What Did We Learn?
2016 College Football Playoff Committee
Let’s not bury the lede, for the first time since the Playoffs began a non-conference champ made it into the top four. Ironically the Big Ten was the conference who pushed hard for conference champion only, but was beat out by the ACC, Big 12 and SEC. They seem fine with the results, for what that is worth. Even Penn State has toed the company line and talked about how playing in the Rose Bowl is quite the honor. I wonder if the Big Ten would be so calm about it, however, if their champion missed out for a non-champion of another conference.
That being said the top four pretty much ended up where I figured they were, though the rest of the list had some surprises. Let’s look at what the committee told us this year and see if we can find some key learnings.
It’s all about the wins, stupid
Above all else, we learned this week that winning matters. The top four teams just also happen to be the only one loss teams left in the Power Five. The two conference champions that didn’t make it into the top four had two losses, even with a championship bonus. From that we can deduce that a championship is worth a lot, but not more than a loss.
So, at the end of the day, the 13th data point, conference championships, or anything else, are merely tie breakers when two teams are the same. To dive into the details on that a bit, Washington, Clemson, Ohio State, Penn State, Oklahoma, and Michigan all had either more Top Ten wins or more Top 20 wins, if they had no Top Ten wins, than Alabama. From that you can determine that the Tide played one of the worst schedules of those teams. However, they won out, so less losses is still better than quality wins, regardless of what someone says about schedule strength.
By that same view, Penn State and Oklahoma had the same record and both were conference champions. Penn State is ranked ahead of Oklahoma because Penn State had two Top Ten wins where Oklahoma had a Top Ten win and a Top 20 win. That’s basically the difference in their record and, honestly, makes a ton of sense. Using it also helps show where I had the top teams modeled. The only difference for me from the committee is I had Washington at #3 and OSU at #4. I also had Oklahoma jumping Michigan to end up at sixth, but that’s sort of inconsequential now. It wouldn’t have changed any of the Big 12 bowls.
Wins are fine, but losses matter
The perception a conference receives in its non-conference schedule sets the stage for how it is viewed the rest of the season. Do well and the entire conference is elevated. Do poorly and you’re always swimming upstream. The SEC this year had a losing record or a tie against every Power Five conference, except the Pac 12. And, for the first time in a while, only had one team in the top ten and two in the top fifteen, barely. If Alabama had lost they wouldn’t have had the resume they normally had to weather that storm. If they lost two they’d be in the same spot as the Big 12.
Speaking of which, the Big 12 won only 25% of its games against the Power Five this year, losing to Stanford, Arkansas, Iowa, Arizona State, Ohio State and Cal. Additionally, the conference took some big hits losing to Houston and Memphis from the AAC, Central Michigan and Ohio of the MAC, and FCS’s Northern Iowa. That was a very big hole to dig out from to change that image of weakness.
To make matters worse, two of those losses belonged to Oklahoma, who started the season with 24 first place votes in the preseason AP poll. That lowered the bar for the rest of the Big 12 and the only way the conference was going to overcome it is for someone to out play Oklahoma. With Oklahoma State losing to Central Michigan and West Virginia falling to both Oklahoma teams that meant this year’s standard bearer, who lost at home to the Big Ten and in a neutral site against the AAC, was the best the Big 12 had to offer.
When West Virginia couldn’t run the table, like Alabama did, the Big 12 had a very slim chance of making the playoff and don’t really deserve to this year. They didn’t do anything to earn it and that started in the first three weeks of the season.
The Big 12’s issues have nothing to do with nine conference games
I’ve heard it bitched about for ages that the Big 12 is disadvantaged because it plays nine conference games. This is rooted in the old BCS days when running the table on cupcakes was a better option than having a loss or two against a difficult schedule. In this year 80% of the Top Ten played a nine game conference schedule and the two conferences that didn’t have one, the ACC and SEC, only placed 25% of their combined teams in the Top 20. By comparison the Big 12 placed 30% of its teams in the Top 20, the Pac 12 placed 42% of its teams in the Top 20 and the Big Ten placed 29% of its teams in the Top Ten!
The problem with nine games is simple, it doesn’t allow a lot of flexibility and is, quite simply, more difficult. That difficulty seems to be rewarded, however, as even #2 Clemson, who had eight conference games, played ten Power Five teams, negating the advantage the other nine-game conferences had. In the SEC only Georgia played ten Power Five teams this year.
You could see this narrative playing out as ESPN continued to argue with the committee on how it was viewing teams, specifically in regards to Washington. The Huskies didn’t have the strongest non-conference schedule this year, the 124th actually. However, that was due to Wisconsin cancelling their match up at the last minute when the Big Ten/Pac 12 scheduling agreement ended when the Big Ten went to nine conference games. Not much the Huskies could do about that for this year. While ESPN continued to trumpet that they had a horrible non-conference schedule and other teams had amazing ones, what the committee quoted on Sunday was that non-conference is just a part of the schedule.
When you look at the three ESPN was arguing about (Penn State, Michigan, and Washington) Washington was almost 100 spots lower than the other two on non-conference schedule. However, the committee countered that all three of them had rather equal full season records, all falling in the 50s in ranking. This tells us that Michigan and Penn State’s non-conference schedules were tough, but their conference schedules, outside a couple games, were very easy. All three played Rutgers, for instance. Washington, on the other hand, had a lax non-conference schedule, but a much tougher conference schedule than Penn State or Michigan. The Pac 12, having 12 teams instead of 14, gave a bonus to Washington for playing its way through it.
It’s not three games, or eight games, or nine games that matter. It is the entire body of work that matters, be that twelve or thirteen games.
Conference Championships don’t matter
Well, maybe the best way of phrasing that is conference championships don’t matter in the way we thought they mattered. Until this year the only other confusing point within the committee’s rankings was having TCU drop from third to sixth after championship weekend, even though they blasted Iowa State that week. (Which we’d previously covered here and here and here) The reasoning provided by the committee started the 13th data point argument. In essence, since the Big 12 didn’t define who their champion was it left it to the committee to decide. The committee gave the championship to Baylor, who had a far worse out of conference schedule than either TCU or Ohio State and Ohio State’s drubbing of Wisconsin gave them the edge over Baylor. TCU, with a similar record to both, fell from 3rd to 6th since they had to be behind Baylor and Baylor was now behind Ohio State.
This year we had Penn State beating Ohio State AND winning a conference championship, but they lost out to the Buckeyes anyway. However, even with the championship, Ohio State still had more Top Ten victories and less losses. I don’t hear a lot of complaints for how the top four played out, but, as mentioned earlier, it will be interesting to see when it keeps out the champion of another conference.
As it seems to sit today, conference championships are merely one way to define two equal teams, not give an advantage to a team with more losses over one with less. And, honestly, that is how it should be. I hate the idea of an eight team playoff where every conference champion is in. A few years ago Georgia Tech could have fit that bill with more than four losses. Wisconsin won the Big Ten in 2012, after upsetting Nebraska, with five losses on its schedule. Those teams don’t deserve a shot at the title any more than Oklahoma deserved one this year. If you want to win national titles, schedule hard and win your games. If by chance you have an equal schedule with someone else, a championship game or 13th game can help break the tie.
This brings up a lot of questions in me, like did the Big 12 schedule a conference championship game on too little info? Are conference championship games even required any longer? And, if they aren’t, then are conferences even necessary any longer?
I’ll explore all of those this off season.
Speaking of tie-breakers, there is more at play
I’m not sure there was anything more ironic about this weekend than hearing Kirby Hocutt, AD of Texas Tech who hasn’t fielded a defense in a decade, claim that the reason Oklahoma isn’t even in the same category with the teams ahead of it is that it cannot play defense. Many advanced metrics are provided to assist the committee, including offensive and defensive efficiency. The term Kirby used was “complete team”, which I will assume means tough on both sides of the ball.
Currently there are not a lot of “complete teams” in the Big 12 and that needs to change. However, we’ll analyze all that during the off season. For now, the committee has shed a little more light on their process and all of the steps the Big 12 has taken to date, like add a championship game, are for naught. What they need to do is play better football.
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