Cade Massey, a practice professor at the Wharton School, and Rufus Peabody, a Washington-based sports analyst, developed this ranking system for projecting future performance. Ratings represent a team’s predicted point differential against an average team on a neutral field. Current season statistics are adjusted for home field, opponent and game situation, blended with preseason expectations and weighted by their predictive ability.
We hear you. Enough with Alabama already, right? The Tide were in the first three College Football Playoffs. Did the selection committee really have to make it 4-for-4?
The committee at least deserves praise for being consistent. And for living by the rules it set up. If you’re looking for the four best teams – even the compromised version of “best” the committee traffics in – Alabama undoubtedly trumps Ohio State.
The result is the first playoff with two teams from the same conference (a result we first anticipated five weeks ago). After all, if “best” is your criterion, you can’t be constrained by conference boundaries. Or conference championships, evidently.
Let’s take a look at how we got here and what happens next.
Setting the Bracket
Committee Chairman Kirby Horcutt reported Sunday evening that choosing Alabama over Ohio State wasn’t the toughest decision the committee has faced. Our model agrees. Entering the weekend we showed an 84-percent chance the committee would take Alabama over a Big Ten champion Ohio State, and coming out of it – after a less-than-dominant win over Wisconsin – that had crept up to 95 percent.
How good were the committee’s picks overall? One way to gauge that is to check the betting markets. Not that they’re infallible, of course, but they are a lot less fallible than the alternatives. Alabama, as the No. 4 seed, immediately opened as a two-point favorite over No. 1 seed Clemson. We don’t know what an Ohio State-Clemson line would have looked like, but our numbers suggest it would have been a two- to three-point swing.
In general, a good power rankings model is highly correlated with the betting market and thus provides helpful guidance on the hierarchy of “best” teams. Alabama has comfortably held our No. 1 spot since pre-season. Our numbers have loved Ohio State, as well – despite a much rockier season – but we’d make the Buckeyes underdogs to the Tide.
Of course picking the “best” teams isn’t as easy as looking to Vegas. The committee must give some nod to how “deserving” a team is. That is, what they’ve accomplished on the field. There are unlimited ways to evaluate this. ESPN introduced a method last year that has gained traction called Strength of Record (SOR), which measures the likelihood a top-25 team would have won at least as many games as a team did playing that team’s schedule. The method is simple yet comprehensive, which makes it far superior to the assortment of arbitrary comparisons people make this time of year.
Based on our numbers, Alabama is No. 5 SOR while Ohio State is No. 8. A top-25 team would have a 15-percent chance of achieving Alabama’s 11-1 record while they would have a 34-percent chance of achieving Ohio State’s 11-2. This is partly because the bottom half of Alabama’s schedule is substantially more difficult than the bottom half of Ohio State’s (the SEC is so much deeper than the Big Ten that even Mercer can’t drag down the Tide’s SOR!). It is also because the three-loss teams on Alabama’s schedule (e.g., Auburn and LSU) are substantially better than their records indicate.
Bottom line: whether you lean toward “best” or “most deserving,” Alabama deserved a spot.
Playing the Bracket
The Alabama-Clemson semifinal pits our No. 1 against our No. 3. These are also the country’s two best defenses, and the third time they have met in the playoff in the past three years. Can Clemson get it done this year without Deshaun Watson? Will the long wait between games give the Tide a chance to get healthy? Many were jumping off the Alabama bandwagon after a tepid outing against Mississippi State and the loss at Auburn. But we’ve never wavered: Alabama by six.
The Georgia-Oklahoma semifinal is a fascinating matchup of the Sooners’ No. 1 offense against the Bulldogs’ No. 3 defense. Are Big 12 offenses really that much better than other conferences’ or do they just not play defense in the Big 12? And on the other side of the ball, can OU’s relatively weak defense (No. 32), designed to stop pass-happy offenses, hold up against Georgia’s stout running game? We make this a virtual toss-up, with a half-point edge to Georgia.
Our numbers suggest Alabama is the distinct favorite (44 percent) to win it all, followed by Georgia (20 percent), Oklahoma (18 percent) and Clemson (18 percent).
A month from now, all this committee business will fade from view, and we’ll be focused on actual football. The speculation has been fun, and the debate healthy for the game. And it has led to a solid bracket, any of whom could win and all of whom are worthy.
We’re just thankful it will be decided on the field, and not by committee.
— Bob Tedeschi contributed