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Poll Problems: Week 13

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We take a look at the College Football Playoff poll each week to see what the committee got right and what it got terribly wrong.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State
A Penn State win in the B1G title game could put the Playoff committee in a situation where there is no right answer.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

In the final installment of the season, we will abandon the team-by-team analysis in favor of discussing all the scenarios that could play out and how the committee might choose to tackle them. This is your current College Football Playoff top 10:

1. Alabama
2. Ohio State
3. Clemson
4. Washington
5. Michigan
6. Wisconsin
7. Penn State
8. Colorado
9. Oklahoma
10. Oklahoma State

For Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, I just don’t see a reasonable path other than one demolishing the other and the committee suddenly doing a complete re-evaluation of the season as a whole and blowing up its own rankings. But then again, we are talking about the CFP committee ... so we can’t rule anything out.

We can reasonably assume Alabama will be in the Playoff regardless of whether it beats Florida in the SEC Championship. A loss, however, could put the Tide at risk of forfeiting the No. 1 seed because of their lack of a conference title. I would actually posit the only team that has any kind of shot at stealing that spot from Bama is Clemson (if the Tigers beat Virginia Tech). The logic there would be the Tigers picking up a conference championship “trump card”, if you will. I do not see any way for Ohio State to jump Alabama under any circumstances, because they too lack a conference championship. With the committee’s ongoing praise of the Tide, though, I would be inclined to believe they retain the top seed even in the event of a shocking loss to the Gators.

I feel pretty confident that Clemson and Washington are in with wins in their respective title games. While I will never rule out this committee going rogue (especially in favor of the B1G), I think the fact they have Washington currently ranked over Wisconsin and Penn State pretty much eliminates the possibility of the winner of that game leap-frogging the Huskies, as that would be impossible to justify with both teams adding a conference title and top-8 win to their resumes simultaneously.

I do, however, sense an inevitability that the winner of B1G championship will jump conference foe Michigan, who is about as helpless a No. 5 team as you could imagine. With two losses and no chance at a conference title (a.k.a. the only team in the top 10 who owns both of those unenviable credentials), I just don’t see a situation where Kirby Hocutt could stand up there and tell us they have decided Michigan is worthy of a Playoff spot. Although nothing is impossible.

If Clemson or Washington loses, I think you are guaranteed to see the B1G winner take that team’s spot in the top 4 - which would give you a pretty cut and dried four-team field that would be hard to argue with. If Clemson and Washington lose, things could get hairy. There would be immense pressure from voices in the room (not naming names) to not only slide the the B1G champion into the Playoff, but also the currently fifth-seeded Wolverines, to create a B1G Playoff extravaganza that would make anyone outside the Midwest sick to their stomach. My hope in this hypothetical would be that the committee would have the sense to move darkhorse Colorado, who would have added a signature win over Washington and a Pac 12 title, into that fourth spot. Do I trust the committee to do this? Absolutely not. But, again, that would be the hope. I also think this is the only scenario where the Buffaloes would have any chance to make the field.

And yet, the toughest potential scenario for the committee is the most likely one, wherein Clemson and Washington both win their games this weekend. In this scenario, there is no correct answer. The committee would be guaranteed to burn a team that has a legitimate claim to be included in the Playoff. Ohio State’s resume to this point is impressive; It is inarguably the second best in the country. But the notion that a team can benefit from sitting on the sideline while those around them compete for conference titles is troubling.

It’s for this reason that I can not label the Buckeyes a complete lock for the Playoff. I think Clemson would be relatively free from worry in this situation, and though the committee could upend its current rankings to boot Washington in favor of Wisconsin or Penn State, I think they’d realize the kind of riot they would have on their hands. So that leaves Ohio State as the only team you could potentially drop from the top 4, as crazy at that sounds. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, I think barring an absolute destruction of Penn State in the championship game the committee would look past their conference title, narrow margins of defeat to top-5 teams, and top-4 strength of record and say “Sorry, Ohio State beat you in your own building” and roll with the four teams it has right now. Fair? Depends who you ask.

If Penn State wins, your guess is as good as mine. Ohio State would still have the better resume if you look purely at quality of wins and losses, but when you add a conference title to Penn State’s resume, it suddenly puts the teams on a bit more even footing. Couldn’t you then look at head-to-head as a deciding factor? The committee has clearly valued head-to-head results all season - almost to a fault. Is the combination of a Penn State conference title and a head-to-head win over the Buckeyes enough for them to drop a team that appears to be a solid No. 2 completely out of the four-team field?

As we said last week, it wouldn’t be the first time the committee dropped a team three spots in the final poll (They moved TCU from No. 3 to No. 6 in the last poll of 2014). And that was a team that won 55-3 that week. We are talking about an Ohio State team that doesn’t play this week at all. Of course, that one-loss TCU team was jumped by three teams that had either zero or one loss. Penn State (or Wisconsin in the alternate scenario) would be a two-loss team jumping a one-loss team. So in this situation, the committee would be forced to make a decision and, perhaps more importantly, set a precedent on what it values most highly when evaluating teams. Is it conference championships? Is it head-to-head? Is it number of losses? Quality of wins? Strength of record?

The irony is that when the committee was conceived, they probably thought that by giving a vague list of factors they were to consider with no hierarchical structure, they were leaving themselves wiggle room to create justifications that suited them at any particular time. What would actually occur should this hypothetical come to pass is an unwinnable situation where no matter what you choose to do, there will be just as valid an argument as to why you should have done the opposite, because your original premise lacks any statement that explicitly says, “This matters more than this.”

So, now for the all-important question: What would the committee do in this situation? The short answer is, I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody truly does. Gun to my head? I think they would keep Ohio State in the top 4 - perhaps even dropping them to No. 3 or 4 - but keeping them in. But for anybody who agrees with that, I would also show you this excerpt from the committee’s stated protocol:

“Under the current construct, polls (although well-intended) have not expressed these values; particularly at the margins where teams that have won head-to-head competition and championships are sometimes ranked behind non-champions and teams that have lost in head-to-head competition. Nuanced mathematical formulas ignore some teams who “deserve” to be selected.”

So yeah, who knows...

The rest of the poll:

11. USC
12. Florida State
13. Louisville
14. Auburn
15. Florida
16. West Virginia
17. Western Michigan
18. Stanford
19. Navy
20. Utah
21. LSU
22. Tennessee
23. Virginia Tech
24. Houston
25. Pittsburgh