I love the holiday season! I still get to enjoy the Halloween experience with my children for a few more years. Thanksgiving is one of those times when we get to see family that lives far enough away that we don’t get to see them all the time, and I like Christmas as much as anyone. For me, the holiday season includes one more thing – the College Football Playoff rankings show on Tuesday nights! I think most of you know by now that my blood runneth orange, so I miss seeing Clemson in the rankings, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy seeing how all the teams are ranked and hearing the debate that ensues after their release.

Looking at the top of the rankings, no one was surprised that Georgia was at the top of the list, but the debate starts quickly with Alabama, Michigan State and Oregon rounding out the Top Four. They were followed by Ohio State, Cincinnati, Michigan, and Oklahoma. While I don’t agree with the order in which these teams are ranked, I do agree that those teams belong in the first eight slots.

I have a theory when it comes to the CFP rankings. I have noticed that the two most important things to this committee appear to be 1) the number of wins a team has against current Top 25 teams and 2) how many losses total. They obviously consider other factors, but usually you will see the teams line up into tiers based on a score based on a simple equation: Top 25 wins minus losses.

Team Top 25 Wins Losses Score
Georgia 2 0 2
Alabama 2 1 1
Michigan State 1 0 1
Oregon 2 1 1
Ohio State 1 1 0
Cincinnati 1 0 1
Michigan 1 1 0
Oklahoma 0 0 0
Wake Forest 0 0 0
Notre Dame 1 1 0
Oklahoma State 1 1 0
Baylor 1 1 0
Auburn 1 2 -1
Texas A&M 0 2 -2
BYU 0 2 -2
Ole Miss 0 2 -2
Mississippi St. 3 3 0
Kentucky 0 2 -2
NC State 0 2 -2
Minnesota 0 2 -2
Wisconsin 1 3 -2
Iowa 0 2 -2
Fresno State 1 2 -1
San Diego State 0 1 -1
Pittsburgh 0 2 -2

Georgia is the only team that scores a 2, and logically they are at the top. Four of the next five spots are occupied by teams that score a 1, either because they have one Top 25 win, or they have two Top 25 wins and a loss. The outlier: Ohio State, who has a single Top 25 win (Minnesota) and a loss (Oregon). It certainly appears the Buckeyes were boosted by the fact that their lone loss was to a team the committee ranked in the Top four, but it also appears that they are applying the eye test as well. I have pushed back against getting too carried away about seeing Ohio State crushing teams like Indiana, Maryland & Rutgers. When you are making an eye test judgement, you need to consider the quality of the opponent. The eye test works best when the opponent is a certain level of quality. The committee might be considering Penn State as a quality opponent, but the reality is they aren’t a Top 25 level team based on what we know right now. Penn State’s highest ranking of #4 was clearly a misjudgment based on a lack of information at the time (aka we hadn’t seen them play enough games yet).

This score also helps us understand why Cincinnati is placed where they are, as the lowest team scored with a 1. They are the team at that tier that has (generally) the weakest schedule. It is a shame that Indiana is having a bad season. The Bearcats really could have used that as a quality win, but at this point its just a road win.

The other thing that stands out on this list is the team at the center of all the ‘The Committee Wants Alabama In” conspiracy theorists: Mississippi State. People look at their record, see three losses and immediately say “They don’t belong!”  The reality is that no team in the nation has as many Top 25 wins to this point than the Bulldogs. They have beaten NC State, Texas A&M on the road, and Kentucky. As you can see, the committee put them well below the other teams that scored a 0, so they did penalize them more for the third loss and dinged them for eye test too. The good wins also came with losses to LSU and Memphis. Ranking them at #17, ahead of Kentucky and NC State? No conspiracy theories here, folks. It’s a fair ranking. Besides, the longer Coach Leach is relevant to the conversation, the better, at least in my opinion. 

Another factor I have noticed that the committee traditionally respects is road wins against Power 5 opponents. Here is the tally for each Top 25 team:

Team Top 25 Wins Losses Score Road Wins against P5
Georgia 2 0 2 1
Alabama 2 1 1 2
Michigan State 1 0 1 4
Oregon 2 1 1 2
Ohio State 1 1 0 3
Cincinnati 1 0 1 2
Michigan 1 1 0 1
Oklahoma 0 0 0 2
Wake Forest 0 0 0 2
Notre Dame 1 1 0 2
Oklahoma State 1 1 0 1
Baylor 1 1 0 1
Auburn 1 2 -1 2
Texas A&M 0 2 -2 2
BYU 0 2 -2 1
Ole Miss 0 2 -2 1
Mississippi St. 3 3 0 2
Kentucky 0 2 -2 1
NC State 0 2 -2 2
Minnesota 0 2 -2 3
Wisconsin 1 3 -2 2
Iowa 0 2 -2 2
Fresno State 1 2 -1 1
San Diego State 0 1 -1 1
Pittsburgh 0 2 -2 3

This gives us a decent read on why Michigan State is ranked at #3: four road victories against P5 opponents. They are not highly regarded opponents: Northwestern, Miami (Fl), Rutgers & Indiana, but four road P5 victories, nonetheless. We also see another factor for the Buckeyes rating: three P5 road victories. The other thing that stands out towards the top of the rankings is that Michigan is ranked ahead of Oklahoma, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame, despite the fact that the Wolverines only have one true road P5 victory against the Cornhuskers, and it was only a three-point win. The other three all have two road victories. Lastly, we should put some more respect on Pitt, with three road P5 wins, including at Blacksburg and Knoxville, two places that aren’t easy to play.

The factor we can’t really gauge is the eye test. At this point, I will make you sit through my rant about the eye test: ‘Eye Test’ is a double misnomer. Remember the old Saturday Night Live sketch Coffee Talk with Mike Myers? 

“I’m all verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. Here, I’ll give you a topic: the ‘Eye Test’ has nothing to do with the eyes, and it isn’t a test. Discuss.” 

Unless someone is color blind or isn’t wearing their corrective lenses, everyone’s eyes see the same thing. The real question is how do their brains assess what their eyes are seeing? That leads to the second point: by definition, a test is something that should be repeatable, meaning if you use the same variables every time, you should get the same results every time, no matter who administers the test. Since all eyes see the same variables, we should get the same results every time, regardless of which brain is scoring the test, but that obviously isn’t the case. As a result, the Eye Test is more appropriately labeled the ‘Brain Subjective Opinion.’ Maybe if we called it by its logical abbreviation, the BSO, we would have a better feel for where it belongs when making judgements.

To sum all this up, I don’t have a major problem with any of these rankings. I would move some here and there, but some of these rankings questions will be resolved in the next few weeks.  The SEC Championship Game will obviously impact the Top Four significantly, and that’s only if Alabama can win at Auburn. Ohio State has yet to play Michigan State (in the Horseshoe) and Michigan (at the Big House). Oklahoma has Iowa State, Baylor & Oklahoma State remaining, and even if they win all three of those games, they will have to play one of them a second time in the Big 12 Championship Game. Oregon would seem to have the easiest path of the Top Four, but still must travel to Washington and Utah, as well as face Washington State and Oregon State at home. The Beavers have been sneaky good at times this season and would love nothing more than knocking the Ducks out of the playoff. Wake Forest is the other undefeated P5 team with a chance to run the table and snag a conference championship, but a backloaded schedule with NC State, Clemson, and North Carolina (non-conference game) has many doubting the Deacons chances at the playoff.

That leaves little ole Cincinnati waiting to see if they have a chance to play with the big boys. They do have a chance, but it is in the Dumb & Dumber ‘So you’re telling me there is a chance?’ area. Cincinnati needs to run the table, win the American, and then have at least three of these things happen:

  • Alabama loses to either Auburn (which would put War Eagle in the SEC Championship game) or they need Georgia to curb stomp the Tide in Atlanta. Otherwise, the ‘The Saban Effect’ could cause something funny to happen
  • The Big Ten works out so only one team from the East has a chance to get in, which is most likely if Ohio State beats Sparty, and Michigan beats the Buckeyes, resulting in a three-way tie in the East.
  • Oregon loses another game, which is probably enough to eliminate them since the PAC 12 is still relatively weak overall (the Ducks are the only ranked PAC team right now)
  • Wake Forest loses a game. Any game.
  • The Big 12 needs to turn into a mess. If Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or Baylor runs the table and wins the Big 12 Championship game, they stand a great chance of jumping Cincinnati. The Bearcats need Oklahoma to beat Baylor, Oklahoma to lose to Iowa State & Oklahoma State, Oklahoma State to run the table, and then for the Cowboys to lose in the Big 12 Championship game. At that point, all teams contending from the Big 12 have at least two losses and aren’t likely to jump Cincinnati.

The only great thing going for the Bearcats right now? They hold the head-to-head win against Notre Dame, and since the Irish don’t play anymore ranked teams for the rest of the year, they don’t stand a chance to jump an undefeated Cincy.

All eyes should be on these games this weekend. These will be the biggest impactors to the top of the rankings:

  • Wake Forest at North Carolina: a non-conference game, but it doesn’t matter. Wake’s only chance is to be a 13-0 ACC Champion.
  • Michigan State at Purdue: the Boilermakers are giant killers, and even Spartans have big game hangovers.
  • Auburn at Texas A&M: an Auburn loss here combined with an Auburn win against Alabama would result in a three-way tie atop the West. I don’t know the tiebreakers, but since A&M would have beaten both Alabama and Auburn head-to-head, which might put the Aggies into the SEC Championship game.
  • Oregon at Washington: The Huskies aren’t as good as many of us expected, but this is a road game for the Ducks, who weren’t in a lot of Top Fours prior to last night because they haven’t looked as good on offense since CJ Verdell was injured and lost for the season.
  • Mississippi State at Arkansas: while we analyzed the logic of including the Bulldogs in the Top 25 earlier, they are hanging by a thread, and a fourth loss might just banish them for good.  Arkansas has come back to Earth, but they are still a decent team, they are playing in Fayetteville, and are favored by both ESPN and by Vegas. I am personally hoping MSU keeps The Pirate in the conversation.

It should be another entertaining college football Saturday! Dilly dilly!

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