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Myth Busting The College Football Playoff Committee’s Selection Process

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Is it really chaos if a team can’t avoid a loss?

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

With the initial College Football Playoff rankings out, every outlet is speculating on how things will play out down the stretch. Will Penn State’s loss to Ohio State all but assure another missed opportunity? Are both Alabama and Georgia locked into the playoff, with the rest of the season serving as a formality? Can Notre Dame finish out with one loss?

As with the previous three seasons, theories and ideas are flying around, with something seemingly going under the radar for everyone: The season isn’t over yet, and some of the teams already slotted into the playoff can’t avoid an extra loss.

Before this weekend’s games get started, let’s clarify some myths that seem to pop up with frequency when discussing the committee’s decision making process, and Penn State’s own playoff prospects in relation to that process.

Myth: Ohio State jumped TCU in 2014

Truth: Ohio State jumped Baylor

One of the most popular arguments against the committee is that in 2014, Ohio State jumped TCU, a team ranked third in the CFP Rankings only a week before the season ended. The story goes that, because the Horned Frogs played lowly Iowa State in the final week of the season, while the Buckeyes were battling it out with 13th-ranked (at the time) Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, TCU was punished and Ohio State, the bigger brand, got a free pass. Reality, on the other hand, looks a little different.

Yes, playing Iowa State to end the season didn’t do TCU any favors, but they had to play Iowa State at some point. Had they played the Cyclones earlier in the season, they wouldn’t have been ranked third in the last week of the year, as their SOS would have been weaker at that point, making most arguments moot.*

However, playing Iowa State to end the season isn’t what did TCU in. Their problem was losing to Baylor. Because Baylor only finished with one loss, just like TCU, they held the tiebreaker over the Horned Frogs...

...until the Big 12 realized that One True Champion™ Baylor, with one win over any teams of note (TCU itself), no Power 5 teams in the non-conference schedule (or teams with a winning record, period), and one bad loss to eventual 7-5 West Virginia, would weaken the conference’s case in the playoff. So the last week of the season, they decided to hand two trophies, and now TCU has a championship ring, just like Baylor!

The playoff committee did not fall for the Big 12’s trick. They put Baylor ahead of TCU in the final rankings based mainly on head to head. The committee, who was under the impression that head to head would decide the Big 12 champion up to the very last minute, probably had already factored this in by the time the Big 12 tried to pull a fast one on them.

That leads us to the scenario that took place after the change. Picture it this way: When three teams finish with the same record in a conference, tiebreaker scenarios are applied until one of those teams doesn’t meet the criteria, and then the comparison starts over with the remaining two teams. The same thing happened with Ohio State, Baylor, and TCU. See the image below:

The results below outline how TCU, when everything was taken into consideration, fell short to Baylor. The biggest reason being that both teams had a championship under their belt, but only one had the head-to-head (Baylor also had key injuries to their QBs while TCU had no such roadblocks). With TCU out of the way, Baylor’s accomplishments didn’t stack up to Ohio State’s, so the Buckeyes made it in. This leads me to the next myth.

Myth: Good teams don’t get punished for losing to bad teams

Truth: Losing once doesn’t eliminate anybody, but it affects where they’re ranked

Going back to 2014, many felt that Ohio State’s loss to Virginia Tech, who went 6-6 on the season, should have been an automatic disqualifier for the Buckeyes. The thought process makes sense, as in the BCS era the only way a team lost positioning was by losing. Such a loss on their resume, with the previous mindset, should have been devastating. The issue is that, as we discussed above, Baylor had an equally bad loss to West Virginia, who finished with merely one more win than Virginia Tech did. If such losses automatically eliminate teams, both Baylor and Ohio State should be gone. This then leads us to the next team on the list, TCU, whose sole loss came to the same Baylor team we’re eliminating based on a bad loss. In essence, the argument implies that losing once to a bad team should hold more weight than winning the rest of your games, despite who the team beats in the process.

That said, Ohio State and Baylor aren’t the only teams who lost to bad opponents in the past three seasons. 2015 Michigan State, a team that made the playoff over Ohio State, lost to a Nebraska team that went 5-7 on the season. Because of that loss, they fell to #7 in the nation and would not recover enough to make it above 4th. Maybe if Michigan State hadn’t had that bad loss on their resume, they could have avoided Alabama altogether, and things would look a lot different for the Spartans. We’ll never know.

Once again, another team lost to a seemingly bad opponent and got penalized for it. In 2016, Clemson lost, at home, to a Pitt team that would finish 8-4 on the season. The loss is not as damaging as the others above them, but still damaging enough to drop them to 4th in the rankings, and would stay there until Michigan lost a few weeks later. Speaking of, Michigan’s loss to Iowa didn’t drop them out of the top 4 entirely, and in fact kept them above Clemson until they lost again. Because Clemson’s home loss to Pitt was viewed as a worse loss than Michigan’s road defeat at the hands of Iowa, the committee gave the Wolverines the benefit of the doubt until they lost a second time.

In short, teams who lose do get punished, but when considering the overall body of work, who teams beat is more important to the committee than who they lose to, as long as they only lose once.**

Myth: Penn State needs chaos to make the playoff

Truth: Penn State’s path to the playoff is more straightforward than you think

The Nittany Lions’ last-second, soul-crushing loss to Ohio State left many believing that the window to a playoff spot had been shut. Chaos, they stated, would be the only way Penn State could work its way back into it after losing to the only ranked team they’d faced so far this season. Reality, however, isn’t as such.

By virtue of schedules, several teams are guaranteed to have a least one more loss by season’s end.

  • Oklahoma plays Oklahoma State and TCU, Oklahoma State still has Iowa State.
  • The team that manages to go through this stretch without losing, if there is one, will have to play one of these teams again in the Big 12 Championship Game.
  • Alabama plays Georgia in a hypothetical SEC championship game.
  • If Alabama wins, Georgia suddenly becomes a one-loss team without a conference championship and only one win of note. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this scenario already happened. Iowa in 2015 was undefeated heading into the conference championship game, with its only worthy win at the time being over 10-2, No. 14 Northwestern. The Hawkeyes went on to lose that game and fall out of the top four entirely. Could the win over Notre Dame carry the Bulldogs to the playoff, despite their mediocre resume otherwise?
  • If Georgia wins, the picture for Alabama becomes even more dreary. The Crimson Tide’s trump card was Florida State, who is currently 2-5 and all but assured a losing season if they can’t beat Clemson. Their best wins would come against theoretical 4-loss Auburn, 3-loss LSU, and 3-loss Mississippi State. That, of course, assumes all three of those teams don’t drop another game elsewhere. Could Alabama survive on name alone?
  • Every team in the Pac-12 has at least two losses, save for Washington. Washington still has to play Stanford, Oregon (this weekend), Utah, and Washington State. If they survive that stretch, they’ll have to face suddenly resurgent Arizona or talented, but flawed USC in the championship game. Washington’s issues are two-fold. They could win out, but not pick up any meaningful wins by virtue of how mediocre the Pac-12 is, or they could lose again and be officially eliminated.
  • Like the Big 12, the ACC has several teams that can’t avoid a loss due to the upcoming schedule. Miami plays Virginia Tech (this weekend), and Notre Dame at home in two weeks.
  • Clemson, who has the easiest path remaining, still has games left against NC State (this weekend), Florida State, and South Carolina. Given that Kelly Bryant is not at 100%, none of those are guaranteed wins just yet.
  • Notre Dame, whom we already mentioned above, also has a road game against Stanford, and home games against Wake Forest and Navy left. Remember: Navy beat Notre Dame last season by limiting the Irish to six possessions on offense, two in the second half.

This is, admittedly, a lot to digest. Ultimately the committee will decide who goes in based on their criteria, but the path is there for Penn State. A handful of teams that would threaten the Nittany Lions’ chances at a playoff appearance can’t avoid a loss, and until proven otherwise, no 2-loss team will jump a 1-loss team. Likewise, the loser of a championship game is out until proven otherwise. As long as Penn State gives itself a chance by finishing the season 11-1, the path is there. As the committee has already shown, losing once doesn’t eliminate you from contention.


*For the sake of this exercise, we’ll also assume they wouldn’t have played Kansas in the last week of the season either.
**Or, alternatively, if enough teams lose twice to make it matter. We haven’t seen that scenario yet.