Why SEC fans should leave the Ohio State vs. Auburn debate alone

Gregory Shamus

Should a one-loss SEC champion be able to jump an undefeated Big Ten champion (if the Buckeyes win on Saturday) in the rankings? Maybe, but not if that SEC champion is 2013 Auburn or 2013 Missouri. And if these SEC teams can jump Ohio State, they can also be jumped themselves.

Ever since the full extent of Ohio State's underwhelming slate of opponents became fully apparent in the offseason, writers and fans have wondered whether going unbeaten against that schedule ought to be sufficient to gain one of the two coveted slots in the national title game in Pasadena.

Ohio State's schedule has been as bad as predicted. Michigan and Northwestern, the two top opponents on the Bucks' conference road slate, have had disappointing seasons. Cal, the marquee opponent on Ohio State's non-conference schedule, went 1-11. Some of the teams on Ohio State's schedule have had surprisingly good seasons (Buffalo and Iowa come to mind), but on the whole, the Bucks' schedule has played out as expected.

Additionally, Ohio State has not been dominant against that entire schedule. The pathway for a contender to overcome a middling set of opponents is to beat those foes soundly, thus leaving no doubt of the contender's elite status. This is exactly what Florida State has done this year, consistently putting up the sort of scores that one would expect from the best team in the country. Ohio State, on the other hand, has a pair of one-score wins, a game in which the Bucks had to rally in the fourth quarter to come from behind, and a game in which Ohio State trailed at halftime and was tied going into the final quarter.

So, we are back where we started. Can a one-loss No. 3 steal a spot from an unbeaten, major-conference-champion No. 2? Should the winner of the SEC Championship Game jump Ohio State (assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Bucks beat Michigan State on Saturday night)?

Though it hasn't happened in the BCS era, it's not necessarily impossible or illogical for a one-loss to jump an unbeaten. We can isolate a few factors that should need to be present for it to happen:

  • The one-loss team needs to have played an appreciably more challenging schedule;
  • The one-loss team's sole defeat needs to have been by a narrow margin;
  • The one-loss team's margin of victory needs to be wider than that of the unbeaten team; and
  • The best computer ratings (read: not the neutered ratings used by the BCS because of the "what about the children?" sentiment that forbids the consideration of scoring margin) confirm the eye test and reflect that the one-loss team would be a solid favorite over the unbeaten team on a neutral field.

Auburn and Missouri check the first box, as both Sagarin and SRS reflect that the Tiger streak played tougher slates than the Buckeyes did. Missouri checks the second box, as it's hard for a team to lose in closer circumstances than Mizzou did against South Carolina. Auburn does not, as it lost by two touchdowns in Baton Rouge in a game in which Auburn was not within a score of LSU after the first quarter.

And as for the last two boxes, that is where Auburn's and Mizzou's cases really come apart:

Team Scoring margin Yards-per-play margin Adjusted yards-per-play margin
Sagarin Predictor SRS F/+
Ohio State 29.74 2.32 0.61 9 8 5
Auburn 26.05 1.11 0.18 15 9 7
Missouri 26.89 1.54 0.21 11 4 13

Compare those numbers to the numbers put up by 2008 Florida, 2011 Alabama, or 2012 Alabama, all one-loss teams. F/+ judged all three of those teams to be better than any team in the country this year, including Florida State. If one of those teams time-travels into our current season, then we can talk.

The winner of Auburn-Missouri will no doubt make the argument that it deserves to play in the national title game because it is the champion of the SEC, the conference that has won seven straight national titles. (And based on Jay Jacobs' babbling in the aftermath of the Iron Bowl, Missouri will make the argument in less of an enraged-Golden-Corral-patron manner.) The fallacy in that argument is that the 2013 champion won't have the same sort of resume that those giants of the recent past did.

There is just as good a case for Arizona State to jump the SEC champion as there is for the SEC champion to jump Ohio State.

The other fallacy of the potential Auburn/Missouri argument is this: there is just as good a case for Arizona State to jump the SEC champion as there is for the SEC champion to jump Ohio State. If a one-loss team can jump an unbeaten team, then surely a two-loss team can jump a one-loss team, right?

Arizona State has two losses, one of which was a narrow loss to Notre Dame and the other of which was a decisive loss at Stanford. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the Sun Devils avenge that loss this weekend.

Arizona State already has a better scoring margin than either Auburn or Missouri, and it achieved that margin against a tougher schedule. From top to bottom, the Pac-12 is roughly on par with the SEC this year, Arizona State played one more conference game than its SEC comparators (have I mentioned that the SEC needs to move to a nine-game schedule?), and it played a pair of non-conference opponents who are better than anyone that Auburn or Missouri played outside of the SEC. Moreover, the Sun Devils are ahead of Auburn and Missouri according to Sagarin, SRS, and F/+.

In short, it's not possible to come up with a good rationale for the SEC champion jumping Ohio State that doesn't also justify Arizona State (and quite possibly Stanford if the Cardinal were to win in Tempe) jumping the SEC champion.

We will hear plenty of bad rationale this weekend as college football takes its annual turn as the Oxford Union, but most of them will come from the winner in Atlanta and will be little more than a three-letter exercise of basking in reflected glory: S-E-C.

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