This weekend marks the eighth full slate of the college football calendar, with seven in the books, and seven more to go until the power conferences (save for the Big 12) crown their champions on December 6th. While in a previous post I declared myself more excited for the college season than the NFL this year, I will be the first to admit that the entire month of September felt like a non-conference dress rehearsal mainly filled with Goliaths beating up on Davids, with a minority of great games sprinkled in. The first Saturday in October, the first true weekend of conference play, seemed to have more intrigue, elite matchups, and memorable moments than all of September did combined, and, coupled with last weekend, started the process of elimination from 30 or so contenders down to the four that will eventually be selected to the inaugural College Football National Semifinal Round (CFNSR, going forward; Final Four is sacrilegious) in January 2015.
Now I don’t intend to go week by week and guess what I think will happen, since Lorde knows you all have better things to do than read paragraph after paragraph of incorrect prediction. Instead, I want to discuss who is still standing, what may trip them up, and what they have to do to assure they reach a national semifinal.
Las Vegas has drawn a clear line in the field: 5Dimes Sportsbook lists a dozen teams at odds of 15/1 or shorter, while no other team is listed at anything under 50/1 (and only five teams are between this number and 100/1 odds). The men in the desert whose livelihoods rely on crafting correct numbers have essentially eliminated the vast majority of the NCAA, and declared that the CFNSR will be comprised of the 12 teams listed below, whom I have sorted into two different groups based on my expert analysis:
Those Who Must Run The Table to Have a Shot:
Baylor Bears (6-0) – Seems pretty harsh to place a currently undefeated team in this category, and there are surely some scenarios that a one loss Baylor team would be selected. However, as you look at Baylor’s schedule, there is one game that the Bears are roughly 5 times more likely to lose than any other – a November 8th road game against the next team on this list, Oklahoma. In my estimation there is about a 90% chance the Big 12 has one representative in the CFNSR, while the remaining 10% has the conference being shut out. There simply is not room for two at the table, and the showdown in Norman will likely decide who that is.
Oklahoma Sooners (5-1) – The above scenario obviously speaks directly to the Sooners chances. Saddled with one loss firmly in the Acceptable* category, the Sooner’s job is simple: Get Trevor Knight to complete more than 55% of his passes, don’t trip up between now and November 8th, slow down and/or overcome Bryce Petty and the Heartbreakers of Waco, then don;t have a let down between then and season’s end. Or, more simply, run the table.
*[The Bradford Pear’s College Football Metrics deem an Acceptable loss to be any road loss in which the team in question is an underdog, or a favorite of less than a touchdown. The Loss Scale continues with a Not Terrible Loss, in which the team in question is on the road and favored by 7-9.5 points, then finishes with the Unacceptable Loss, which is any home or road loss favored by 10+]
Oregon Ducks (5-1) – Of all the Needed Table Runners, the Ducks are probably the lowest on the totem pole, thanks to their Fully Unacceptable Loss to Arizona a few weeks ago at Autzen Stadium. In terms of expected outcomes, the loss was jaw-droppingly shocking, as the Ducks were 24-point favorites on their home turf. What Oregon does have going for them is the Face of the Game type player in Marcus Mariota that a selection committee may be drawn to including, as well as a schedule that gives them ample opportunity to garner impressive wins (v Stanford, @ Utah, a Pac 12 title matchup vs one of the LA or Arizona schools) that hopefully make people forget about the debacle a few weeks ago.
Georgia Bulldogs (5-1) – While it’s possible the Dawgs could lose another game and still reach the SEC title game, their remarkably tame schedule for SEC standards would likely have them missing out on the CFNSR even if they were to win the conference hardware with two losses. While there is surely a chance the selection committee disagrees with me, a 2014 SEC schedule that dodges matchups against Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, LSU and Texas A+M is borderline unjust, when you consider the previous five teams are forced into a weekly round robin, with Auburn thrown in for good measure. Georgia’s loss at South Carolina was of the Not Terrible variety, however it has looked worse over time as the Gamecocks have already entered “just end the season” mode. It would take a special circumstance for a two-loss team to dance, and Georgia is not that special.
Michigan State Spartans (5-1) – The following two teams fit the Baylor/Oklahoma mold of “maybe one, possibly neither, but definitely not both”. *Bias Alert* Michigan State threw caution to the scheduling wind by making the trip northwest to visit the Oregon Ducks in early September, taking early mallard punches, asserting control, before watching four straight touchdowns turn a nine point 3rd quarter lead into a 17 point loss. It goes without saying that a loss at Oregon is an Acceptable one, but a loss nonetheless on a schedule missing many opportunities for marquee “We Belong” wins. In a down year for the Big 10 (doesnt every year seem this way?), the Spartans have taken care of Nebraska, and must do the same with the next team on this list as well as whoever comes out of the West in the conference title game. If not, the bubble will burst.
Ohio State Buckeyes (4-1) – Surprised to see the Buckeyes on this list after losing veteran quarterback Braxton Miller to injury in the preseason? Dont be. They’ve really only had one chance thus far to screw up a lofty preseason ranking, and they did. Yet here they are. OSU is the second team to have an Unacceptable Loss on their resume, however there is a chance the selection committee views it compassionately as it was only the second career start for QB JT Barrett, who has played lights out ever since. Still, they must take the same route as Baylor/Oklahoma/MSU above them: avoid hiccups in the next few weeks, win the Game of the Season on November 8th, then keep it up through December. Then they must hope the committee can forget the home loss to Virginia Tech.
Alabama Crimson Tide (5-1) – I have a confession to make. I had the Tide scheduled to be in the bottom group. I even wrote the FSU, ND, Miss St, and Ole Miss posts before beginning on Bama, at which point I had a change of heart and moved them above the cutline. The reason for the change is, and you will read much more about it in the coming paragraphs, is the gauntlet that is the SEC West, and the theory that Not All Losses Are Created Equal. While 2014 Alabama has yet to look like the same RollDamnTide of the Saban era, and they’ve already got a loss on the docket, that’s not the problem – and a loss at Ole Miss is not one to shake your head at. In my opinion, what eliminates almost all margin for error for Bama is that their two toughest remaining games (Miss St, Auburn) come at home. While conventional wisdom says this is a good thing, and I certainly agree, with a team as storied and respected as Alabama, a second loss being a home loss would almost force the selection committee to look elsewhere for SEC representatives for the CFNSR. Losing on the road is much more forgivable than taking an L on your home field.
Those Who Can Afford To Take A Loss, I Think:
Florida State Seminoles (6-0) – It pains me to put FSU in this category, and if it were up to me, they would be listed in the above group, but I am trying to balance what I believe to be true with how I believe those making the selections will view things. The obvious truth is that, up until this moment, the 2014 Seminoles look nothing like last year’s unit aside from overall record, as they have struggled to put away inferior foes Oklahoma State and Clemson, and trailed North Carolina State by 17 points in the first quarter before rallying for a win. While a team’s record against the spread surely won’t hold bearing to a selection committee, FSU’s 1-5 ATS mark (with the lone cover against awful Wake Forest) thus far demonstrates their inability to play at a level of dominance expected of a loaded defending national champion. Their ACC schedule is predictably weak, as they do not face another ranked team the rest of the way after Saturday, which is why I feel that a loss at home this weekend to the Fighting Irish would be more than enough to prove this team doesn’t deserve a top-four spot. If a loss were to occur, FSU’s resume would pale in comparison to those of most of the other teams on this list, yet I can’t help but thinking a one loss Seminoles team would get a place in the CFNSR, based partially on the logic of “they are the defending champions, let’s give them an opportunity to defend it.”
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (6-0) – Would you believe me if I said this Saturday in Tallahassee would be the first true road game for the Irish this year? They’ve played in two neutral location games, one shaded toward South Bend, another shaded toward the opposition, but Game #7 will be the first time they actually travel into enemy territory. That alone makes me wonder what this team is actually made of. The win over Michigan looks about a tenth as impressive as it did when it occurred, however the Stanford victory was impressive even if on the fortunate side. If the Irish were able to upset the champs this weekend (a big if), then split the final two road tests (at Arizona State, at USC), and take care of business elsewhere, that would all but eliminate the Seminoles based on the head to head victory. However there are no true pushovers in ND’s final six games, and I don’t believe 10-2 would be enough to get this team invited to the Reservation for Four.
Mississippi State Bulldogs (6-0) – Here is where things get interesting. Discussions of college football royalty seemingly always end up in an SEC based debate, and now is no different. I dont think there is even a debate that the Bulldogs have had the most impressive first half of any team in the nation. Their past three games have been wins over (at the time) #8, #6, and #2 in the nation, and while they went 3-0 with an average victory margin of 12 points, their peak leads in the games were 24, 31, and 21 points. Against Top 10 teams! Dak Prescott has transformed himself into a Cam Newton-esque “out of nowhere” Heisman favorite, the team has already gotten through the bear of their schedule, leaving late November road trips to Alabama and Ole Miss as their only real roadblocks. Since those two teams have yet to be discussed here, they are massive roadblocks, yes, but even a split of the two would have the Bulldogs in prime position for a playoff berth.
Ole Miss Rebels (6-0) – What a time to be from Mississippi! The Rebels have been nearly as impressive as the Bulldogs, beating big bad Bama at home and fading Texas A+M on the road in the past two weeks. Matchups with Auburn, LSU, Arkansas and the Egg Bowl vs Mississippi State remains, but with veteran QB Bo Wallace and an elite defense, Ole Miss is every bit the contender as their in-state rivals. And with their toughest remaining pair of games coming in Oxford, they have a much better chance of ending the season undefeated of the two remaining unblemished SEC schools.
Auburn Tigers (5-1) – Last but not least, the most curious case of them all, the only team with a loss that I believe should be viewed as a legitimate candidate even if they accrue two (or more) blemishes. Auburn crashed the party last year, coming from 1000-1 National Championship longshots to within a minute of the crystal football. While few expected a large regression in talent, with dual threat QB Nick Marshall returning, many prognosticators took a look at the 2014 schedule and declared Auburn destined for a letdown, and we’re beginning to see those fears in realtime as we get into the teeth of conference play. This is the fourth SEC West team listed in the “Final 12” by Vegas’s ruling. While the previously discussed Rebels of Ole Miss have contenders Bama, Miss St, and these Tigers coming to play in Oxford, Auburn drew the short end of the scheduling stick, having to play at Mississippi State, at Ole Miss, at Alabama, and at Georgia for good measure. When factoring in an already completed non-conference road trip to Kansas State, by December, these Tigers will have played a half season’s worth of road games in hostile environments versus Top 10 teams (KSU is not Top 10 caliber but we’re going with the majority here). They already tripped up against the redhot MSU Bulldogs, and I am sure many people will view a second loss as an elimination. But to me, if they could somehow win two of the three remaining trips (Miss, UGA, Bama) and take care of other remaining business to end at 10-2, those two road wins combined with a standard SEC schedule is so much more impressive than any one loss performance out of the ACC, Big 10, Pac 12, or even Big 12.
The Biggest Decisions The Committee Will Have to Make, and Opinions the Pear has Formed Through this Process in Case the Committee Asks for Advice:
1) I know I have been beating it like a drum for about a page now, but how will they view the round robin nature of the SEC West schedule. By playing each other, Miss, Miss St, Bama and Auburn will accrue a total of 6 losses. There is no avoiding it. What if the four teams happen to go 11-1, 11-1, 10-2, 10-2, without losing to a single team outside their foursome? Is the committee going to tell me that only one of the four deserves to make it? In the above scenario, I would argue that all four should get bids and the inaugural CFNSR should just be an SEC West battle royale.
2) Conference Championship Games: How will an additional game (and therefore an additional chance for a loss) affect the committee’s views of teams? Baylor and Oklahoma square off in November, but even if OU wins and OU, Baylor, and TCU all end with one conference loss, there is no title game. No chance for a second loss, or one more signature win. Whereas in all other leagues, Oregon, Michigan State, Ohio State may run the table, end the season with one loss, but then be upended by a quality conference foe to give the team the second loss. And back to the above example one last time, what if Ole Miss wins the SEC West at 11-1 in a tiebreaker over Alabama at 11-1, then goes to the title game and loses to Georgia who basically gets a home game in Atlanta? Does Bama then steal Ole Miss’s playoff spot because they didn’t even make the SEC title game?
3) How will the committee balance the debate of Most Talented vs Most Deserving? Two years ago when the Fighting Irish went undefeated and then obliterated in the BCS Championship game by Alabama, there was chatter that the better game would have been Alabama vs Oregon. Oregon was arguably the better team, but had accrued a loss, where ND was undefeated. It will be interesting to see if this debate happens in 2014. In my example of Auburn, I essentially argued that even a 9-3 Auburn team would still be supremely talented, just faced with a daunting schedule. Where on the flipside, unless Florida State finds the fifth gear they played with all of last year, they could finish the season undefeated while still not looking overly impressive on the field. Should a 9-3 Auburn team get a chance over a 12-0 FSU team? No, I don’t think so. But that is just one example of how it could play out.
4) Anyone who thought the end of the BCS and debut of the CFNSR would make these decisions easy is dead wrong. No matter where the cutline is, there will always be a team or player that gets snubbed. You see it in March Madness. You see it in the MLB All Star Game selections. The decision between 4 and 5 is just as hard, if not harder, than 2/3. This inaugural season could set precedent over what wins out over what in terms of a deserving resume.
5) In my opinion, Oregon and Ohio State should already be all but eliminated from consideration. Unlike any others on this list, they lost at home to vastly inferior opponents. With the quality of teams vying for these spots, that’s enough for me to give them the ax.
6) Enjoy November 8th. Crack a few cold ones, burrow deep in a couch or bolt yourself to a barstool and enjoy the best day of the CFB calendar. Two elimination games in Baylor/OU, OSU/MSU, then Texas A+M/Auburn, RollDamnTide/LSU, KSU/TCU, Oregon/Utah, and Notre Dame/Arizona State. Gems, all of em.
7) Fine, a prediction: Baylor, Michigan State, Ole Miss, and Auburn finds a way.
If you made it this far, kudos to you. I appreciate it. Till next time.