Less than twenty-four hours from the College Football Playoff Committee’s selection of four playoff-bound teams, we have three clear choices– Oklahoma, Clemson, and Auburn– but the fourth spot is a toss-up. The original playoff champion, Ohio State, is in a fight with last years runner-up, Alabama, for the coveted fourth spot but only one team can get in.
Ohio State comes in with a conference championship and wins over Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, a team that was top-four last week. The first of the two losses came against Oklahoma. While it was not the closest score, it was early in the season and came against a playoff team. Ohio State’s biggest black mark is the shellacking Iowa gave it. While Iowa is not a bad team, they lose was still embarrassing.
Alabama comes in without a conference or even division championship but they only have one loss, to Auburn. They also lack quality wins. The closest they have is a pair of wins over LSU and Mississippi State but neither were playoff contending teams this year.
FiveThirtyEight models the probability of each them getting in. They give the Buckeyes a forty percent chance while the Crimson Tide is less likely at twenty-eight percent.
Thankfully we know the committee’s criteria for selecting teams. When teams are comparable, here are the four standards the committee “must” consider:
- Championships Won
- Strength of schedule
- Head to head
- Comparative outcomes of common opponents but not considering margins of victory
The latter two are clearly useless since neither team played each other or have any common opponents so I will use the former two for the thrust of my argument.
As mentioned earlier, Ohio State has a conference championship in the countries strongest football conference. Yesterday’s win over Wisconsin gives them a decisive advantage in this category. Alabama, as also mentioned earlier, lacks either a conference championship or division title.
When it comes to strength of schedule. I would argue Ohio State has a much stronger schedule but facts do not care about my feelings. Ohio State had the second hardest schedule in the country while Bama, albeit not an easy schedule, had the seventh strongest. While not a decisive advantage, this category also falls into Ohio State’s favor.
To take both strengths of schedule and outcomes into account, I constructed a simple model. The mechanics of the model is explained here but the basics are simple. You get more points the better your win is while you lose more points the worse your loss is. So, for example, you would gain no points for beating the worst team in the country while you would lose no points for losing to the best team. While Ohio State scores a 304.6, Alabama edges them out at 307 points. This is more or less a tie given the crude nature of the model. If we were to look at only wins, Alabama has 311.6 points while Ohio State has 328.4 points. This glaring discrepancy comes from Ohio State embarrassing but single lose to Iowa.
Furthermore, we have a historical parallel to look to. In the 2015 season, Ohio State ended it 11-1, without a conference championship or division title because it lost to a playoff-bound team, and had a weaker strength of schedule. They were also the defending national champions. Sounds a lot like Alabama this year (albeit, Alabama is the runner-up)? In 2015, Ohio State was left out.
Ohio State has one other hurdle to face and it has nothing to do with this team or Alabama. An indicative selection committee. Last year the committee, rightly, chose Ohio State over Penn State and Ohio State ended up being crushed 31-0 by Clemson. This could end up creating an implicit and unreasonable bias against Ohio State and keep a playoff worthy team out of the playoffs.
While the loss to Iowa is a serious problem on Ohio State’s resume, it needs to be remembered in the context of a game in between Penn State and Michigan State. It was a letdown game between two high profile games and a college team slipped. It happens. While it should not be dismissed, it should be honestly weighed against the rest of Ohio State’s resume. For all the reasons explained above, Ohio State is clearly more of a playoff team than Alabama. Go Buckeyes!