The No. 3 Clemson Tigers barely beat Virginia Tech, 42-35, to repeat as ACC champions. Clemson, 12-1, now has three wins over teams in the AP Top 25, good enough to keep it alive in the top 4.
The Washington Huskies, No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, beat the Colorado Huskies 41-10 in the Pac-12 championship game on Friday night. With a victory over Washington State a week before, it will be difficult for the selection committee to leave them out.
How is that possible? Because it is more important to play well against a tough schedule than win a conference title game.
Here are some blind resumes of three College Football Playoff hopefuls leading up to the final ranking of their respective seasons:
- Team A finished the season with a 12-1 record, including 4-0 vs. AP Top 25 teams. They outscored opponents by 27.3 points per game and won their conference title game.
- Team B finished the season with a 12-1 record, including 4-1 vs. AP Top 25 teams. They outscored opponents by 26.5 points per game but did not play in a conference title game.
- Team C finished the season with a 11-1 record, including 4-0 vs. AP Top 25 teams. They outscored opponents by 28.5 points per game but did not play in a conference title game.
They all look similar but a closer look will show why not all of these teams are playoff contenders. Nor should they be.
Team A is this year’s Huskies. Washington won the Pac-12 conference and, according to ESPN, an average Top 25 team would have an 11 percent chance of going 12-1 against Washington’s schedule. Compare that to another conference champion from 2016, the Big 12’s Oklahoma Sooners (23 percent chance), and you can easily see not all conference titles are created equal.
Team B is the 2014 TCU Horned Frogs, who were ranked No. 3 in the penultimate version of the CFP rankings but fell the next week to No. 6 after beating Iowa State, 55-3, missing out on the a chance to play for the national title. Ohio State, the eventual playoff team, moved past them (from No. 5 to No. 4) due to their non-conference schedule.
That is a reasonable explanation. Ohio State went 3-1 in non-conference games that year before the final rankings were announced, beating Navy (No. 66 in the end-of-season consensus rankings), Kent State (No. 120) and Cincinnati (No. 40) while losing to Virginia Tech (No. 53). TCU was 3-0 in non-conference games with victories against Samford (non-major), Minnesota (No. 32) and Southern Methodist (No. 124). TCU also had one quality win (vs. Kansas State) on its resume while Ohio State had two (at Michigan State, vs. Wisconsin). In addition, the Buckeyes’ won their conference title outright (TCU shared theirs with Baylor) and showed an ability to overcome adversity, which also played in their favor.
Team C is this year’s Ohio State squad and, despite no conference title, the Buckeyes still satisfy the committee’s objective to select the best teams in the nation.
Ohio State had one loss against the 15th toughest schedule in 2016, while Penn State finished 11-2 (39th ranked schedule). An average Top 25 team would have a 3 percent chance of going 11-1 against Ohio’s 2016 schedule compared to a 16 percent chance of going 11-2 against Penn State’s opponents.
That’s not all. Ohio State has the top scoring offense in the Big Ten (42.7 points per game) and the third-best defense (14.2 points allowed per game). They ranked No. 9 and No. 4 respectively, in the nation. The Buckeyes are also the consensus No. 2 team according to an average of 123 different ranking methods. Penn State ranks No. 6. Perhaps Penn State’s win on Saturday night bumps up the Nittany Lions in all the polls; it is still unlikely they surpass Ohio State, who has the week off, after the committee meets for the final time.
According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, a measure of team strength represented by how many points above or below average a team is, only Michigan is in Ohio State’s class among Big Ten contenders. And Alabama was the only team more impressive (30.5 FPI) than Ohio State this season on a national scale.
Qualifying for the College Football Playoff essentially comes down to this: win one of the five power conferences convincingly enough that the strength of schedule doesn’t matter, or be so good against tough competition that it is hard to justify keeping you out. If choosing between the two, go with the dominating season regardless of the conference outcome.
The best bet is to eliminate all doubt and do both.