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What the Selection Committee Taught Us: Week 9

We have our initial College Football Playoff selection committee rankings of 2015, and there are some apparent surprises right off the bat. If you had seen our Bubble Watch or read our most recent CFP Implications, you would know that we expected low rankings from both Baylor and TCU (and, to a lesser extent, Ohio State). Again, as we have mentioned several times (and as Rece Davis pointed out on the air), that shouldn’t matter too much right now. Baylor and TCU play incredibly back-loaded schedules. Their resumes might not stack up to others right now, but they will be pretty solid when the end of the year rolls around.

In fact, we expected Baylor to be ranked even lower than the #6 spot where they currently sit. By almost all metrics, Baylor’s strength of schedule is outside the Top 100 of FBS (out of 128 teams). That is, to put it nicely, not good. Baylor earned a high ranking by absolutely obliterating the teams on their schedule. Their offense looks unstoppable and they seem to finally have a strong defense in Waco. Sure, there is still the quarterback issue after Seth Russell’s injury, but that will be settled on the field eventually. If Baylor loses without their quarterback, the conversation is over. If Baylor continues to win in dominant fashion, it won’t matter that Russell isn’t playing. Jeff Long did not mention the injury as a reason why Baylor was #6. It’s probably not at all on the committee’s radar right now.

What the Selection Committee Taught Us: Week 9

When looking at the committee’s rankings, and where they put Baylor in particular, we have to wonder why exactly Baylor is #6. If the committee is willing to use the eye test to rank these teams, then Baylor has certainly passed the test. If the committee is only looking at a resume and who you have actually beaten, then Baylor probably shouldn’t be in the Top 10. So which is it?

The committee is showing us that this contradiction is inherent in how they are ranking teams. Really, though, it’s been inherent in how college football has been deciding its champion since 1998. The BCS was always a combination of human polls and computers. The human polls were made to eyeball the teams. That’s what they’ve always done; it’s what they will always do. The polls look at talent and “who looks best” and finds the top teams in the country. The computers judged the quality of a team’s season–who they’ve beaten and how strong those victories are.

It might be frustrating for us to see the committee use this contradiction, but that’s what we have and what we should get used to. Yes, SOS matters. You need to beat someone to earn your ranking. You need quality wins to get to the very top of the rankings. But you have to look strong doing it too. That is why Baylor is #6 with a horrible schedule while Michigan State, with their five wins over teams at .500 or better (a criteria which Long seemed to emphasize), is behind them at #7.

Jeff Long said this not-quite-explicitly in his teleconference. He said that even though Iowa has more quality wins than Baylor and TCU, Iowa was behind them because the Hawkeye offense is not as explosive as those two teams. Hopefully this was not a comment on style of football. Presumably, he meant that TCU and Baylor have “looked better.” And while contradictions like that frustrate fans who are looking for hard objective criteria when they see their team ranked, at the end of the day this is the nature of college football and this is what it will look like. Hopefully, with the committee cognizant of this fact, it will get better as the committee places more of an emphasis on strength of schedule.

There are a few other interesting choices by the committee that have to be discussed. First and foremost, Ohio State is #1 in the polls but debuted at #3 in these rankings. That was expected, though. The Buckeyes will play their three toughest games at the end of the year and haven’t looked great in a few games so far. Honestly, the fact that they’re at #3 and not lower might be more surprising than them not being #1. Similarly, Clemson at #1 and LSU at #2 shouldn’t confuse us. Those two teams have strong wins, something that none of the other undefeated teams really have.

Rece Davis asked Jeff Long on the air to explain the six-spot disparity between Florida and Alabama, especially when Florida dominated the team that beat Alabama. Long’s response was that Alabama has one better good win than Florida does and that those teams are very close, even with the big gap in the rankings (Long said wins over teams .500 or better, but it seems pretty clear that he actually meant wins over teams with records over .500). And to be fair, Florida’s highest-quality wins are Ole Miss and Georgia, while Alabama has wins over Georgia, Texas A&M, and Wisconsin. Then again, three wins over teams at 6-2 or better didn’t help Iowa as much, as they sit five spots below Alabama.

The last team towards the top of the rankings that we have to talk about is Memphis. Memphis is ranked #13 and, if they win out, will have three more games against teams currently ranked. Of course, if Memphis wins out that means that it is highly unlikely that either Temple or Houston will end the season ranked, but the win still should mean something. It is way too early to talk about the potential of Memphis crashing the Playoff, but if Ole Miss manages to run the table and win the SEC, it will be something that has to be discussed.

As we get to the bottom of the rankings, a few small things stand out. Houston sneaked into the rankings at #25, even though they have a strength of schedule comparable to Marshall’s from last year. Marshall, as we saw, was left out of the committee’s rankings until much later in the season. Maybe this is the committee rewarding Houston for playing power conference teams, even if they were Louisville and Vanderbilt. Or maybe the committee was trying to send a message with their ranking of Marshall last year for scheduling horribly out of conference, but usually being undefeated–even against a very poor overall schedule–will get you into the back of the Top 25.

The one final curiosity that must be mentioned is Northwestern behind Mississippi State. The Wildcats are very underrated by the standard polls but the committee took notice of them. Northwestern has losses of similar quality but they also have that big win over Stanford, something that Mississippi State can’t compare with at all. Northwestern also has a second strong win over Duke. Mississippi State’s best two wins? Auburn and Kentucky. Maybe the committee will rectify this in coming weeks, but this looks like the one very confusing spot in their rankings.


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