The purpose of the College Football Playoff’s mock selection exercise is to educate the media so the media can educate the public.
Plenty of the former transpired over the past two days in Dallas; hopefully, a morsel of the latter will unfold here right now.
The exercise is not designed to lift the curtain on the current season.
Instead, our group of 12 applied the selection process to 2012, creating a playoff bracket and January Six bowl matchups based on how that season transpired.
Three things were clear as we assessed and voted, and they should be kept in mind as ’17 hurdles toward selection Sunday:
1. The committee uses four criteria to separate teams that are clustered: conference championships, strength of schedule, head-to-head results and comparative outcomes against common opponents (without incentivizing margin of victory).
2. Wins over teams that are .500 or better is an important evaluation tool that eventually morphs into wins over teams in the committee’s top-25 rankings. (The weekly rankings debut in November.)
3. Relative scoring on offense and defense is also valued as a data point for the committee when comparing teams, because it shows dominance:
How many points did you score/allow against opponents compared to how many points your opponents scored/allowed in all games.
In other words: If Team X slapped 40 points on Team Y, which allows an average of 20 per game, that’s a high relative score for X.
*** There was no discussion of 2017, but the mock committee’s assessment provides a launching point for a topic that’s relevant any season:
Will a two-loss team make the playoff?
I’ll take a deep dive in a moment. But here’s the canvass:
We seeded the teams in the following order based on results through the conference championship games, and remember: Undefeated Ohio State was not eligible in 2012, which meant five-loss Wisconsin was the Big Ten champion.
(Also ineligible: Penn State, North Carolina and Miami).
Our top 12:
1. Notre Dame
8. Texas A&M
9. South Carolina
10. Kansas State
12. Florida State
That led to the following assignments (with the 2017-18 bowl rotation):
Rose: Notre Dame vs. Florida (semifinal)
Sugar: Alabama vs. Stanford (semifinal)
Cotton: Kansas State vs. LSU (Big 12 vs. at-large)
Fiesta: Oregon vs. Texas A&M (at-large vs. at-large)
Peach: Louisville vs. Wisconsin (Group of Five vs. Big Ten)
Orange: Florida State vs. Georgia (ACC vs. at-large)
You might have picked up on two developments.ye
* We had two teams from the same conference (Alabama and Florida) in the semifinals, which has not happened in the real world CFP.
* We also had a two-loss team (Stanford) in semifinals, which hasn’t happened in the real world CFP.
The matter of two-loss Stanford is of particular interest to me in lieu of recent comments by a senior administrator at USC, and I’ll address that below.
We certainly discussed the Cardinal’s resume relative to Oregon’s, and the mock committee determined that Stanford’s head-to-head victory and conference championship trumped Oregon’s resume, which included only one loss.
(You might recall the head-to-head meeting: Stanford upset the No. 1 Ducks in Eugene 17-14 in overtime.)
Note: I played the role of current committee member Rob Mullens, who is Oregon’s athletic director, and therefore did not participate in any voting or discussion involving the Ducks, per the committee’s recusal policy.
*** Now, the comments by a senior administrator at USC:
Steve Lopes, the Trojans’ chief operating officer, told the Los Angeles Times several weeks ago that A-level non-conference games (USC-Texas, for instance) could be counterproductive for some schools in the CFP era.
It’s a valid point: No two-loss team has made the semifinals, so why would a team that already plays nine conference games schedule an A-lister out of conference.
For USC, which plays Notre Dame, that’s particularly true.
“It’s going to be much more difficult to justify playing those kinds of series,” Lopes said. “Is it great for college football? Absolutely. Is it great for us to try to get to the final four, to the CFP? Probably not.”
Thus far, there is no evidence of teams ratcheting down schedules.
In fact, the CFP’s impact seems to be the opposite: More teams are playing high-level non-conference games — Labor Day weekend has become the main stage — in order to boost resumes.
And it works: Oklahoma’s win at Tennessee in 2015 helped push the Sooners into the CFP, and Ohio State’s win last year in Norman was vital to the Buckeyes becoming the first non-champion to make the semifinals.
But what if we have two or three more seasons without a two-loss participant? Does the CFP need a two-loss team in order to ease concerns about scheduling A-level non-conference games?
Also: What’s the likeliest path into the playoff for a two-loss team?
The media group that convened Wednesday and Thursday seemed to provide a path with its evaluation of Stanford’s 2012 resume:
* It would have to be a two-loss conference champion that defeated a conference rival also worthy of playoff consideration (in Stanford’s case: Oregon)
* One of the losses would have to come outside the conference against a highly-ranked opponent (in Stanford’s case: Notre Dame)
* The two-loss playoff hopeful would need a rugged schedule and no bad losses (Stanford did not play an FCS team, faced six ranked opponents and lost two close road games, to the Irish and Washington, which went 7-5).
In our mock exercise, undefeated Ohio State was ineligible in ’12. But we ranked Stanford ahead of SEC at-large Florida, so the Cardinal would have qualified even with OSU in the discussion.
Two losses could work, it seems, if there are no holes — no reasons for the committee to be dismissive.
I asked Kirby Hocutt, the committee chair in 2017 (and Texas Tech’s athletic director), about the potential for teams to back away from A-level non-conference matchups if a two-loss team doesn’t make the CFP in the next few years.
“It’s important to play a good schedule and win those games,’’ he said with a half smile and no-nonsense tone.
If we apply the Stanford ’12 model to the Pac-12 in 2017 based on results to date and reasonable paths forward, USC appears to be the only team capable of reaching the CFP with two losses:
The other teams with zero/one loss thus far simply don’t have the non-conference SOS muscle. The committee would not have to dig deep to find a reason to nudge them aside.
Which leads me to these conclusions:
Formula for the Pac-12 to send a two-loss champ to the CFP:
The Trojans finish 8-1 in conference (with the loss coming to a contender); they win the title game; their second loss comes at Notre Dame, in a close game; and the Irish post a nine- or 10-win season.
Formula for the Pac-12 to send two teams to the CFP:
Washington wins the North with zero/one loss; USC wins the South with zero losses; and the Huskies win the title game.
Given the committee’s stated emphasis on strength of schedule, the Trojans are the only teams that could reach the CFP without winning the title game.
And the matchup would have to be UW and USC because they don’t meet during the regular season.
Both scenarios are unlikely, of course. But hopefully this discussion has provided some insight into the potential options for the Pac-12 as October arrives.
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