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Thinking like the CFB Playoff Committee

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Who is likely to be in the top four when results are released next week?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The College Football Playoff Committee will meet for the first time this season in one week.  That means that in just a few short days we will no longer be reliant on extrapolations from the AP poll and talking heads to determine which four teams sit atop the college football world.  And while this will certainly do little to dull the constant and growing cacophony of discussion on who may deserve the top four spots, it at least gives both the fans and the teams an idea of what they need to do to find their way into the playoff.

Last season, as the first ever College Football Playoff Committee rankings were released, the committee's top two corresponded directly to the AP poll, as Mississippi State and Florida State sat alone among the Power Five teams as undefeated.  The committee's third team was Auburn, which sat at the AP fourth slot, but their fourth team was a surprise.  The committee chose Ole Miss, who had just dropped their first game to LSU, and while this loss caused them to fall in the AP Poll to 7th, according to the committee, they were in.  Additional disparities (such as a four place differential regarding Notre Dame and three places with respect to Alabama, Ohio State and TCU) demonstrated that the committee had their own opinions.  This was not the AP poll and was certainly not the BCS.

In lieu of these differences, when the first official rankings are released next week, we can expect the unexpected.  While a year ago there were only two teams from Power Five conferences with perfect records, this season there are eight, along with four more from the Group of Five.  Strength of schedule was heralded as a major differentiator as Baylor and TCU were left out of the playoff, yet many supposedly top teams this season have yet to face a significant test.  And while many undefeated teams seem a bit green, there are a handful of one loss powers that are growing stronger by the week.

Undefeated

Eight teams among the Power Five Conferences have yet to lose a game.  Two of these teams, Clemson and LSU, have faced several tests thus far, earning signature wins over Notre Dame and Florida, respectively.  In addition to big wins, both have played strong overall schedules and respectable non-conference opponents.  These two undefeated teams have proved they belong.  The other six, however, are receiving a boost from name recognition, last season's performances and the ever ambiguous "eye test."

To put this in perspective, let's look at the strength of schedule ratings for all of eight of these teams.  Keep in mind that all eight are undefeated, so there is no question of comparing losses or any ambiguity in comparing straight strength of schedule.  The schedules these teams have played and defeated are the totality of their body of work, anything else is just style points.

AP Rank

Average SoS Rank

Team

ESPN SoS Rank

Sagarin SoS Rank

FEI SoS Rank

ACC

3

45

Clemson

22

27

85

SEC

4

26

LSU

26

31

22

Big 12

2

90

Baylor

107

102

61

5

56

TCU

60

57

50

12

73

Oklahoma State

75

79

65

Big 10

1

69

Ohio State

74

70

63

6

57

Michigan State

61

63

47

10

62

Iowa

53

37

97

By comparing the average of three different strength of schedule metrics (ESPN, Jeff Sagarin and Football Outsiders FEI), two interesting points jump out.  First, Clemson and LSU have performed significantly better than any of the other undefeated teams with respect to their strength of schedule.  They are by far the top two teams in this respect, meaning they have the strongest body of work, yet the AP has them sitting at three and four, something the committee may see fit to correct.

Secondly, of the three undefeated teams in both the Big 12 and the Big 10, the highest ranked AP team has decidedly the worst body of work.  In the Big 12, TCU and Oklahoma State seem to be ordered correctly, but Baylor should actually fall last on this list.  The picture seems similar in the Big 10, although an argument could be made that the three are ranked completely backwards, as both ESPN and Jeff Sagarin's metrics give the nod to Iowa as the best of the three.  Both conferences showed a significant disparity between their highest ranked teams, ordered one and two in the AP, and what they have actually accomplished on the field.

Strength of schedule was emphasized last season by the selection committee, it will be interesting to see if they take this opportunity, and use these metrics, to reiterate the point.  And if you want to have some fun playing with SoS, check out this link to a visualization of the FEI.

One Loss Powers

Just outside the undefeated teams, though occasionally ranked ahead of some of them, there are quite a few one-loss powers just waiting for the opportunity to crash the playoff party.  The committee demonstrated its willingness last season to rank one loss teams ahead of undefeated Florida State, so the possibility exists for one or more of these teams to appear in a top slot come next Tuesday.  The most likely candidates are as follows.

- Alabama -

The Tide fell early to Ole Miss in a game that had surprises all over the field.  Since the loss, however, the quarterback position has solidified, the defense has grown stronger and Alabama has defined itself as a team very few would want to face.  Jeff Sagarin has them ranked number one in two of his three predictive metrics, second in the third.  ESPN similarly ranks the Tide as first in their strength of record metric, which attempts to capture the difficulty in achieving a team's record, in Alabama's case 7-1, relative to their schedule, which ESPN ranks as the third strongest.  Nick Saban's team has impressed so much despite the one loss that they even received a number one vote in the AP poll.

While none of these accolades remove the blemish that is the Ole Miss loss from Alabama's record, they may distract the committee enough to push the battle-tested Tide above some of these undefeated teams with little meat on their resumes.

- Stanford -

The Cardinal have a similar story to Alabama in that after an early loss (the season opener two time zones away), they have come on strong.  Stanford's flop at Northwestern is not as strong as the Tide's loss to Ole Miss, but impressive victories over UCLA, Washington and on the road against USC have them right back in the mix.  In addition, ESPN ranks the strength of their remaining schedule at 23rd, higher than any other one-loss team. This means Stanford still has time to impress, particularly with an end of the regular season showdown with Notre Dame, another one-loss power in the mix, and a likely Pac-12 Championship Game.

While I wouldn't expect the Cardinal to grab a top spot in the committee's first set of rankings, look for them to climb slowly but surely.  Much like the nature of this team and their coach, David Shaw, they are a steady and unstoppable force on the way towards their goals.

- Florida and Utah -

The Gators and the Utes have quite a bit in common, despite being on opposite sides of the country.  Not only has Urban Meyer coached both of these teams with massive success, but they also boast extremely strong resumes but fell heavily in the AP poll after their first loss.  While Utah felt the sting of a revived USC squad, Florida lost their quarterback, then their first game in Death Valley.  Both these teams also face a public relations deficit as more prominent names sit across division boundaries, i.e. Alabama and Stanford.

What both teams have going for them, however, are impressive records and even more opportunities for signature wins.  Both Utah and Florida rank in the top ten in both ESPN's strength of schedule and strength of record metrics.  Only one other team in the AP Top 25 can make this claim: Alabama.  In addition, if Florida and Utah win out, they will have the chance to knock off a significant conference opponent in their Championship Game.

While these teams may not make the top four slots of the committee's first rankings, look for them to be significantly higher than they are in the AP due to a committee that punishes these teams less for playing such difficult schedules.  Ole Miss was 4th in the committee's first rankings last season after their first loss, while the AP dropped them all the way to 7th.

While attempting to predict the committee's top four on a weekly basis is an exercise in futility, it certainly provides a welcome center of debate while we slog through the midseason lull.  Luckily, we have only one more week before the committee releases their first rankings and a whole new debate begins.  Here is my prediction for the top four.

- 1 - LSU

- 2 - Clemson

- 3 - Ohio State

- 4 - Alabama

The committee likes strength of schedule, and there are two undefeated teams that have proven themselves against this metric while still coming out clean.  LSU gets the nod with more top 25 wins and the air of a more dangerous team, but they are very close.  Ohio State may not have the resume, but it does have the pedigree, has looked like a difficult team to beat and boasts a better strength of schedule than Baylor, particularly in non-conference games.  Finally, Alabama joins the party as the best one loss team.  The committee knows that this is a first cut, and much will work itself out on the field, so what better time to reemphasize the point that difficult schedules will be rewarded.  Until things play out, the committee's list of four will be far more interesting than the AP Poll, and a good place to start in the second year of the College Football Playoff.