The College Football Playoff committee had a little bit more drama on its hands than expected ahead of unveiling its 2016 Playoff.
Alabama was in as the easy No. 1 seed, and Clemson was a simple No. 2.
Ohio State claimed No. 3, and Washington went No. 4. Penn State, the Big Ten champ, was the odd team out.
So how do you compare Ohio State, Washington, and Penn State?
Ohio State entered the weekend as No. 2, but didn't win so much as a division title.
Meanwhile, Penn State and Washington won well-regarded Power 5 conferences. PSU came back to beat top-10 Wisconsin by seven, while Washington destroyed top-10 Colorado by 31; PSU had the tougher schedule on the year and has a win over Ohio State.
Unless you thought Ohio State was plummeting from three straight weeks at No. 2 to No. 5 despite its strength of schedule improving (which would be a bigger fall than 2014 TCU's famed last-week plunge, since the Frogs had ranked No. 5 the two weeks prior), the Buckeyes were in.
But let's look at stuff about these three teams that the committee says it actually looks at, when it's trying to compare similar teams. The committee cites four things, which come into play when the question of which team is the "best" isn't apparent, which means they might not've even needed to be invoked, if Ohio State still ranked well ahead in the committee's mind:
- Conference championships
- Strength of schedule
- Performance against common opponents
1. Ohio State doesn't have a conference title. But conference titles aren't required.
They never have been. The committee references conference championships as a potential tiebreaker between teams it feels are otherwise similar in quality, which means it can rank a non-champ ahead of a champ whenever it pleases.
Ohio State's 2014 Big Ten Championship helped it get into that year's Playoff over Baylor and TCU for two reasons: it was a 13th game, which the Big 12 teams lacked, and it was a shocking blowout. It was not the "co-" tag that the Big 12 put on Baylor and TCU that did it.
Still, conference titles are apparently valuable in some way. This is a point in favor of Penn State and Washington. And OSU does lack that "13th game" this year.
2. Strength of schedule matters. Washington was in some trouble here.
Here are some really basic ways of breaking it down, using stuff the committee's referenced.
|-||Record||vs. latest top 15||vs. latest top 25||vs. .500+|
Plenty of advanced strength-of-schedule metrics are available online, even though the committee doesn't use those. They offer greater nuance, and ... they stack up similarly anyway. This was Washington's glaring issue, and it looks pretty OK for everybody else.
Also, Ohio State's and Penn State's resumes look better than the previous week's rankings suggest, with OSU's blowout road win over Oklahoma now a W over the Big 12 champion and PSU's win over Temple now a win over a possibly ranked mid-major champ.
Hey, remember when Ohio State beat Oklahoma in Norman by 21? The committee does.
(And, LOL, Bama gained a W over a conference champ as well, thanks to Western Kentucky, not that Bama needed it.)
3. Head-to-head matters, and favors Penn State against one team ...
Penn State beat Ohio State by three points, thanks to a blocked field goal runback at home.
But any PSU fans arguing too strongly in favor of head-to-head as a criteria might accidentally make the case for Michigan, which beat PSU by 39 points, or even four-loss Pitt, which ranks No. 25.
Penn State lost two games, and that could've made the committee's job much easier than anyone was thinking.
4. ... but so does performance against common opponents, which favors Ohio State.
Ohio State tops Penn State here and, according to the committee's stated criteria, this more or less makes up for that head-to-head result.
(It's hard to involve Washington in this part, because Rutgers is the only common opponent among Washington and the Big Ten teams, and nobody wants to talk about Rutgers. Everyone here who played Rutgers blew out Rutgers.)
PSU went 5-1 against teams OSU's played. But Ohio State went 6-0 and has a 71-point advantage in scoring margin against common opponents (the committee has said it doesn't want to "incentivize" MOV, but it does reference it in relation to common opponents), thanks in part to a 62-3 beatdown of Maryland and that 49-10 Penn State loss to Michigan.
Ohio State over Penn State was controversial, but simple.
The Buckeyes have been No. 2 for weeks now, are favored by all the advanced metrics (we don't really know what metrics the committee uses, but publicly available data like ESPN's Strength of Record, which ranks OSU No. 2, has tended to correlate pretty well with the committee's previous decisions), and were described days earlier by committee chairman Kirby Hocutt as being a level ahead of PSU.
Yes, PSU has head-to-head and the conference championship, but the committee thinks of strength of schedule and common opponents as criteria as well, and OSU owns both of those. The only way PSU could've ranked ahead of OSU would've been if the committee felt two-loss PSU just totally vaulted a one-loss team it'd ranked at least five spots behind for weeks.
But how can a team that didn't win its division be a national champion?
Let's ask 2011 Alabama, the 2010 Green Bay Packers, the 2014 San Francisco Giants, or the 2011 Dallas Mavericks.
Besides, how can a team that didn't win its state be a national champion? Penn State didn't win Pennsylvania.
And how can a team that wasn't tested in non-conference be a national champion? The week Ohio State played at Oklahoma, Washington played 3-8 FCS team Portland State.
This kind of thing can go in circles all day. The criteria we have to go by is what the committee laid out years ago. If we disagree with the criteria, then we should call for new criteria. It's too late in this season to start insisting now on only conference champions, when the rules were already in place before the season began.
So Penn State vs. Washington likely came down to:
- a one-loss conference champion with a weak schedule will be left out, or
- a conference champion with two bad losses will be left out.
I can't get that worked up about either. Both are excellent teams who've had amazing seasons. But both have clear flaws, from the committee's perspective.
I guessed the No. 4 team will be Washington -- again: Penn State lost two games, one of them to No. 25, and one of them by 39 points -- but would not have been shocked to see the Big Ten champion draw Alabama in the Peach Bowl.