It was 10:30 a.m. MST December 7, 2014, a day that will live in infamy for those of us that see College Football as something akin to a religion, the last of the major sports that still endeavors to crown a worthy team (if not the best) its champion. I sat down on my couch with my grossly overpriced seasonally flavored coffee (with Bill Burr in my ear saying, what are you, a [insert politically incorrect word for a male that prefers the company of other males here] Hey, I didn’t order a cookie!), and flipped on the squawk box to see if the flagship University from the state I hail from indeed would be included in College Football’s inaugural playoff. Fresh off a domination of them cheese-loving folks in the Badger state (your team didn’t look too Gouda), many a pundit was predicting that Ohio State would jump a TCU team that had just finished an exhibition route of a hapless Iowa State team. Even Paul Finebaum, the mouthpiece of the SEC, was predicting that such a thing would happen (and I know it was him, because if you looked very carefully, you could see the strings). After ESPN unceremoniously filled the teams in on the screen, it was official: Ohio State was in and TCU dropped from third to sixth in the polls. It took all of fifteen seconds for “Playoff Guy” to fill up twitter-sphere with various opinions that suggested the fix was in. It was not.
So, after a week of trying to talk to “Playoff Guy” (I will explain who this is and what he stands for below, and why this “snubbing” is more grist for his playoff mill), I felt compelled to author this piece and set “Playoff Guy” straight by saying it as succinctly as I know how: I know you do not like the Buckeyes and you have already scribbled out your Doctor Pepper cocktail napkin for a 32 team bracket, but the Committee got it right this year. Of course, who plays in the semifinals this year is far less important to “Playoff Guy” then advancing his agenda, a process that has begun this year with the advent of the College Football playoffs and almost certainly will end with a full blown playoff, much to this guy’s chagrin. But I digress.
Who is “Playoff Guy” and why would I waste precious seconds talking to him you might ask? “Playoff Guy” says things like “every other sport has a playoff, so why can’t they do it in College Football” (here he is talking about the Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS. To “Playoff Guy’s” credit, he knows that they have a playoff in the Football Championship Subdivision (‘FCS”), and so he thinks the FBS should also have one). “Playoff Guy” typically watches the NFL. In fact, he prefers it, and will be all too happy to tell you why that system is better. “Playoff Guy” is not bothered by the fact that a 12-7 team was crowned the champs over an 18-1 team even though they split their head to head match-ups, or that a 7-9 team can get into the playoffs (and get a home game, because, by golly, you deserve it!!) while two 10-6 teams in that same conference were sent packing. “At least they won it on the field” he will tell you, and the best teams “step up in big games,” two of the many cliches he has armed at the ready should one dare to criticize the No Fun League. “College Football is a joke, I mean, they only put Ohio State in the game because they are Ohio State and it will make them more money, and TCU is better, and I wanted the underdog in….and….wait for it, wait for it… we need a 16 team playoff tournament” (“Playoff Guy” was telling us this moments after the 4 team playoff system was announced (“It’s a good first step,” he says sarcastically) and he was bemoaning the possibility of six undefeated teams being excluded from the playoffs as early as week three, because, well, he wants a playoff).
I have already explained the farce of the playoffs in football here, and just why the College Football model is better, at least in terms of crowning a worthy champion (do not read that as “best”), and thus, will not repeat it here. Instead, I will address the common misconception that TCU and Baylor got hosed and that the four best teams weren’t selected on December 7, 2014. They were.
Ohio State has significantly better metrics and absolutely deserved that spot, and I am going to prove it to in a few minutes. As I do this, I want to make it perfectly clear that none of this is conclusive proof that Ohio State is a better team than either of the Big 12 teams, or that they would fare better against Alabama than the Horned Frogs or Bears would. I do not know these things. What I know is that they are more deserving, and I will make my case using relevant (albeit not perfect) data.
For starters, any decision on selecting one team over another must include an acknowledgement that one must look at the full body of work. Scientists will tell you that the more data that is considered, the more likely a particular conclusion is correct. While this seems obvious on its face, in practice, and in discussing the merits of selecting teams from a field of 130, fans can not help but cherry pick data to support their conclusion. To wit, the most common objection to the Buckeye’s inclusion into the playoffs was an admittedly bad loss to a Virginia Tech team who finished 6-6, a team that for much of the year was in last place in the ACC (dubbed by some as the “Almost Competitive Conference”) Coastal division (for some reason, the fact that Baylor lost by a similar margin to a five loss West Virgina team is wholly ignored). And yes, this loss is much worse than TCU’s loss to #6 ranked Baylor, who themselves have but one loss. But in order to decide whether the last spot should have gone to Ohio State, TCU, or Baylor, it is instructive to look at the full body of work, and it’s there that the Buckeyes proved themselves worthy.
For starters, Ohio State won 12 games to TCU’s and Baylor’s 11, something that is not insignificant. Every week that you play a game in College Football, you can be beaten, just ask the Florida Gators. And it’s not like that “extra” game was against a terrible team, coming in the B1G Ten Conference Championship against a then # 13 ranked Badgers. Not only did Ohio State expose themselves to a potential loss, but the flip side is that both Big 12 teams had an extra bye week each during the season, which are invaluable in that not only are teams not exposed to a loss or additional injury risks, their players are actually recovering from previous injuries.
In addition, Ohio State won both their division and their conference, and while there was much written about the Big Twelve’s decision to crown both of them co-champions and to not host a championship game, to anyone with any common sense on the subject matter at all, it is clear that Baylor is the actual champs visa-via their head to head victory. So, that’s another check mark in the Ohio State column as it relates to TCU (and we will get to Baylor soon).
Hey Playoff Guy, I think he’s talking to you.
But there is more, and for these purposes, I will focus a bit more on Baylor since they were actually ranked one spot ahead of TCU. Ohio State beat 9 bowl eligible teams (to be bowl eligible, you need to win at least 6 games) to 6 for TCU and 5 for Baylor. While 6-6 teams are hardly world beaters, at least it suggests that you have beaten a decent team, something that can not be said for teams that feast on opponents with sub-.500 records. From the final Committee rankings, Ohio State beat three teams in final 25 to two apiece for TCU and Baylor (and all of OSU’s top 25 wins were either on the road or a neutral site, while both of TCU’s and Baylor’s occurred at home). So, just on the peripherals, it certainly appears that Ohio State’s resume is better.
“But, but, but the B1G Ten is so weak (he has heard this from his cousin, Get-In-the-Hole Guy*, and a story like that has got to be true). The Big 12 is better. What about the quality of the competition,” says “Playoff Guy” (as he wryly smiles and jots down something on his cocktail napkin. I can’t see what, but I can see he has Marshall scratched out). And this is where some of the best evidence suggests that the Committee actually got it right. Moments before ESPN revealed the final four, they put up the various strength of schedules (S.O.S) for Baylor, TCU, and Ohio State.
For those that aren’t familiar with this metric, S.O.S. compiles the wins and losses of a team’s opponents two levels deep. So, all of your opponent’s wins are added together, along with all of your opponent’s opponents wins, and the teams are ranked from 1 to 130 with one being the toughest schedule and 130 the weakest. ESPN reported that Ohio State’s S.O.S. for their complete schedule was ranked # 45, TCU’s # 53, and Baylor # 59 (since Baylor and TCU play in the same conference, and because they each play all 9 of the other conference opponents, their difference then comes down to their out of conference schedules (“OOC” hereafter), where Baylor aggressively scheduled Northwestern State, Buffalo, and SMU, who didn’t win a game at all until the final week of the season). So, whether you believe the cries that suggest B1G Ten football is no better than your average local flag football pick-up league (props to a rival B1G Ten site that has memorialized the rallying cry “B1G Ten” to be belted out during various embarrassing moments, and there are no shortage of them), Ohio State’s overall schedule was better in a very measurable way. As compared to TCU, for example, their best OOC win was against Minnesota at home, a team that Ohio State also beat in their backyard. Additionally, Ohio State also decisively beat a 9-3 Cincinnati team that was co-champions of some conference called the AAC, whatever that is, while TCU and Baylor were rounding out their OOC schedules with teams from the football championship subdivision (Ohio State did not play any FCS teams this year). Unfortunately for the Big 12, that schedule caught up with them.
So, to sum up, Ohio State won an additional game, against a tougher schedule, and were conference champs. Why should TCU or Baylor have gotten that last spot exactly?
And I am not the only one saying this of course. There is this. And then this. And then there is the always evenly balanced Stuart Mandel, who explains: “[s]o to recap, TCU and Baylor’s schedules finally aligned closely enough after the final week that the committee invoked the head-to-head tiebreaker, at which point the decision came down to Baylor or Ohio State. The Buckeyes’ performance against Wisconsin gave them more quality wins (as defined by the committee) than the Bears and a better overall body of work (nine wins over bowl-eligible teams to Baylor’s five). In the end, it probably wasn’t that difficult a decision.” No it was not.
But there is more. In another piece, I have written about the advanced metrics that break college football down by damn near every single snap during the regular season. Said sight is found at football outsiders.com. If you haven’t been to this site and are interested in truly understanding serious metrics that compare the teams weighted by the quality of the opponent, you should spend some time over at that site. For conversational purposes, I will include a portion of the standings (full standings seen here) with their various metrics that includes Ohio State, Baylor, and TCU’s 2014 seasons. Their final top ten using their metrics, is as follows:
From their site, they explain their FEI and Game Efficiency metrics as follows:
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) considers each of the nearly 20,000 possessions every season in major college football. All drives are filtered to eliminate first-half clock-kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores. A scoring rate analysis of the remaining possessions then determines the baseline possession efficiency expectations against which each team is measured. A team is rewarded for playing well against good teams, win or lose, and is punished more severely for playing poorly against bad teams than it is rewarded for playing well against bad teams.
Game Efficiency (GE) is the composite possession-by-possession efficiency of a team over the course of a game, a measurement of the success of its offensive, defensive, and special teams units’ essential goals: to maximize the team’s own scoring opportunities and to minimize those of its opponent. FEI ratings take the season-long GE data and adjust for opponent, placing special emphasis on quality performance against good teams, win or lose.
These rankings above consider seven weighted advanced metrics (they are weighted because the stats adjust for the strength of the opponent played against). The ones that comprise the rankings above are as follows: 1) SOS, explained as “likelihood of an elite team going undefeated against that team’s schedule; 2) FBS MW, which is the “mean win or the number of wins a team with a FEI would be expected to win,”; 3) FBS RMW (which is the same as the MW except it is for remaining schedule/games to be played. (Note, this is not relevant here because the only game remaining is the bowl game, and that is irrelevant to to the question of “who should have been ranked # 4, which means I will not utilize this stat); 4) OFEI, which is the Fremean Efficiency Index broken down for offense; 5) DFEI, same but for defensive rankings; 6) STE which is “special teams efficiency; and 7) FPA, which is “field position advantage,” which measures ” the share of the value of total starting field position earned by each team against its opponents.” All of these components are weighted and considered in establishing their final rankings.
Overall, with the exception of Georgia Tech, the top four teams were in fact selected for the final four (while the rankings do indeed suggest Georgia Tech is a good team, and they did play for the ACC conference championship game, college football rankings have always placed a huge premium on wins and losses, and as such, a three loss team will almost certainly never be included in the playoffs over a similarly ranked 1 loss team. Still, this bodes well for Florida State, who continues to be downgraded despite continuously winning football games). At a quick glance, one can see that the weighted numbers also support the selection of Ohio State over TCU or Baylor.
Looking at individual numbers for SOS, an elite team would only have an 11.8% chance of going undefeated against Ohio State’s schedule, whereas that same team would have an 18.3% chance against TCU’s schedule and a 25.2% chance against Baylor’s (hey Art, I know you think the lack of southern voters did you in here, but maybe, just maybe, the Committee wasn’t too impressed with your rigorous OOC schedule. Just sayin’). Ohio State was ranked higher in Game Efficiency, and in fact, was the highest ranked of all FBS teams in 2014 according to football outsiders.com. And for all the talk about those great offenses of TCU and Baylor, Ohio State beats both of them in OFEI, ranked # 9 (with Baylor # 12 and TCU #23). Much to this guy’s surprise, TCU’s defense came in six spots higher than Ohio State’s, though OSU was 11 spots better than Baylor. Bottom line, though, is when all of the information is thrown into their statistical blender, Ohio State ranks three spots higher than TCU and four higher than Baylor, which supports the other unweighted data discussed above.
Much of the fans’ frustration this year was with the Committee’s decision to drop TCU three spots after an absolutely dominating performance against Iowa State. But that frustration is borne at least to some degree by a new system that specifically was not designed to function like the old polling system. Once Ohio State beat # 13 ranked Wisconsin, they accumulated an extra win, a conference championship, and an even wider advantage in overall SOS over Baylor and TCU (it certainly didn’t help that Oklahoma was upset by Oklahoma State causing them to drop out of the top 25). As for the Baylor argument, though they jumped TCU as they probably should have (same record and beat them head to head), their metrics still paled in comparison to Ohio State’s, and thus, found themselves ranked one spot lower. None of this, of course, is really “Playoff Guy’s” problem, since his goal was never to identify the best 4, but rather, to move to an 8 or a 16 team postseason tournament. Sorry “Playoff Guy,” but your perpetual caterwauling about sixteen team brackets earns a big fat pffft.
I imagine “Playoff Guy” would be undeterred after reading this, and that’s fine. He wants a full blown playoff system, is already convinced that is the best way to determine a champion, and nothing he reads going forward is going to change his mind. But what I won’t let him do is use the data from this year’s results to support his, in my opinion, ill-conceived playoff model (don’t you worry, you will be able to tune in and watch a seven or eight win Saints team try and make a well deserved playoff run in just a few weeks). The Committee was supposed to select the best four teams for the first college football playoff, and that’s exactly what they did.
Happy Festivus to
my fans those confused individuals who accidentally made their way to this page and stayed long enough to read some of the words contained therein.
* Get-In-The-Hole Guy gets his information from 30 second sound bites, the maximum amount of information he can process. He regularly confuses opinion for fact. One he gets that information, he bunkers down and refuses to consider new facts as they develop, and thus, crawls into his proverbial hole.
Categories: College Football