With how much other parties have to gain by influencing the playoff committee (See A Call for Justice, Humility, and a 12 Team Playoff), we need an unbiased view to breakdown the facts to determine who should really be in the playoffs. Now, there are a lot of different possibilities at the moment with most conference championships still yet to be played, but we’ll cover the most likely scenarios as we determine who deserves the right to play in the playoffs.
Let’s begin with the easiest decision of them all. Alabama throughout the entire year has looked like the most complete and dominant team. There was one moment of weakness when they fell behind Ole Miss 24-3 before climbing back in the game and eventually winning 48-43. There was one moment of exposure when LSU showed that if you have a Duke Riley and a stout defense you can contain the Alabama offense for three quarters. But in all reality, there is nothing that could occur on Championship Saturday to prevent Alabama from being in the playoff and it would take something monumental from Florida to knock them out of the top spot.
So what happens next? Alabama is definitely in, so which other teams fall into the last three spots? Because we have the advantage of already knowing what Washington did to Colorado, there are only two teams among Power 5 conferences that have the potential to have only one loss and a conference championship; Washington and Clemson. We already know Washington falls into this group. Clemson has to beat a 9-3 Virginia Tech team to fall into the same category. Should this occur, Clemson should be awarded a spot in the playoff. They have beaten three top 15 teams throughout the course of their season and have proven that they belong in the hunt for a championship.
As for Washington, many people have questioned Washington’s strength of schedule with regard to non-conference opponents bringing up that they rank 118th in this category. This is a decoy ranking that should have no bearing on the committee’s decision. The real number that should be looked at is actual strength of schedule where Washington ranks 60th. Still quite pathetic, however, when comparing this to Clemson’s rank of 47th, it doesn’t look so terrible. Washington’s body of work includes a recent decisive win over a top ten team in Colorado, a conference championship in a tough and, per ESPN, a ranking of number 1 in offensive efficiency and a ranking of number 2 in overall efficiency. Washington has certainly earned their way into the playoff.
So, if Clemson wins, only one spot remains. We will discuss the alternatives if Clemson loses afterwards. So if three spots are filled, who takes the remaining spot? Well it is the general consensus that Ohio St., despite not winning its conference championship, should be the fourth and final team in the playoff after having only lost once throughout the season. And this sentiment should probably be the case as they have beaten some phenomenal teams over the course of the year. However, in order to remain unbiased we need to consider one issue with vaulting Ohio St. into the playoffs.
The two teams that have made it into the Big Ten Championship game have been some of the toughest teams Ohio St. has faced. In fact, one of those teams, Penn St., handed Ohio St. its only loss. The other team, Wisconsin, was beating Ohio St. for 45 minutes in their game before eventually losing in overtime. Suffice it to say, neither of these teams would be a “gimme” game for Ohio St. and really, the way Ohio St. played against Michigan St. and Michigan, you could easily argue they could very well lose to either of the Big Ten Championship teams if they had to face them in a 13th game.
Imagine, if Ohio St. was forced to play in this Big Ten Championship game, and they lost, would they still be in the playoff? Maybe not. Then, wouldn’t exalting them to a playoff berth without seeing the game play out be the same as saying we think they would beat either of those teams? Despite our knowledge of the outcomes of the previous games? This certainly would not be fair to those teams who worked hard and actually made it to the playoffs. So, what if, for this reason and for argument’s sake, we give the benefit of the doubt to the team that actually wins the Big Ten Championship. We would then look at Ohio St.’s body of work and punish them for not getting into the championship, looking at their schedule as if they lost that 13th game. You could argue this is fairer than saying not playing in a 13th game means nothing, or assuming Ohio St. would win against these teams when they didn’t even play. Using this method, if Penn St. wins, they would have beaten Wisconsin and Ohio St. and won the Big Ten Championship. Comparing them to Ohio St. as if they both had two losses, this would surely put Penn St. in over Ohio St.
If Wisconsin wins, the argument becomes more interesting. Wisconsin would have the Big Ten Championship Crown, they would have the two losses to two good teams in Michigan and Ohio St., and while the head to head was against the one we are arguing for, it was in over time. If we are saying they both have two losses, it would be tough to argue an overtime head to head win is more powerful than a Conference Championship when the teams are from the same conference. This literally means Wisconsin would be crowned over Ohio St. with the same number of losses leading me to believe Wisconsin should get in. While this system seems harsh and unfair, Ohio St. controlled their fate when they played Penn St. and they were unable to capitalize by making it to the Big Ten Championship. They do not play a 13th game and therefore when considering them against another team who played 13 games where a loss was a possible outcome especially from a team within their own conference, assuming a loss seems like a justifiably fair action to take. Reward those who win their conferences.
If this were the case, our field would be set as Alabama, Clemson, Washington, and the Big Ten Champion arguably in that order.
However, if Clemson loses, this opens up a whole new question of who should be included. Now we would be comparing teams with the same number of games and the most likely candidates would be Ohio St., Michigan, and the Big 12 Champion. In this case, Ohio St. has won more games, and would have potentially beaten both of the other teams if Oklahoma is the Big 12 Champion. Either way, due to winning more games and having a more difficult strength of schedule than any of the three other teams in question, Ohio St. should be placed as the fourth team in the playoff should Clemson lose.
The biggest problem with the “eye test” is it can be manipulated based on what we see and different entities control what we see. If we continue to check these “eye tests” versus the facts, we won’t be led into leaving a more deserving team out of the playoff.
Just for fun, and for the sake of tying up loose ends, when comparing Michigan vs. the Big 12 Champion and only looking at facts, Oklahoma St. would and should be behind Michigan due to a comparatively low overall strength of schedule. When comparing Michigan to Oklahoma however, things get more interesting.
They both played Ohio St. and both lost. Michigan made that game much closer going to overtime after having led the game most of the way, though the two games were at very different stages of the season with Michigan able to refine their team over the course of the entire season while Oklahoma was just trying to determine their identity at the beginning of the season. Other facts to consider, Oklahoma’s strength of schedule is ranked 18th by the Sagarin Rankings (which is a metric the BCS used to use and the AP poll still uses) while Michigan’s SOS is ranked 33rd. Oklahoma’s other loss was the first game of the season to a Houston team that manhandled Lamar Jackson and Louisville, while Michigan’s other loss was to an Iowa team with no other distinguishable wins. Finally Michigan has had two real away games outside of Michigan, not including 2-10 Rutgers, Iowa and Ohio St. both within the last three weeks. They lost both. If we are saying which team deserves to be in based only on the facts, Oklahoma might deserve the Playoff over Michigan if somehow the selection committee found a way to come down to it.