With the creation of the College Football Playoff (CFP), fans and pundits alike have endlessly debated throughout the season which four teams would be in at the end. After the season ended, the scenarios have generally sorted themselves out and there have been few disagreements. Sure, there were some howls in 2014 when Ohio State jumped both Baylor & TCU in the final and last year, when Ohio State was selected over the Big Ten Champion, Penn State, whom it lost to in the regular season. But there were legitimate arguments to be made in both of cases. However, this year the committee faced a more challenging dilemma and ultimately made the wrong decision.
After the results on Saturday, the first 3 spots in the College Football Playoff were virtually guaranteed. Oklahoma, Georgia, and Clemson all won their respective conference championship games to effectively secure CFP berths. At that point, the only possible debate among those three teams would be over seeding, and while Clemson does have the worst loss among the group (to a 4-8 Syracuse team), it also has a much better overall resume when looking at the quality & margin of victory of their wins. Plus, Oklahoma’s defense continues to elicit some concerns, and this justifiably kept them from earning the #1 seed. The 4th team came down to Alabama, who did not win its conference or its division, and Ohio State, the Big Ten Champion.
First, let’s get out of the way the fact that both of these teams have flaws in their resumes compared to the three teams ranked ahead of them. In other words, there’s a clear separation between teams 1-3 and Alabama, Ohio State or even USC if you wanted to consider them. That being said, someone had to be selected to fill the 4th spot, so why was Ohio State more deserving than Alabama? In my view, it comes down to the fact that Ohio State had better wins than Alabama while also playing a more difficult schedule.
The committee, and others, like to use the number of top 25 wins a team has as a metric to compare teams. But this treats a victory over the #20 team the same as a victory over the #5 team, when clearly those should not be considered the same. It also ignores margin of victory, which is something else needs to be considered as well. Ohio State has more top 25 wins than Alabama, but more importantly, its wins are more concentrated towards the top of the rankings, regardless of which ranking system you use (CFP, Sagarin, S&P+). Thus, it’s difficult to dispute that Ohio State played and beat better teams than Alabama did, although Alabama does have a slight edit in the margin of victory stat.
|Ohio State Wins vs Top 25 Opponents|
|Alabama Wins vs Top 25 Opponents|
Regarding strength of schedule, both Sagarin and Cody Kellner rate Ohio State ahead of Alabama. Sagarin has Ohio State 28th overall with Alabama 56th. Kellner has Ohio State 10th overall with Alabama 37th. Part of this is due to what was mentioned previously regarding Ohio State having more wins over top 10 & top 25 teams. But it’s also due to the fact that Ohio State played 13 games against FBS competition with 10 of those being conference games. Alabama, on the other hand, played only 11 games against FBS competition (one game vs FCS Mercer), with only 8 conference games. Ohio State played 3 top 10 teams, beating two and losing once, while Alabama only played one such team and lost. Thus, Ohio State proved that it can compete with the best teams in the country (twice), but Alabama hasn’t. It’s not Alabama’s fault that they didn’t get to play more top 10 teams, but sometimes that’s just how it works out (see: 2015 Ohio State). So why should they receive the benefit of the doubt as being better than Ohio State when they failed their only test against top level competition?
The gigantic elephant in the room is of course Ohio State’s two losses, compared to Alabama’s one, or more specifically, the 31-point beatdown Ohio State suffered to Iowa. There’s really no excusing that loss, although it should be noted that the public perception of Iowa seems to be that they are a bad team. However, they rank 22nd in Sagarin & 47th in S&P+. Are they a good team? Maybe, maybe not, but they clearly are an above average one. If you believe that no team should be allowed in the CFP with a loss of 31 points or more, regardless of how the rest of their schedule played out, that’s fine. But the committee is supposed to evaluate the entire body of work and number of losses of 30 or more points is not listed anywhere as an automatic disqualifying factor. More importantly, if you remove one or both of Ohio State’s wins over top 10 teams to essentially cancel out the Iowa loss, you still end up with an overall resume that is very similar to Alabama’s. So while the Iowa loss is bad, but it should not be an albatross that completely eliminates them from CFP consideration as it’s one mere data point out of thirteen.
Finally, by selecting Alabama instead of Ohio State, I believe that the CFP has set a bad precedent that may haunt the sport in the future. It’s easy to look at the situation and assume that Alabama was selected because of having fewer losses. We don’t know for sure that was the case but if Ohio State had scheduled and beat Boston College or Texas or Kansas State, instead of Oklahoma, would they have been selected at 12-1 versus Alabama’s 11-1? Considering that one of the first things Kirby Hocutt mentioned after the results were released was the number of losses, it seems that the answer is yes. While the CFP was supposed to encourage difficult non-conference scheduling, this selection could have the opposite effect. This is also compounded by looking at what happened to Auburn as they went from being ranked ahead of Alabama heading into the SEC Championship Game to being ranked behind them, despite the fact that they lost to a team that Alabama never played. Again, people cite the overall number of losses (three vs one) as the reason for Auburn dropping, but two of those losses were to teams that Alabama never played who both ended up in the CFP.
So what incentive is there for Auburn to schedule future games with Clemson or other top teams when a loss could cause another team in the same conference that they just beat to jump ahead of them? Alabama appeared to benefit by losing the Iron Bowl and staying home and not subjecting itself to playing another top 10 opponent. Why should a team be rewarded for this? Granted, this was not intentional on their part; however, the takeaway appears to be that winning a game which puts you in the conference championship game can then drop you below a team that you had previously beaten and were ranked ahead of, solely for losing a rematch to a team (Georgia) that the team you beat (Alabama) never even played. And for those citing Ohio State last year as a contradiction of this idea, note that Ohio State had already beaten Wisconsin on the road so that analogy does not apply here. Selecting Alabama, instead of Ohio State, as the 4th CFP team was the wrong choice and may set a bad precedent for college football going forward.