Less than 72 hours remain in college football’s regular season, which means we know most of what we’re going to know before the playoff selection committee reveals its final hand on Sunday. But if the past 15 years have taught us anything about the final stretch, it’s to not count the chickens before they hatch, especially when so many of them still have work to do: The top seven teams in the committee’s weekly Top 25 will make their closing arguments this weekend, six of them against opponents ranked in the top 16. On Saturday night, the no. 4 (Florida State), no. 5 (Ohio State), and no. 6 (Baylor) teams will all state their cases at the same time, extending the drama to the 11th hour.
Right now, here’s what we know: If Alabama and Oregon, the top two teams in the committee’s estimation, win their conference championship games (against no. 16 Missouri and no. 7 Arizona, respectively), then the Crimson Tide and Ducks are in. Beyond that, projecting the rest of the field means braving a thicket of assumptions, asterisks, and circular arguments. Here’s my best shot at clearing a path through all of that to get a glimpse of what we’re in store for on Sunday. But be forewarned: By then, the terrain may have shifted beyond recognition.
Leapfrog: Is TCU Seriously Going to Finish Ranked Ahead of Baylor?
Maybe! Of course, you’ll recall that Baylor beat TCU back in October in a come-from-behind, 61-58 shootout that remains the most entertaining game of the season. But the selection committee has consistently chosen to overlook that result in favor of the Horned Frogs’ superior strength of schedule, most recently elevating the Frogs to no. 3 in its weekly poll. Baylor moved up one spot this week, to no. 6, but still resides a few slots behind TCU despite the head-to-head win and identical 10-1 record because, in the words of committee chair Jeff Long, “we believe TCU is a better football team at this point in time.”
And strictly in terms of probability, TCU has the best chance of any team to make the cut (a little better than 96 percent according to the soothsayers at FiveThirtyEight) because it’s the only top-10 outfit in action this week that isn’t slated to close out its season against a ranked opponent. Instead, the Frogs will host the worst team in the Big 12, Iowa State, virtually guaranteeing a victory this weekend.1 No other contender has that security. TCU also got a break this week when the Big 12, in an ironic departure from its “One True Champion” motto, said it would designate Baylor and TCU conference cochampions if both teams win this weekend, thereby absolving the committee of its explicit mandate to view the Bears more favorably as a result of the head-to-head tiebreaker.
So if the standing assumption is that TCU will hold its ground in the top four as long as an asteroid doesn’t strike Fort Worth between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. CT on Saturday, it follows that the Frogs will indeed get the nod over the team that handed them their only defeat. But I’m not convinced that the status quo is quite as rigid as that scenario suggests.
For starters, while it’s true that TCU’s résumé is demonstrably better than Baylor’s (and no. 5 Ohio State’s) right now, it’s not at all obvious that that will still be the case if the Bears (and Buckeyes) notch an impressive victory this weekend while the Frogs’ strength of schedule takes on one last bit of dead weight. Assuming that TCU, Baylor, and Ohio State all win on Saturday (against Iowa State, no. 9 Kansas State, and no. 13 Wisconsin, respectively), and that the fourth and final playoff spot on Sunday comes down to splitting hairs over those three teams, the final tale of the tape will look something like this:
There is no significant, decisive difference here. If that’s the choice the committee has to make, then somehow a dozen different people with conflicting interpretations of those résumés (not to mention conflicting interests) are going to have to reach some kind of consensus about what they value most. Right now, TCU has the advantage of two top-20 wins vs. just one for Ohio State, and four top-40 wins vs. two for Baylor; by Sunday, those advantages could be negligible or nonexistent.
Against common opponents, the Frogs dispatched Minnesota by a wider margin in September than Ohio State did two months later, and rallied to (barely) beat West Virginia in Morgantown two weeks after the Mountaineers upset Baylor. On the other hand, the Bears rebounded from that defeat to deal Oklahoma its most lopsided loss of the Bob Stoops era, in Norman, while TCU battled the Sooners to the final gun in a four-point decision in Fort Worth. Ohio State may have had the toughest aggregate schedule from week to week, but only because of the egalitarian mediocrity of the Big Ten’s middle class: The Buckeyes’ only notable win to date came at the expense of Michigan State, which hasn’t beaten another team in the current Top 25 itself.
(Not shown above but certainly worth noting regarding common opponents: TCU narrowly escaped from Lawrence with a 34-30 win over the lowly Jayhawks on November 15, while Baylor crushed KU 60-14 two weeks prior. Kansas currently ranks 105th according to F/+, and neither Baylor nor Ohio State has a comparably close call against a team that bad.)
If I were on the committee? Assuming that the Bears get by K-State, I’d take Baylor on the strength of (a) three Top 25 wins compared to just two for TCU and Ohio State, and, more importantly, (b) the head-to-head win over TCU. Ultimately, the case for the Frogs if both teams finish 11-1 amounts to arguing that a September win over middle-of-the-road Minnesota should take precedence over a head-to-head result between the two teams in question, which is no argument at all. Baylor’s position is airtight: All else being equal: scoreboard. If the committee follows that logic, a win on Saturday should be enough to punch the Bears’ ticket.
If the committee continues to insist that TCU is the better team anyway — just, like, because — it will represent an egregious affront to the concept of settling it on the field, i.e., the ostensible reason that a playoff exists in the first place.2 But we’re not there just yet, so until they officially screw this up, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for playing the long game.
Are the Buckeyes in No-Man’s-Land?
The actual reason it exists is money, of course, but that shouldn’t preclude a rational decision about the teams involved.
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While Ohio State is very much a part of the Baylor-TCU debate for the final spot (or spots, as the case may be), it faces an entirely different set of challenges this weekend. The first, most fundamental obstacle is beating Wisconsin for the Big Ten title on Saturday night with backup quarterback Cardale Jones, a redshirt sophomore making his first career start in place of sidelined prodigy J.T. Barrett.3 Regardless of who’s under center for OSU, the defense will have to contend with a Badgers ground game that has averaged a staggering 336 rushing yards per game during a seven-game B1G winning streak, including Melvin Gordon’s record-setting romp against Nebraska.
The irony that Barrett, who himself was initially viewed as a crippling liability in the wake of Braxton Miller’s season-ending shoulder injury in August, has become an indispensable stalwart in his own right is duly noted.
If the Buckeyes do prevail, the second obstacle will be getting a completely fair shake from the committee, which reserves the right to take key injuries into account and could conceivably curb its enthusiasm for OSU if Jones looks ordinary in victory. (Per Long: “We’re certainly very interested to watch Ohio State’s performance with the backup. The results on the field will dictate how we feel and how we have to project forward how they would compete.”) And then the process will come down to parsing the Buckeyes’ résumé against the others.
As in previous seasons, the best teams in the Big Ten have had to fight an uphill battle against the conference’s dwindling national reputation, which was reinforced by a string of early, high-profile nonconference flops that seemed to render the league’s playoff hopes dead on arrival barely two weeks into the season. That rep has hurt Ohio State, which didn’t do itself any favors by losing to unranked Virginia Tech before Barrett had a chance to settle into his new role. That setback nearly knocked OSU out of the national polls entirely, but the Buckeyes have made up all of that ground and then some by looking sufficiently dominant since, especially in blowing the doors off Michigan State’s vaunted defense in their only opportunity to make good against a playoff-caliber opponent.
In the past, the committee has invoked its intention to reward the four “best” teams as opposed to the four “most deserving,” which is frankly a maddening concept if your instinct (like mine) is to determine the “best” team by stacking up wins and losses side by side. Still, that distinction is part of the backdrop of Long’s explanation for continuing to favor TCU over Baylor, and it can work in Ohio State’s favor if the Buckeyes are convincing enough on Saturday night. (If TCU and/or Baylor happens to struggle as well, all the better.) Beating Wisconsin would still leave Ohio State with just two wins over ranked teams, but if that victory looks anything like the first one in East Lansing, the Buckeyes’ ceiling might be too high to deny.
Should We Be Worried About or Relishing Florida State’s Predicted Impending Demise?
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One thing we can definitively say about the committee, to its credit: It seems to genuinely enjoy trolling the defending champs every bit as much as the Seminoles enjoy toying with America’s dreams of an upset before inevitably crushing them at the last second. Last week, FSU extended its winning streak to 28 consecutive games with another ugly, down-to-the-wire win, this one over Florida, and the committee responded on Tuesday by dropping the Seminoles from no. 3 to no. 4 with a comically exaggerated sigh of disappointment. It’s a fun dynamic.
Now, amid that slide, FSU must face no. 11 Georgia Tech in the ACC title game. The Yellow Jackets’ triple-option attack is undeniably a nuisance, and their consecutive upsets over Clemson and Georgia to close the regular season elevated the threat level for Saturday’s meeting considerably. Unlike Duke last year or a much less accomplished Georgia Tech squad in 2012, these Jackets don’t look like the Coastal Division’s token lambs to the slaughter. Based on the current polls, they may be the best team that FSU has faced to date. As you read this, there are well-adjusted, fully employed adults contemplating convoluted but very possible scenarios that could result in Tech landing a playoff bid.
But despite all of that, there’s no reason to believe that Florida State will be on the bubble if it wins, and this team’s only consistent quality is that it does win, even when it looks utterly dysfunctional in the process. If that streak continues, the Noles will be bound for a semifinal, no questions asked. The exact seeding and destination will be up for debate, but even if FSU looks frequently hapless in another ad-libbed, skin-of-the-teeth triumph, can you imagine the committee daring to exclude a major-conference champion that hasn’t lost in two full calendar years on style points? Not an option.
I wouldn’t mind hearing the discussion when the Seminoles skeptics in the room break out the advanced stats4 and broach an FSU-free field as a possibility. If it goes any further than that, though, the new system will be off to a more explosive, infuriating start than the old one ever achieved, which would really be saying something. But that’s a preposterous hypothetical, because nothing like that is going to happen. Right? Of course not. The playoff field is infinitely more compelling with its insuperable villain in the fold. Win again and the Noles are in. Right? Right?
For Chaos’s Sake …
A small sampling of nontraditional polls I consult regularly finds Florida State at no. 8 according to Football Outsiders, no. 11 according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, and no. 17 according to Jeff Sagarin’s Predictor rating.
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With all that said, let’s establish that if all goes according to plan on Friday and Saturday, the final four revealed on Sunday is almost certainly going to look like this (with projected records):
1. Alabama (12-1)
2. Oregon (12-1)
3. Florida State (13-0)
4. TCU (11-1) or Baylor (11-1)
First out: TCU/Baylor, Ohio State (12-1)
Then again, since when does anything in college football go according to plan, much less on the final weekend? This point on the calendar has come to be defined by abrupt 11th-hour shakeups, and this year’s final slate features five potential upsets that could move the needle:
Missouri (+14.5) beats Alabama: The rest of the nation howls with laughter as the South burns. Missouri is well behind the pack of plausible contenders at no. 16, with virtually zero chance of vaulting into the top four even with an upset over the committee’s top-ranked team. After Bama, the only other SEC team in the current top 10 is Mississippi State at no. 10. Which would mean … brace yourselves … that a Crimson Tide loss would leave the SEC with not two, not one, but zero playoff teams in the system’s first year. Count ’em: zilch. Fortunately, the looming specter of that scenario coming to fruition will in no way color anyone’s view of the officiating in the conference championship game.
Arizona (+14.5) beats Oregon (again): Arizona has taken two straight from the mighty Ducks, and if we’re in for a late-breaking, 2007-style wildfire at the top, the Wildcats are the two-loss team that stands to benefit most from the carnage. Besides the casualty it hopes to inflict directly on Friday night, to move from no. 7 to no. 4 (or higher), Zona will also need multiple ambushes from some combination of Kansas State, Wisconsin, and Georgia Tech, all of whom have at least a 30 percent chance of winning. As with the SEC, the prospect of a deep, parity-driven Pac-12 finally devouring its own tail is a jarring thought.
Kansas State beats Baylor and/or Wisconsin (+4) beats Ohio State: Neither result would rattle the foundations, but either one would help winnow down the committee’s options for the final spot, and if Baylor and OSU both go down simultaneously, then the decision will have already been made. In fact, the Wildcats and Badgers stand to resolve more existing chaos than they have the potential to create.
Georgia Tech (+4) beats Florida State: As outlined above, a Tech upset in Charlotte would be more interesting for triggering the demise of the gridiron Rasputin and the (probably) peaceful resolution of the great Baylor-TCU debate than anything else. The Yellow Jackets are the purveyors of anarchy: If FSU falls, one more upset in the top six could conceivably send the dominoes toppling in a totally unforeseen pattern. I’ll have more on the Jackets on Friday, which should leave you just enough time to brush up on your new favorite team before Saturday night’s clash.