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Yup, the Playoff Committee really is gonna have a bad time

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Have fun, y’all!

Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

Back in August, I wrote a piece previewing the struggles to come for the College Football Playoff Committee. At that point, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 had no plans to play in the fall. They’ve since reversed course, which is good if you like “Indiana ranked in the top ten for the first time in over fifty years,” and bad if you enjoy “Penn State winning a game, any game at all.”

With the Committee set to release its first rankings on November 24th, I wanted to revisit some of those predicted problems and see how they’re panning out.

Nope, the measuring sticks don’t work

There are no common opponents to analyze. And “strength of schedule” pretty quickly turns into “Which conferences seem toughest, absent any meaningful cross-conference information?”

The first sentence still holds up, unless you think the Playoff’s going to pick between Cincinnati and Oklahoma State based on their games against Tulsa. While THE ROAD TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP WINDS THROUGH A GOLDEN HURRICANE would be good for a TV promo, I doubt this will be a major factor.

As for strength of schedule, let’s look at the initial Playoff rankings from years past, comparing the schedule strengths of the top four teams against any undefeated Group of Five competition. (These numbers come from ESPN’s strength of schedule calculation.)

2014

Top Four: Miss State 34, FSU 40, Auburn 3, Ole Miss 7 (Average: 21)

Undefeated G5s: N/A

2015

Top Four: Clemson 18, LSU 28, Ohio State 72, Alabama 3 (Average: 30.25)

Undefeated G5s: Memphis 88, Toledo 113, Houston 124

2016

Top Four: Bama 5, Clemson 15, Michigan 56, A&M 26 (Average: 25.5)

Undefeated G5s: Western Michigan 111

2017

Top Four: Georgia 36, Bama 51, ND 13, Clemson 5 (Average: 26.25)

Undefeated G5s: UCF 105

2018

Top Four: Bama 56, Clemson 29, LSU 5, Notre Dame 46 (Average: 34)

Undefeated G5s: UCF 127

2019

Top Four: Ohio State 20, LSU 32, Bama 52, Penn State 42 (Average: 36.5)

Undefeated G5s: N/A

Let’s further say the initial Playoff ranking this year will feature some combination of the top eight Power Five teams in the AP Poll. Here are their SOS numbers, according to ESPN:

Alabama 16, Notre Dame 73, Ohio State 41, Clemson 69, Texas A&M 34, Florida 27, Indiana 55, Wisconsin 70

BYU has the 97th-hardest schedule, and Cincinnati has the 98th. (The other undefeated G5 schools rank 109th or lower, so we’ll leave them out for the time being.) That’s still behind the Power 5 contenders, but the gap’s much smaller than it usually is.

When choosing the top four teams, the Committee’s usually leaving out G5 programs 60 or 70 spots behind the P5 options. While that can be frustrating, it’s a fair argument. The top P5 teams usually draw much tougher schedules than the top G5 schools, though it’s not like the G5 programs can make the Oklahomas and Floridas and Oregons of the world play them. We understand why they might not be interested.

Is the difference between the 73rd-hardest and the 97th that meaningful, though? At the very least, it makes the Committee’s stated job trickier.

They could pick four Power 5 conference champs, but there are several catches.

In their ideal scenario, the Committee can pick four strong Power Five conference champions, knowing that most fans won’t feel bad for the champ who’s left out. But if we assume the 2020 ACC, Big 12, and SEC champions are all automatically in, what is the committee supposed to do with the last spot?

With the Big Ten and Pac-12 reversing course, there’s technically room for the Committee to stick with four Power Five champions. The ACC and SEC are on track to crown an undefeated team or a one-loss team as champ. The Big 12 can, too, if Oklahoma State runs the table. And, while both leagues are still early into their seasons, the Big Ten and Pac-12 could produce zero- or one-loss champions as well. But there’s a potential snag if they do.

At best, a Pac-12 champ would finish with a 7-0 record, and multiple cancellations early in the conference’s restart suggest that even that many games might be optimistic. Of the Big Ten schools still in their league race, two could win the conference and go 9-0 (Indiana, Northwestern), one could go 8-0 (Ohio State), and one could finish 7-0 (Wisconsin).

Meanwhile, if they both win out and don’t have any remaining games canceled (two big assumptions), Cincinnati would end the year 11-0, and BYU would be 10-0.

That would force the Committee to answer some truly difficult questions. How do you judge a 7-0/8-0 team from a P5 conference against a G5 undefeated that played 50% more games? Is punishing the Power 5 school with fewer games played penalizing caution during a pandemic? Or does ignoring the G5 contender’s longer road tell those conferences that they’re just never going to have access to this part of the postseason?

Again, those are all for the Committee members to answer, not me.

The eligible P5 teams are still gonna thin themselves out by necessity, but the G5 teams won’t.

Most years, when the Playoff Committee releases their first set of rankings, they have to account for a dozen or so P5 teams that are either undefeated or only have one loss, and maybe one undefeated G5 team. Right now, if we’re just looking at teams that have played at least five games, they have five undefeated G5 schools to worry about. And none of these programs are going to do the Committee a favor and knock one of the other undefeateds out, because they’re not playing one another.

The P5 teams, on the other hand, have plenty of infighting left. Either Clemson or Notre Dame will lose in the ACC Championship Game, assuming they don’t lose before that and miss out entirely. If Bama and Florida meet in the SEC Championship, that’s a loss for one of them. The Pac-12 has plenty of time left to eat itself, and two of the four undefeated teams in the Big Ten will take a loss this weekend (Indiana plays Ohio State; Wisconsin plays Northwestern); plus there’s an additional loss for whoever doesn’t win in the conference title game.

There’s still the possibility of a smooth(ish) path:

  1. Either Alabama or Florida wins out and grabs one spot for the SEC.
  2. Either Clemson or Notre Dame wins out, and the ACC gets a berth.
  3. Oklahoma State wins out, narrowly keeping the Big 12’s Playoff streak alive.
  4. Ohio State wins out convincingly, and everyone’s too terrified to suggest that the 8-0 Buckeyes should stay home while the 11-0 Bearcats or 10-0 Cougars get their spot.

In almost any other outcome, it’s much harder to defend the Committee excluding the G5. Maybe they take one-loss Texas A&M, standing in for Alabama, in the role of “SEC team that didn’t win its division but still gets to be in the top four.” Or maybe they go with a Pac-12 champion and come up with some empty talking point to explain why a seven-game season out West was more deserving than what the G5 teams accomplished.

The Committee could also do the one thing it’s never done before (other than take a G5 team, that is) – put a two-loss team in. If they pick one of those over an undefeated G5, well, then we don’t have to speculate what it would take for a non-P5 team to crash the Playoff. The answer does not exist.