Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hard to Explain Away SEC Bias

So preseason rankings do matter after all?

While the selection committee's top seven teams stayed exactly the same Tuesday, chairman Jeff Long's explanations for the latest College Football Playoff rankings are beginning to defy both logic and the committee's own procedural guidelines.

Last week he introduced the concept of "game control" to justify Alabama's No. 1 ranking, and this week he came up with "quality loss" and one other whopper during the ESPN broadcast: It matters if a team is ranked when it is beaten.

Therefore, Alabama still gets credit for wins over LSU and Texas A&M though neither is now ranked, as does Mississippi State. This goes directly against the committee's protocol to look at the entire body of work and not rely on preseason perception.

Long later scrambled on a conference call with reporters to say that only the committee's own rankings matter, not the preseason and early-season variety as produced by the AP or Coaches Polls. The problem is that doesn't wash either.

By this criteria Mississippi State has beaten exactly zero teams as ranked by the committee at the time of the game, yet it's still at No. 4, ahead of other one-loss teams—TCU, Baylor and Ohio State—that have beaten committee-ranked opponents.

Maybe the problem is having these weekly announcements and the need to come up with tortured logic to explain rankings that are by no means a consensus. But since we're here to pick them apart, let's look at five more issues:

1. Is SEC bias creeping in?
Long's most controversial moves so far have been made to favor SEC teams—placing Alabama No. 1 ahead of Oregon and putting Mississippi State in the playoff field (as of now). The fact that he's the Arkansas athletic director does not help.

ESPN, the network that will televise all playoff games (not to mention all but one of the 39 bowl games), co-owns and operates the SEC Network. A conflict of interest will be suspected by all outside parties.

2. Winning is not enough, just ask Florida State
The scoreboard is taking a backseat to Game Control Theory™ and Quality Loss, two elements that the defending national champions have not been able to master. Because of their propensity to pull out last-minute wins (without a loss), the Seminoles continue to be banished to No. 3.

And while they've beaten three teams that were ranked at the time of the game (and two still currently ranked), that doesn't seem to matter either.

3. The committee loves Minnesota, and so does TCU
The Golden Gophers are certainly one of the feel-good stories of the season, and they're one win away from claiming the Big Ten West title. But the committee has taken that admiration to another level, putting Minnesota four spots higher than it is in the polls and about 12 higher than its average computer ranking.

This is all very lovely for TCU, however, as its 30-7 win over the Gophers early in the season is what prevents its head-to-head loss to Baylor from mattering, at least for now.

4. Who's afraid of Virginia Tech?
Ohio State's home loss to Virginia Tech looks worse every week, especially after the Hokies were shut out in regulation by 3-8 Wake Forest in last Saturday's desultory 6-3 two-overtime loss. But was it really that bad? Long said the committee doesn't view that 35-21 defeat against the now 5-6 Hokies as a terrible loss.

Virginia Tech was not ranked then (and of course it isn't now), but Long's response seems to suggest that the Buckeyes will be able to overcome that by winning the Big Ten championship.

5. Marshall is unbeaten and looks doomed
The committee finally put a group-of-five (actually two) team back in the rankings after snubbing those teams the past three weeks. But 11-0 Marshall is one spot behind 9-2 Boise State, and the remaining schedule certainly favors the Broncos to stay ahead.

The committee has made a big deal out of nonconference schedules, and Marshall's is admittedly weak (though that apparently doesn't apply to Mississippi State). But is Boise's strong enough to trump two losses?

Playoff Committee Rankings Comparison
RankTeamB/R MockAP Pollvs. T25 Then*vs. T25 Now
3Florida St.313-02-0
4Miss St.443-11-1
6Ohio St.672-02-0
10Michigan St.11101-20-2
12Kansas St.10111-21-2
13Arizona St.13134-11-1
16Ga. Tech17161-01-0
19Ole Miss15182-22-1
23Boise St.26250-10-1
* Ranked by AP/committee at time of game

Monday, November 24, 2014

Conference Call on Playoff Field

With just two weeks left in the regular season, the field of contenders for the four playoff spots is shrinking fast. After Saturday, there are only 16 teams still mathematically alive for their respective conference championships. And of those 16, maybe half of them have a legitimate shot of being part of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

While winning the conference championship is not necessarily a prerequisite of qualifying for the playoff, the committee did list that as a major factor in its selection process. Of all the remaining contenders, maybe just one - Mississippi State - has a shot at making the playoff without winning its conference.

There probably will not be significant changes in the committee's rankings this week other than that No. 8 Ole Miss will be tumbling down after a 30-0 wipeout loss to Arkansas. So we'll take a good look at those final 16 teams and dissect their prospects:

Teams with no chance
Wisconsin (Big Ten), Minnesota (Big Ten), Georgia Tech (ACC): The Minnesota-Wisconsin winner as well as Georgia Tech are guaranteed a place in their respective championship games. But they're too far down the standings and have weak resumes with killer losses (Wisconsin to Northwestern, Minnesota to Illinois, Georgia Tech to North Carolina) to have any shot.

Teams with slim chance
Kansas State (Big 12), Arizona (Pac-12), Arizona State (Pac-12): These three two-loss teams are hovering around the low-teens but all have significant obstacles to overcome. K-State can share the Big 12 title if it wins out, but having lost to TCU and with an extra nonconference loss, it's unlikely to leapfrog the Frogs in the rankings. The Territorial Cup winner can only claim the Pac-12 South with a UCLA loss to Stanford, but even if that team beats Oregon in the Pac-12 title game it needs lots of teams in front of it to suffer unexpected losses to get into the top four.

Teams need a lot of help
Georgia (SEC), Missouri (SEC): Mizzou wins the SEC East with a victory over resurgent Arkansas, otherwise, the division title goes to Georgia. But Besides having to knock off a heavily-favored SEC West winner (Alabama or Mississippi State), they both already have two losses including a very bad one each (Georgia to Florida, Mizzou to Indiana). A win by the East winner in the conference title game may very well cost the SEC a spot in the playoff.

Teams need some help
Baylor (Big 12), TCU (Big 12), Ohio State (Big Ten), UCLA (Pac-12): All of those teams can win at least a share (in the cases of TCU and Baylor) of their respective conference titles on their own, but they don't control their own fate when it comes to the playoff. Only one of those teams will make it to the Final Four if the top three teams win out. Despite last week's No. 7 ranking, Baylor might have the best shot as it's likely to jump both TCU and Ohio State with a final game victory over Kansas State to finish 11-1.

Team needs Auburn's help
Mississippi State (SEC): An Auburn upset of Alabama in the Iron Bowl puts the Bulldogs back in the SEC title game—if they defeat slumping Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Without a division (and conference) title, they probably will end up 11-1 with nowhere (in the playoff) to go. While it's currently ranked No. 4, Miss State is certain to lose ground in the final two weeks of the season to a one-loss champion from another conference since its resume is not good enough to trump that purportedly important consideration.

Teams need no help
Alabama (SEC), Oregon (Pac-12), Florida State (ACC): Win out, and they're in the playoff, simple as that. Never mind the committee's seeming hostility, the Seminoles will get a chance to defend their title if they beat Florida and Georgia Tech in the next two games.

Other Fun Facts

 * Is this the week the committee finally puts a group-of-five team (or two) in the rankings after having snubbed them the past three weeks? There are just 24 power-five teams with three or fewer losses and Duke is certainly not going to be ranked. That means either Marshall and/or Colorado State will break through or up to a pair of four-loss teams will be ranked.

* Georgia Tech should be a lock for the Orange Bowl if it beats Georgia in the Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. Other than playoff-bound FSU, there are no other ACC teams with fewer than three losses. Of course, the Jackets are guaranteed an Orange Bowl berth if they upset the 'Noles in the ACC title game.

* Notre Dame and BYU are both 7-4 and neither has a prayer of getting into a New Year's Six bowl. But even if their respective seasons had gone much better, access to the playoff and the best bowls still will be difficult for them under the new regime. With Navy set to join the American next season, we finally could be witnessing the death of independents at the FBS level.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Committee's Latest Rankings a Major Fail

Are you happy now?

For those who clamored for the death of the BCS and birth of a playoff system, Tuesday night's rankings could not have brought smiles to their faces. In short, the committee's rankings actually made the polls look good by comparison.

It's as if the 12 members of the selection committee are waging war on logic. Strength of schedule is important, only when it's not. Head-to-head matters, except when it doesn't.

And if you're not a member of the power-five conferences, you should just tune in on Dec. 7 when the committee reveals who will get that guaranteed access slot to a New Year's Six bowl. Your resume and body of work clearly does not measure up to the big boys no matter what you do.

So what can we take away from this week's rankings? You mean other than that the committee should be immediately disbanded in favor of an improved BCS formula? OK, let's try these five:

The eye-ball test trumps all
Alabama is ranked No. 1 for apparently the reason that it looks better "on offense, defense and special teams" than everyone else, according to chairman Jeff Long. The committee is untroubled that Alabama has beaten just one of its own Top 25 teams (Mississippi State) while No. 2 Oregon has beaten three (UCLA, Michigan State and Utah) and No. 3 Florida State two (Clemson and Louisville) while staying undefeated.

Maybe the problem are those lying eyes
Former No. 1 Mississippi State only dropped to No. 4 after losing to Alabama because Long said the Bulldogs lost by only five to the Tide and were never out of the game. Maybe that's the biggest problem with item No. 1—the committee members need to have their eyes examined. The Bulldogs were never in that game, all the way to the concession TD that made the final score deceptively close. This "good loss," however, was enough keep MSU in the playoff field despite that, like the Tide, it's beaten just one ranked team (Auburn).

Strength of schedule for me, not for thee
And whereas Baylor is ostensibly still punished for its terrible nonconference schedule, the same does not apply to MSU, which actually played four non-power-five opponents as compared to Baylor's three. The Bulldogs beat Southern Miss (3-8), UAB (5-5), South Alabama (6-4) and Tennessee-Martin (FCS, 4-5) and that's good enough to trump TCU, which actually beat three currently ranked teams and played two more power-five opponents than MSU did.

Ohio State looks to be DOA
The Buckeyes are No. 6 and probably as good as dead when it comes to the playoff, unless they get some kind of divine intervention. There's not enough good opponents left on their schedule that will provide them with a significant lift to jump teams like Mississippi State and TCU. And Baylor, one spot behind now, is poised to perhaps snatch the final playoff spot if it can defeat Kansas State on the final day of the regular season to claim the Big 12 title.

Group-of-five? What Group-of-five?
For a third week in a row, no team outside of the power-five conferences (and Notre Dame) was in the rankings. Of the 27 power-five teams with three or fewer losses, only Duke and Iowa are not ranked. The committee clearly takes strength of schedule seriously—except when it doesn't, see MSU—when it comes to Group-of-five teams. It's still very much anybody's guess which team among Marshall, Colorado State and Boise State is considered the best in the (possibly faulty) eyes of the committee.

Playoff Committee Rankings Comparison
RankTeamBR MockAP PollRecord vs. T25Losses
1Alabama221-1No. 8 Ole Miss
2Oregon133-1No. 15 Arizona
3Florida State312-0None
4Miss State541-1No. 1 Alabama
5TCU453-1No. 7 Baylor
6Ohio State772-0Virginia Tech
7Baylor662-0West Virginia
8Ole Miss881-12
11Michigan State11101-22
12Kansas State12121-22
13Arizona State14132-12
18Georgia Tech20171-02
NRColorado State24220-0Boise State