The College Football Playoff Committee released their second set of Top 25 rankings last night, and they lacked any drama, but there were certainly some interesting things to takeaway.
The most obvious takeaway is the committee has made it abundantly and strikingly clear that they don’t care much for non-power five schools. They put this in bold print, underlined, with a bullet by leaving Utah State completely out of the rankings despite their 14th ranking in the AP Poll. For some reason, though, the committee elected to place Fresno State in their Top 25 over Utah State, despite Fresno being ranked behind Utah State by the AP Poll.
It’s pretty clear the committee has bought into ESPN’s FPI rankings, which have traditionally been a good monitor of how the rankings will fall. Utah State has a higher ranked Strength of Record than Fresno State, but Fresno State’s efficiency rankings are all better than the Aggies. It’s also fairly clear that the committee doesn’t care too much about early season losses, because Utah State’s loss to Michigan State (the committee placed the Spartans at #18) should be of higher quality than Fresno’s loss to unranked and five loss Minnesota.
While the committee’s treatment of Group of Five schools is interesting, like choosing to rank two loss Kentucky ahead of undefeated UCF, even more intriguing is their level of respect for the Big Ten. The Big Ten conference has been pretty much unilaterally perceived as being a weaker conference outside of Michigan and, to a lesser extent, Ohio State. In fact, the AP poll had Michigan State ranked at #24 and Penn State at #21, with both schools feeling very much like they would be left out of the CFP rankings.
Alas, the CFP’s second slate of rankings saw Michigan State rise from unranked all the way to #18, skipping over seven teams ranked ahead of them in the AP Poll, including two loss NC State, who found themselves left off of the committee’s rankings. Again, attribute this to ESPN’s FPI model, which ranks Michigan State ahead of six of the seven teams they jumped in front of.
Interestingly, the only team behind MSU with higher rankings in ESPN’s FPI is Washington, who sit at #25 in the committee’s eyes. Despite the FPI difference, look at this one as an indictment on the quality of the PAC-12, as only two teams from the conference made the rankings at all.
There is certainly a case to be made that Michigan State is being shown so much love by the committee to pump up their matchup with #10 Ohio State this weekend. Not only does it allow Ohio State an opportunity to get a big win in the eyes of the committee, but it also gives them a chance to match their AP ranking (#8) by taking down a CFP top-20 team. Also, it might boost those all important TV ratings for the noon game.
The commitment to ESPN’s FPI becomes extremely interesting, however, when the Top Six come into play. The committee clearly, and rightly, favors undefeated power five schools, which makes the placements of Alabama, Clemson, and Notre Dame obvious. Where things get murky is at #4, where the committee placed 8-1 Michigan ahead of 8-1 Georgia. If the committee is utilizing ESPN’s model as a top factor, and all indications make it seem like they are, why then is Michigan ahead of Georgia despite being ranked behind Georgia in nearly every category of the FPI model?
The easy answer is that the committee places less meaning on Michigan’s week one road loss to #3 Notre Dame than they do Georgia’s week seven road loss to #7 LSU. The other factor is that ranking Georgia at #5, as it provides the dramatic narrative that Georgia is playing to get in, being that they’re locked into an SEC Championship tilt with Alabama on December 1st.
So, after the committee displayed a reliance on FPI, and an immense level of respect for Alabama (deservedly so), it begs the question of which school has more control over their own destiny; Michigan or Georgia? While Michigan will add to their resume over the next three weeks should they take down Ohio State in Columbus on November 24th, the Wolverines will also play a virtual bye in the Big Ten Championship against a four loss, unranked Big Ten West champion.
While Michigan is running roughshod over a conference that nearly every expert views as being pretty bad, Georgia will look to collect a win over #24 Auburn, followed by two virtual byes of their own in UMass and Georgia Tech, en route to a showdown with #1 Alabama. If Georgia takes down an undefeated and top ranked Alabama team on a neutral field to win the SEC, there is no scenario where the Bulldogs could be left out of the top four.
The question is, could you possibly force Alabama – a team that has never missed the playoff since it’s inception, and has won the whole thing twice in it’s four iterations – to watch the playoff from the couch? In my humble estimation, even with a neutral site loss to Georgia, Alabama would still rank ahead of Michigan in every meaningful category of ESPN’s FPI. They may in fact still rank ahead of Clemson and Notre Dame as well. In fact, if you ask oddsmakers, Alabama would be favored in matchups against Clemson, Notre Dame, and Michigan with spreads coming in at -9, -22.5, and -14 respectively.
Then, there’s the precedent. Last season Alabama was given a Playoff berth despite not even playing in the SEC Championship game. Ohio State, who was #8 in the nation when they took down third ranked Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship, was given the short end of the stick in favor of an Alabama team that didn’t even play that weekend.
Of course, this season is different. Michigan will not be on the outside looking in when they play Northwestern, Wisconsin, or Purdue in Indianapolis. Barring any chaos (there’s always chaos), Michigan will be ranked #4 when they play that game. Yet, again, this is not last season, and Michigan will not be playing against a top four team in Indianapolis either. In fact, they’ll be playing an unranked team.
Meanwhile, Georgia will be just one spot outside of the top four looking to unseat the #1 team in America. In other words, Georgia will be playing to open up their own spot. There is no doubt that Georgia has 100% control over their own destiny. However, with the precedent, the odds, the overall weakness of the Big Ten, and ESPN’s FPI, is there really a chance the committee would take Michigan ahead of Alabama? I doubt it.
The committee has also proven they don’t care about conference championships, particularly in the Big Ten. In 2016, Penn State won the Big Ten Championship as well as beat Ohio State head to head, and yet the committee snubbed Penn State in favor of the Buckeyes. Last year, Ohio State won the Big Ten but was left out in favor of Alabama, who didn’t play in Championship Weekend. In fact, since Ohio State won the National Championship in 2014 with a team that may rival the 2001 Miami Hurricanes as one of the best ever, the Big Ten has not scored a single point in the Playoff. Michigan will hope to change the committee’s perception of the Big Ten, but Georgia may stand in the way.