins (Northwestern and BYU could both very well be Top 25 teams by season’s end). Michigan’s odds are slim right now, but it is definitely too early to count them out of it.
The Big XII is probably in the most precarious position of all of the power conferences, strange as that may seem. Baylor looks dominant so far, but the Bears have played one of the weakest schedules in the country so far. If Baylor loses one game but wins their conference, they could be in the exact same position as they were last year. Unless they have absolutely no choice, the committee will not want to reward playing such a bad nonconference schedule. It would completely discourage playing good nonconference games in the future. Any of the ACC teams mentioned above would have a better resume than an 11-1 Baylor team. If the Big XII wants in the Playoff, they better hope that their champion is one of TCU, Oklahoma State, or Oklahoma. Or Baylor needs to go undefeated. Because if Baylor drops a game again, the Big XII could be in trouble if they win the conference.
Last week, we discussed the chances of a team from the AAC making the playoff. Memphis beat Ole Miss in convincing fashion. Ole Miss already has a win over Alabama and every additional win they pick up in the SEC West just makes Memphis look better. If Temple beats Notre Dame in two weeks, we will seriously have to consider the winner of the AAC as a major contender for the Playoff.
There is still a ton of football to be played and 29 more teams to eliminate, starting with an elimination game between Texas A&M and Ole Miss this week. Let’s enjoy the ride on the way.
Main Photo Melanie Maxwell/The Ann Arbor News via Getty Images