With the regular season now over, here are my playoff thoughts.
1. Conference titles should matter, but not to the degree they do (or to the degree the most analysts think they do).
Yes, winning your conference is important and is the goal of every college football team when the season begins. They hang banners for that sort of thing. However, a conference title in today’s world does not, and should not mean the same thing as it did just a decade or so ago. Remember the ACC as it was formatted in the 90s and early 00s? Yes, Florida State had their way with the conference, but it was also a round-robin league. Every team played every other team. No team enjoyed any scheduling advantages, save for the venue of the game. No team got to duck Florida State. Before the new century, winning your conference meant that you were probably the best team in it most years. Even when conferences went to divisions, beginning with the SEC in the early 90s, teams still had to play most of the teams in their conference. For example, SEC teams from 1992 through 2011 played eight conference games. This means they faced eight of eleven potential conference opponents in the regular season. Percentage wise, that is about 73%. Same with the Big 12 from 1996 through 2010 and the ACC from 2005 through 2012. However, with conferences totaling 14 teams for the ACC, Big 10, and SEC, today ACC and SEC teams only play eight of thirteen potential conference opponents in the regular season (62%). The Big 10 and Pac-12 at least play nine conference games so they face 69% (Big 10) and 82% (Pac-12) respectively. In the modern era of college football, conferences are really just a revenue sharing entity consisting of teams in the same (sort of) region. Penn State may have won the Big 10, but while their victory was partly the result of their fine play down the stretch, it was also impacted by the format of the conference. Yes, Penn State beat Ohio State head-to-head to win that tiebreaker and get to the conference title game, but let’s not pretend the conference title automatically makes Penn State the better team. And that brings me to my next point.
2. Head-to-head results matter…to a certain extent.
Yes, Penn State beat Ohio State on the field and that should matter. Let’s consider a few extenuating factors though. The game was at Penn State. It was close. It was won on a blocked field goal. Now, Penn State certainly deserves credit for winning the game and inflicting the only loss of the season on the Buckeyes, but homefield advantage matters in college football (and all sports). Consider a little thought exercise. If this game had been in Columbus, could the outcome conceivably been different? I certainly think so. Secondly, the game was close. Penn State did not dominate the Buckeyes. They trailed for much of the game, and won with a late fourth quarter score. Finally, they won via a blocked field goal. Blocking a field goal is part skill, but also requires a great deal of luck. Maybe for the sake of simplicity, let’s say 80% luck 20% skill. That sound about right? Blocking a field goal and returning it for a touchdown requires a great deal more luck. Let’s not completely devalue the play and result of the game, but let’s keep in mind that Penn State was fortunate to win the game at home. And another thing…
3. All the games have to matter.
I haven’t heard a lot of pundits mention this, but you know Penn State lost to Michigan right? Yep. They did. They also lost to Pitt, and while the Panthers did beat Clemson on the road, Pittsburgh still has four losses. Granted, none of Pitt’s losses are bad (Miami, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, and Virginia Tech), they still have four of them. College football teams only play twelve or thirteen games before bowl season. Consider other sports. College basketball teams play more than 30 games before they are evaluated for a subjective postseason tournament. Twelve or thirteen games is not a very large sample, so you really can’t exclude any when evaluating a team. You have to consider them all. Yes, Penn State beat Ohio State, but Ohio State beat Oklahoma in Norman (probably the best non-conference win next to Alabama’s curb-stomping of Southern Cal). And their win in Norman was not via a late field goal. They won by three scores. They also beat a pretty good Wisconsin team on the road, pummeled Nebraska, and beat Michigan. Even one of their non-conference games against a mid-major opponent ended up looking pretty good. No one will confuse Tulsa with the 85 Bears, but the Buckeyes beat them handily and that is a quality win. The Buckeyes won most of their games by a very large margin, which brings me to…
4. Margin of victory matters.
I know margin of victory can bring with it cries of lack of sportsmanship, but there is no question there is a difference between beating a team 24-21 and beating a team 49-10. Obviously, those two scores were not arbitrarily chosen. The first is the margin by which Penn State beat Ohio State and the second is the margin by which Michigan beat Penn State. Yes, in case you had forgotten, Michigan beat Penn State by more than five touchdowns. Sure, sometimes a game can get out of hand late, and not be indicative of the actual closeness of the contest. That being said, playoff committee members have access to the internet I assume and can easily read write-ups and view box scores of games they may have missed viewing live. I don’t think teams should be rewarded for running up the score. There is no real difference between a 30-point win and a 50-point win, but there is a huge difference between a win by a field goal and a win by five touchdowns. And one more thing.
5. Venue matters. Alabama played six of their thirteen games away from home (four road and two neutral site games). Ohio State played five true road games in their twelve game schedule, including games at Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Penn State. Clemson played six road or neutral site games including games at Auburn, Florida State, and Georgia Tech. Washington played six road or neutral site games including games at Utah and Washington State. Penn State holds up well by this measure, playing six road or neutral site games including road games against Pittsburgh and Michigan. This is where Michigan's schedule does not hold up. The Wolverines played twelve games. Eight of them were at home, and nine were in the state of Michigan. They lost half of those games. Had the Wolverines beaten Ohio State and played in the Big 10 Championship Game, they would have played five road or neutral games and be more comparable to the other playoff contenders.
I bring these things up to say that outside of Alabama, who is a clear cut playoff entrant, the Ohio State Buckeyes are the team most deserving of a college football playoff invite. If the Buckeyes do not make the playoff, the committee will go against their stated goal of choosing the four best teams. Ohio State has a slew of good to great wins, including Michigan, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, no bad losses, and a good scoring margin. If the Buckeyes do not make the playoff, the committee should be honest and say they are simply choosing four of the five best Power 5 conference champions, not the four best teams in college football. With Alabama and Ohio State accounted for, filling out the rest of the playoff bracket is pretty easy. Clemson is obviously in. The Tigers won at Auburn, Georgia Tech, and Florida State while beating Louisville at home and Virginia Tech at a neutral site. Their only loss was on a field goal as time expired. Either way, they should be the number two or three seed and face Ohio State. Finally, Washington is the easy final choice. Big 10 fans may want to penalize the Huskies for a soft non-conference schedule, but in their thirteen games, they played eleven Power 5 teams. Yes, Rutgers is bad, but three other playoff contenders share the same division as Rutgers and got to play them as well. Washington has half as many losses as Penn State, with their loss coming to perhaps the hottest team in college football. Penn State also lost to a very good team, but they were not competitive at all. If that was their only defeats, they would probably be in, but the additional loss to Pittsburgh should doom them to the Rose Bowl.
Finally, as a mid-major apologist, I want to address Western Michigan. The Broncos enjoyed a fantastic season and with their unbeaten record will get to play in a New Years Six Bowl. In the
first few sets of rankings, they never sniffed the top four, and they shouldn’t have. Western Michigan beat a pair of Big 10 teams, but Northwestern and Illinois were middling and bad respectively. Had the Broncos beaten a team on par with the likes of Oklahoma or Colorado and finished unbeaten, I think they would merit consideration for the top four spots, but even then I think the top teams have resumes that are too strong this season. That being said, I can’t wait to see how they match up against their Power Five opponent. The rankings and bowl matchups will take shape over the next few hours. Let’s enjoy these last 41 college football games before the nine month offseason ahead.