Why Oklahoma and North Carolina Deserve More Love From the Playoff Committee
Ohio State’s legendary coach Woody Hayes once said, “The only meaningful statistic is games won.”
That certainly may have been true during Coach Hayes’ heyday, but in the post-BCS era it is hardly that simple.
There is no better proof than the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes, which made college football history by becoming the first team to win a championship via a four-team playoff.
We all know how last season ended. But perhaps too little has been made about where the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes actually began. On October 28, 2014, the College Football Playoff selection committee released its first rankings, and Ohio State sat a disappointing 16th.
You could hardly blame the committee. Virginia Tech collapsed shortly after beating Ohio State in embarrassing fashion at the Horseshoe. This one bad loss was a pretty meaningful statistic to the committee.
Two weeks later, though, the Buckeyes seemingly turned their season around with a signature victory over highly ranked Michigan State. Ohio State then picked up momentum as they rolled through the rest of the Big 10 regular-season slate. But it wasn’t until the final rankings -- following their annihilation of Wisconsin, 59-0, in the Big 10 Championship Game -- that Ohio State cracked the committee’s Final Four.
Quietly, one contingent had been bullish on Ohio State much earlier on: the stat heads. Heading into Week 12 of 2014, the Buckeyes found themselves ranked eightth by the committee, but the advanced metrics, another set of meaningful statistics, already liked Ohio State as a Final Four team.
“The numbers, however, noticed that since the loss to the Hokies, the Buckeyes had been nearly perfect,” wrote SB Nation’s statistics guru, Bill Connelly. “They were up to No. 3 in the F/+ rankings, behind only Alabama and an Ole Miss team that had begun to fade. And then they kept right on playing great ball.”
For many, it was a surprising series of events that catapulted Ohio State in the playoffs and later past Alabama and Oregon. But if you trusted the metrics, Ohio State was a viable national contender all along, not the playoff outsider and Cinderella that the college football traditionalists portrayed.
“Nobody wanted to acknowledge how good Ohio State looked until there was no choice,” wrote Connelly.
One year later, college football fans are left wondering who might be this year’s surprise team that the College Football Playoff selection committee underestimated. And on Tuesday, with the release of the committee’s first 2015 rankings, that debate began in earnest.
Here is a look at a couple of teams that the committee likely under-ranked based on what the advanced metrics tell us through Week 9.
If there is a team that feels the most like 2014 Ohio State -- right down to the proximity of the committee’s initial ranking -- it is Oklahoma. According to numberFire’s team efficiency ranking, nERD, the Sooners are the third best team in the country. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) also ranks Oklahoma third, while Football Outsiders’ F/+ ranking is a bit more conservative at eighth.
The committee likely seized upon and potentially overreacted to the lone blemish on Oklahoma’s record: a brutal loss to Texas. After all, the Longhorns are a mere 61st in nERD on the heels of a 24-0 debacle at Iowa State. That differentiates Oklahoma from one-loss teams like Alabama, Florida, and Notre Dame currently ahead of the Sooners, all of whom lost to a team in the committee’s and nERD’s top 25.
Oklahoma is also at the mercy of a back-loaded Big-12 schedule. Despite an out-of-conference win at Tennessee (ranked eighth by nERD), Oklahoma has played a series of afterthoughts in conference action. Three of the Sooners’ four conference wins have come against an opponents who fail to crack nERD’s top 30: Texas Tech (35th), Kansas State (65th), and Kansas (110th).
But much like the Buckeyes last year, the season’s final few weeks will define Oklahoma’s playoff resumé. In fact, ESPN’s FPI rates the Sooners’ remaining strength of schedule as the 11th toughest in the nation.
Oklahoma will face Baylor (1st in nERD) on the road on November 14, host TCU (5th) on November 21, and close the season on November 28 with rival Oklahoma State (9th) in Stillwater. All three teams are currently undefeated and ranked ahead of the Sooners in the committee’s initial poll.
Winning out would guarantee that Oklahoma is at minimum a “bubble team” as the committee conducts in final playoff deliberations.
North Carolina (unranked)
Talk about disrespect. North Carolina has the inside track to win the ACC’s Coastal Division with a perfect 4-0 conference record. But the committee failed to even rank the Tar Heels in its initial top 25, while opting to include Temple, a one-loss American Athletic Conference team.
The numbers say the committee might reconsider. North Carolina’s nERD ranking (15th) is better than that of undefeated Iowa (17th), Memphis (19th), and Michigan State (32nd), all of whom landed in the committee’s top 20.
The committee, no doubt, dinged North Carolina for a weak schedule -- 83rd in the nation, according to ESPN’s FPI -- and for a dubious defeat to start the year. North Carolina’s narrow loss to South Carolina in the season opener is and will continue to be an albatross around the neck of the Tar Heels. The Gamecocks have been a mess since and now rank 79th in nERD with a 3-5 record.
It does not help that the Tar Heels’ schedule to date included two FCS opponents and they haven’t played a single team in the committee’s top 25.
But the (Tobacco) road ahead suggests that the committee’s decision to leave them out of the initial playoff rankings is not a death knell, even if the North Carolina’s playoff ambitions are on life support. North Carolina must take care of business against rival Duke (33rd in nERD) this week, and then finish off three straight mediocre teams in Miami (58th), Virginia Tech (40th), and North Carolina State (38th) in convincing fashion.
The Tar Heels’ sole shot to make a statement to the committee would be dominating the nation’s top team, Clemson, to win the ACC Championship, assuming the Tigers finish as projected. However, nERD greatly favors Clemson (30.10) over North Carolina (17.80) on a neutral field. Meanwhile, ESPN’s FPI gives the Tarheels a 23 percent chance to win the ACC but only a 5.6 percent chance to win all of their remaining games.
Realistically, North Carolina would probably have needed to run the table, alá Florida State last year, to have a shot at the playoff. But even with one loss, the Tar Heels could enter the playoff discussion by going 12-1 and routing juggernaut Clemson.
The Tar Heels’ hopes also require rooting for college football chaos elsewhere…and everywhere. But who doesn’t this time of year?
Not the College Football Playoff selection committee, of course.