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College Football Playoff: Will Strength of Schedule Matter?

Pac 12 Championship - Stanford v Arizona State

The College Football playoff starts next season. As a result, there has been a push from within to improve schedule strength. Marquee schools are seeking out marquee non-conference opponents (albeit at neutral sites). Conferences are discussing 9th and potentially 10th conference games, as well as forcing schools to schedule at least one major OOC opponent.

Improving schedules makes sense, from a business perspective. College Football is an entertainment property. Better games are more attractive to television viewers and to prospective season ticket buyers. What’s not clear is whether strength of schedule will affect the playoff.

What the selection committee will be examining has been left vague. The committee pledges to consider “obvious factors” such as strength of schedule. It has hired a service to provide “countless pieces of statistical information.” The only thing certain is the committee “will not use a single data point” similar to basketball’s RPI. If you had a formula for assessing a team’s raw performance against schedule strength, why have prominent individuals discussing it in a room? It’s also all but certain “strength of schedule” will preclude teams from outside the big five.

We don’t know what metrics the committee will be using. As Dave Bartoo points out on CFB Matrix, pretty much all of the SOS ones are problematic. None account for the physical demand placed on teams. Is playing six of the Top 30 teams in the Pac 12 really tougher than beating three of the Top 15 in the SEC?

Will any SOS metric outweigh the inherent fallacies in human polling? The selection committee, in many ways, may be a condensed version of previous human polls. Despite assertions committee members will be “breaking down film,” it is impossible to watch everything. As with the polls, much of this will come down to pure W-L record and box score tallying. Preseason polls will create an unfair basis for conventional wisdom. Events in November will outweigh distant events in September. But, it’s not a given the committee will function precisely like a poll.

A 13-0 or 12-0 season by a big five conference team or Notre Dame will be an automatic bid to the playoff come what may. But the concern for the Pac 12, Big 10, Big 12 and ACC is not what happens to an undefeated team. They need to get their one-loss champion in ahead of the one-loss, second-place SEC team.

Mark Dantonio avoids the Gatorade bath at the Rose Bowl

Mark Dantonio believes his Michigan State team would have won a playoff last season. Whether they would have been chosen for one is another question.

Looking at 2013, Florida State (13-0) would have been in. So would Auburn as SEC champion. There were four candidates for the final two choices: one-loss B1G champ Michigan State, one-loss Big 12 champ Baylor, one-loss SEC team Alabama and two-loss Pac 12 champ Stanford. Traditional human polling would have favored Michigan State. The Spartans lost early to Notre Dame and closed with a big win over Ohio State. Baylor lost late to Oklahoma State. Ditto for Alabama against Auburn. Stanford, however, formidable, lost twice. But, what emerges from a collective discussion in a committee room may be different.

Selection Committee members will be conversing with other humans. That makes it more likely rational arguments emerge and take hold than with individual polling. The first thing that would have come up in a debate would have been schedule strength. Maybe they consult spreadsheets. But, let’s say they just eyeball it and plot out each team’s four best wins.

Alabama – LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Virginia Tech
Baylor – Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State, Texas Tech
Michigan State – Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan
Stanford – Oregon, Arizona State (twice), UCLA

Alabama was the No. 1 team all season until a fluke play. They are in the SEC. They probably get the benefit of any doubt. Of the remaining three teams, Michigan State may be third best of the three. The Spartans missed Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State on their regular season schedule. The rest of the B1G had a down year. They lost their one notable OOC game, Notre Dame. Baylor played a down Big 12 and no one outside it (Wofford, Buffalo, ULM). Stanford, despite losing twice, has a very strong hand. That list doesn’t include Washington and Notre Dame, both better wins than Iowa.

The Spartans may have missed out in the committee in 2013. In 2014 and beyond, the one-loss SEC runner up probably has a stronger CV than Alabama. The one-loss B1G champ will be even less likely to have played all the toughest teams in the conference, thanks to the addition of Maryland and Rutgers. The rational response from the B1G would be to implement a nine-game conference schedule and ensure teams also try to play a 10th quality opponent, by whatever means necessary. It’s not an exact process, with teams fluctuating, but it stacks the deck in favor of a conference winner having multiple good wins. If the B1G were really ambitious, it would be trying to lure SEC programs North and beat them to erode the perception of superiority.

We’re not sure a Selection Committee will work. The creators are the same folks who created the BCS. Whatever selection of people you put in the room, it won’t have conclusive value. But, if the committee does work, it will be bucking conventional weaknesses in analysis and, through rational discussion, determining the four most deserving teams. We doubt committee members will be diving into drive efficiency charts, which means schedule strength, even if it’s just in perception, should play a major role. If the other major conferences don’t step up their conference and OOC game, they will be fighting for two places, instead of three (or four).

[USA Today Sports]

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