"They ain't played nobody."
That sentence -- the inspiration for the title of an SB Nation podcast -- is bandied about with regularity at this time of the college football season. With the Playoff committee tasked with the thankless job of ranking teams that played few, if any, common opponents, it inevitably needs to give weight to the nearly identical records of many contenders. Helpfully, there's have a vibrant Internet commentariat to remind the committee of which contenders "ain't played nobody."
The charge implies that the team in question lacks courage, that it fails the test of masculinity that football is supposed to pose. It's the college football version of "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." The programs that play challenging schedules provide worthy examples for society and should be rewarded for their willingness to test themselves.
There's just one small problem with this insertion of of a heroism test into picking Playoff teams: for the most part, strength of schedule is a matter of luck. Look at the teams that are on the receiving end of the "ain't played nobody" barrage this year.
Ohio State: the Buckeyes faced the same issue last year because: (1) Virginia Tech and Cincinnati were both below their recent norms, and (2) the Big Ten was the worst of the five major conferences, in no small part because Jim Delany chose to add Maryland and Rutgers for cable TV households. It took a 59-0 shellacking of a ranked opponent in the conference title game to make the Playoff. This year, Ohio State's strength of schedule has been damaged again by a combination of non-conference opponents (read: Virginia Tech) playing below recent levels and the conference schedule being larded down with Delany's hapless step-children.
Iowa: One would think that playing in a major conference and then adding a pair of Power 5 non-conference opponents would be a formula for a quality schedule. Not so much for Iowa, as the Hawkeyes' schedule is weighted down by a pair of weak opponents from the East (Maryland and Indiana) and the general mediocrity of the B1G West. Iowa avoided all four of the quality teams from the East (Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State), which would have been impossible in a 12-team conference. Again, blame Delany. And blame fate that Pitt's promising season has fizzled out while Iowa State is headed for another bowl-less campaign.
Baylor: Okay, so this isn't 100 percent luck. Art Briles can't claim to be surprised that SMU, Lamar and Rice turned out to be a down comforter of a non-conference schedule. However, the Big 12's nine-game conference schedule (a luck factor that went in Baylor's favor) ameliorates the problem somewhat. The big issue last year -- and one that looms again this year -- is the absence of a conference title game, which creates the possibility of a 2014 redux if a one-loss Baylor is fighting with other one-loss teams for the last Playoff spot. It's not like Baylor chose to play in a 10-team conference. It just found itself in that position after Texas decided that it needed its own network and some of the Bears' more mobile neighbors decamped for other leagues.
Oklahoma State: Just repeat everything we just said about Baylor.
North Carolina: The Heels are one of the hottest teams in the country, but even if they beat No. 1 Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, they'll have an uphill battle to make the Playoff because of their schedule. South Carolina's worst season in at least a decade hurts, as does the fact that Illinois is unlikely to make a bowl. Add in the collapse of the Coastal thanks to Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia Tech all going into the toilet and you have a situation where the Heels assembled a schedule that should have been good and turned out to be bad.
We like to imagine sports as a meritocracy, one where the best teams are rewarded in the end by succeeding against ruthless competition.
College football fans are especially fond of this concept because our sport doesn't have a large playoff and therefore avoids the abomination of 9-7 Super Bowl Champions, 83-78 World Series Champions, NCAA Tournament Champions who went 9-9 in conference play, or a purported dynasty of a hockey team that only once finished with the best record in its conference. With a season-long playoff and a small postseason, college football is designed to reward the best team more than other American sports. Luck is supposed to play less of a role.
And this bleeds into the average fan's psyche. We can all rationalize our team's success the following way: "My team wins because people like me buy tickets and apparel, make donations, travel with the team and watch on TV. That creates the revenue to hire the best coaches and build the best facilities. And those factors attract the best players. Therefore, my team has earned its triumphs."
The reality that luck intrudes is uncomfortable, but we have to acknowledge it.
The simple truth is that college football teams exercise very little control over their own strength of schedule. They don't determine whether their leagues are going to be strong or weak in a given year. They don't control the schedule rotation within the conference or whether the league will have a championship game. And while they do get to select non-conference opponents, they typically do so years in advance, and can only make informed guesses as to whether the teams they'll play will actually be good. Strength of schedule matters tremendously and the competitors exercise almost as little authority over it as they do the weather.
In the end, the only factor within the control of Playoff contenders is margin of victory.
With limited exceptions, Ohio State, Iowa, Baylor, Oklahoma State and North Carolina do not control the quality of the teams that they play, but they can influence the quantity of points by which they win their games. Fans often deride margin of victory as "style points," as if scoring margin should be the province of judges. Fussy columnists complain about "running up the score" and allege that crushing a beaten opponent is poor sportsmanship. However, people with actual skin in the game (read: betting sites and sharps) swear by the predictive value of margin of victory, and it is the one way in which teams can exercise control over their destinies.
Ohio State made the 2014 Playoff in no small part because of the manner by which it defeated Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. The contenders with weak strength of schedule should remember that example.