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College Football Playoff rankings reactions: Why Clemson’s over Michigan, plus more stuff

The season’s first College Football Playoff rankings are here. Let’s talk about four teams in the top five and the state of the Big 12.

Clemson v Boston College Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Clemson over Michigan? It’s flawed, but it makes sense in this system.

by Alex Kirshner

If you’ve watched a handful of Michigan and a handful of Clemson games, it’s not been easy to come away with the impression that Clemson’s been better so far.

Both are 8-0, but Michigan wins by an average of 35 points, and Clemson by an average of 19. The Wolverines have had a single one-score game all year, while Clemson’s needed a handful of narrow escapes.

But Clemson’s No. 2 in the committee’s first ranking, and Michigan’s No. 3.

Rank Conference Week 9 result Next opponent
1 Alabama, 8-0 SEC Bye at LSU
2 Clemson, 8-0 ACC 37-34 W at FSU vs. Syracuse
3 Michigan, 8-0 Big Ten 32-23 W at Michigan State vs. Maryland
4 Texas A&M, 7-1 SEC 52-10 vs. NMSU at Mississippi State
5 Washington, 8-0 Pac-12 31-24 W at Utah at Cal
6 Ohio State, 7-1 Big Ten 24-20 W vs. Northwestern vs. Nebraska
7 Louisville, 7-1 ACC 32-25 W at Virginia at Boston College
8 Wisconsin, 6-2 Big Ten 23-17 W vs. Nebraska at Northwestern
9 Auburn, 6-2 SEC 40-29 W at Ole Miss vs. Vanderbilt
10 Nebraska, 7-1 Big Ten 23-17 L at Wisconsin at Ohio State
11 Florida, 6-1 SEC 24-10 W vs. Georgia at Arkansas
12 Penn State, 6-2 Big Ten 62-24 W at Purdue vs. Iowa
13 LSU, 5-2 SEC Bye vs. Alabama
14 Oklahoma, 6-2 Big 12 56-3 W vs. Kansas at Iowa State
15 Colorado, 6-2 Pac-12 Bye vs. UCLA
16 Utah, 7-2 Pac-12 31-24 L vs. Washington Bye
17 Baylor, 6-1 Big 12 35-34 L at Texas vs. TCU
18 Oklahoma State, 6-2 Big 12 37-20 W vs. WVU at Kansas State
19 Virginia Tech, 6-2 ACC 39-36 W at Pitt at Duke
20 West Virginia, 6-1 Big 12 37-20 L at Oklahoma State vs. Kansas
21 North Carolina, 6-2 ACC Bye vs. Georgia Tech
22 Florida State, 5-3 ACC 37-34 L vs. Clemson at NC State
23 Western Michigan, 8-0 MAC Bye at Ball State
24 Boise State, 7-1 Mountain West 30-28 L at Wyoming vs. San Jose State
25 Washington State, 6-2 Pac-12 35-31 W at Oregon State vs. Arizona

That comes down to scheduling, and to the quirky ways the committee evaluates schedules and performance.

One thing at play is that the committee purports not to care about margin of victory. So Clemson’s season-long Houdini routine doesn’t entirely hurt it, and Michigan’s dismantling of everybody it’s played doesn’t help as much as you’d think. That’s silly, but it’s the protocol.

To be clear, the committee can eyeball teams and decide if they’re impressive or not, so another Michigan rout and Clemson escape act might flip things. They just claim to only care about the final margins in certain situations, like against common opponents.

Because the teams won’t play head-to-head and we’re a month from championship weekend, the only way the committee’s given itself to sort out the Tigers and Wolverines is to use strength of schedule.

The committee does this in silly ways, such as by considering a team’s record against opponents whose records are better than .500. Scheduling discrepancies make that ridiculous, but it’s the system.

Clemson’s beaten five FBS teams with winning records, and Michigan’s only beaten three. Clemson has three ranked wins, against Auburn, Louisville, and Florida State, while Michigan also has three: Colorado, Penn State, and Wisconsin.

Clemson has played a mildly better schedule, so there you have it.

The good news, if you’re Michigan, is that Clemson doesn’t play much of a schedule the rest of the way. The Wolverines still have a chance to beat Ohio State, and both of those things could easily bump UM ahead.

The good news if you’re either team? You’re second and third in the Playoff ranking, meaning you’d play each other in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal anyway.

Here’s what our New Year’s Six would look like if the season ended right now:

Peach Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Texas A&M

Fiesta Bowl: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Michigan

Rose Bowl: No. 5 Washington vs. No. 6 Ohio State

Sugar Bowl: No. 9 Auburn vs. No. 14 Oklahoma

Orange Bowl: No. 7 Louisville vs. No. 8 Wisconsin

Cotton Bowl: No. 10 Nebraska vs. No. 23 Western Michigan

I think Clemson’s the right choice over Michigan anyway.

by Bud Elliott

Even if the committee did account for margin of victory in greater fashion, as it probably should, I still support Clemson over Michigan.

While Colorado, Penn State, and Wisconsin are fine opponents for Michigan, all three games came at home. Clemson defeated Auburn and Florida State on the road, arguably has the best win of anybody in defeating Louisville, and has a win over a strong Troy that currently ranks No. 28 in Bill Connelly’s S&P+. Clemson’s four best wins are stronger than Michigan’s four best.

Oh, and Michigan has faced few teams that have Playoff-caliber athletes, and even fewer good quarterbacks.

Can you name the best QB faced thus far by Michigan? His name is Sefo Liufau, and through 40 minutes, he was 16 for 25 for 246 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. When he left with injury, Colorado was down 31-28 with 20 minutes left. His backup came in and went 0 for 7 with two sacks.

In the Playoff, opposing quarterbacks will at least be good, and likely be great. So far, Michigan has not looked good against the only good QB on its schedule.

A&M ranking over Washington is frustrating, and here’s why.

by Bill Connelly

From Bill’s projections on how the top 15 teams will finish their seasons:

Let’s take a look at some of my favorite computer ratings, beginning with my own rating:

S&P+: 3 Louisville, 5 Washington, 6 Ohio State, 16 Texas A&M

FEI: 4 Ohio State, 5 Washington, 7 Louisville, 9 Texas A&M

The Power Rank: 4 Washington, 5 Louisville, 7 Ohio State, 8 Texas A&M

Sagarin: 3 Ohio State, 5 Washington, 7 Louisville, 9 Texas A&M

Massey: 4 Washington, 5 Ohio State, 6 Texas A&M, 8 Louisville

SRS: 3 Ohio State, 4 Washington, 7 Louisville, 9 Texas A&M

FPI: 3 Louisville, 5 Ohio State, 7 Washington, 9 Texas A&M

I tend to prefer ratings that have the capability of dialing into variables more complicated than points scored/allowed and “who’ve you played?” Most of the above look at per-play or per-drive variables and dial reasonably far into what creates success. They aren’t going to punish you for losing to good teams, and they also aren’t going to over-reward you for beating bad ones.

Of the seven systems of ratings listed above, six had Texas A&M last among these four teams.

Texas A&M shouldn’t be naturally punished for being the only team with Alabama on the schedule. The Aggies were relatively competitive with the dominant Crimson Tide for a while before folding, and there’s a pretty good chance that Louisville, Ohio State, and Washington would all lose to Bama, too.

I had a problem with A&M ranking fourth overall, however, because I don’t think A&M has proven itself as good a team as the others.

We can talk about strength of record all we want; actual team strength should still matter more.

Washington, Louisville, and Ohio State have all experienced glitches in 2016. Washington nearly lost to Arizona in a Pac-12-after-dark road game. Louisville thought about losing to Duke and really thought about losing to Virginia. Ohio State lost to Penn State and nearly lost to Northwestern at home. There are vulnerabilities here. But with one-third of the season left to play, we should be looking at upside and raw displays of quality as much as we’re looking at ‘strength of record.’

Washington was a no-brainer top-four team to me because of the strength it has shown on the field. That Texas A&M beat Auburn is a sign that the Aggies are a good team, too, but it feels like the Aggies are getting too much credit for beating teams like UCLA, Arkansas, and Tennessee, all of whom have shown signs of mediocrity despite preseason expectations.

Meanwhile, Washington is getting punished for Stanford and Oregon not being very good. And while the Huskies’ non-conference slate (Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State) was poor, I always struggle with the thought of punishing a set of players and coaches because of the actions of some associate athletic director years earlier. Washington has scheduled teams like Boise State and LSU in non-conference play in recent years and just had an upcoming home-and-home with Wisconsin canceled.

This was a frustrating look at what the committee values. Yes, we want to reward teams for scheduling tougher non-conference slates. But we should still value rewarding great teams for being great more.

For Washington, it’s simple. Win and you’re in.

by Richard Johnson

Washington fans, let’s huddle up here for a second. I know you’re upset that A&M is ahead of you. I know it’s a tough pill to swallow because you’ve got a zero in the loss column and the Aggies don’t. If the season ended right now, the Aggies would get a rematch vs. the Tide, and this sign would’ve been for naught.

The Aggies are getting a lot of credit for beating No. 9 Auburn and are one of only seven teams with a top-10 win this year. Their only loss is on the road against the No. 1 team. And five of their opponents are currently .500 or better (one of the committee’s favorite ways to judge strength of schedule), compared to only two for Washington.

Washington fans, Pac-12 man Aaron Rodgers has a message for you:

I know you’re new at this whole Playoff ranking thing, so take a look at the committee’s listed criteria for what they look at when looking for tiebreakers between like teams:

When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable, then the following criteria must be considered:

Championships won

Strength of schedule

Head-to-head competition (if it occurred)

Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory)

See that first one? “Championships won” is going to loom large if every team in the top five wins out (which they probably won’t anyway). Remember why that stipulation is in there? Because the Playoff wants to avoid championship rematch situations like 2011 Bama vs. LSU.

Let’s go back to 2014, when the Big 12 got locked out because it didn’t have one true champion, its co-champs only played 12 games, and Ohio State dominated its 13th game. Ohio State got the nod over Baylor and TCU, so the Playoff was a party with four conference champions.

UW has a clear path to a Power 5 conference title; A&M would need to win out and need Bama to lose, and then need favorable three-way tiebreakers. If Bama wins the SEC West, A&M won’t get a 13th game. If UW wins the Pac-12 North, the Huskies will get a chance to beat a likely ranked team.

Alternatively, if Bama loses and A&M (or Auburn, Florida, or LSU) wins the SEC, Washington’s still fine. Two teams from one conference in the same Playoff is a setup the committee doesn’t want to give its TV partner, ESPN.

And while the second item on the committee’s list, “strength of schedule,” hasn’t worked in your favor so far ...

... that’s about to change. Via ESPN’s Sam Khan Jr.:

No. 4 Texas A&M's remaining opponents are a combined 15-16 overall with only one team (LSU, at 5-2) holding a winning record. No. 5 Washington's remaining opponents are a combined 20-13 right now, with three of them above .500 (USC, Arizona State, Washington State).

Just be cool, y’all. If the Huskies win out, there’s not a doubt in my mind that an undefeated Pac-12 champion will crack the top four, and they won’t need any help.

But don’t take it from me. Read what your conference commissioner, Larry Scott, told SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey a few weeks ago.

As a league we’re very confident in who we are. Moreover, we’re confident that we’re going to get the benefit of the doubt among teams with similar records because of our strength of schedule. No other conference schedules like we do: nine conference games and a championship game, plus very strong non-conference matchups.

So the Pac-12 champion has the hardest road to the Playoff, but if we have records similar to others, we believe the CFB selection committee is going to give Pac-12 teams the benefit of the doubt because it’s worked out that way in the past. We’re quietly confident in this fact, we think we have the right model for the College Football Playoff, whether we’re in it every year or not. This past year, the bottom line was that Stanford didn’t have a similar record; they had two losses.

Just win, baby.

The Big 12 isn’t out, but it’s d a m n close.

by Jason Kirk

The Big 12’s top-ranked team is two-loss Oklahoma, way down there at No. 14. Oklahoma State also has two losses, at No. 18. With this many unbeaten and one-loss teams, let’s say two-loss teams are out of it. For now, at least.

The one-loss teams, Baylor and West Virginia, are Nos. 17 and 19, respectively.

That’d be a looooong climb back into the top four. It’s been done before, but not in the same situation.

In 2014, Ohio State made it up from No. 16 at this point, but that was with a win at a top-10 Michigan State, a 13th game, and a bad loss that became somewhat forgivable as Virginia Tech reached .500.

Last year, Oklahoma made it in from No. 15 by adding wins over top-20 Baylor, Oklahoma State, and TCU teams.

Baylor and WVU don’t have the same schedule opportunity this time. Both do still play OU, and both do still play each other, so all isn’t lost yet. If Baylor or WVU wins out and thus also gets that magical conference champion’s bump, along with disaster striking at least one other Power 5 conference, it could happen. Not betting on it.