Because there weren’t many games this week, I’m putting off a full 1-128 ranking of FBS teams until after next weekend, when Army and Navy will complete the regular season. I will, however, go ahead and apply my ranking process to the 6 teams pretty much everyone agrees should be in the mix for the final 4 spots in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Let’s get to it.
1. Oregon Ducks (12-1)
What makes them great? Pretty much everything. Start with the quarterback. Marcus Mariota is likely your Heisman winner for 2014, and if he is, then it’s one the voters nailed. Freshman RB Royce Freeman has been electric, as has fellow running back slash wide receiver slash H-back slash whatever you need Byron Marshall. The offense accumulated 602 points in 13 games (46.3 per) and was held under 40 twice (38 and 24, respectively). Since the October 2 loss to Arizona, the Ducks have won 8 straight games by an average of 26 points per game, with no game closer than 12. We have two full months of nothing but ruthless dominance. The Ducks are the best team in the country now, and they’ve had the best season of any team in the country. The defensive front’s tossing around of the Arizona OL like rag dolls was reminiscent of past SEC units when reaching the big stage. Remember the way Florida and LSU dominated the Buckeye lines back in the mid aughts? That’s what Oregon proved capable of doing on Friday night. This is as close as this year has come to having produced ‘the whole package’, a team that racks up big wins and looks really good doing it. They beat 2-loss Michigan State by 19 points in an out-of-conference game as well. Even the one blemish – that loss to Arizona – was avenged in an emphatic way. That demon is exorcised. So are any doubts about Oregon at this point.
2. TCU Horned Frogs (11-1)
What makes them great? They’re a lot like Oregon, except they haven’t been quite as dominant, and their loss wasn’t quite as bad. ï¿½TCU doesn’t have a huge win that really turns your head. They beat Kansas State by 3 touchdowns (more easily than Baylor). They beat Minnesota, a solid 8-4 non-conference opponent that nearly reached the Big Ten title game. But really, they emulated Oregon with the blowouts. So many opponents seemed to have their worst game (or one of their worst) against TCU:
|Opponent||vs. TCU||Worst Game||Rank|
|Baylor||+1||-14 (West Virginia)||#2|
|Oklahoma State||-33||-34 (Kansas State)||#2|
|Texas Tech||-55||-55 (TCU)||#1|
|West Virginia||-1||-17 (Texas)||#5|
|Kansas State||-21||-21 (TCU)||#1|
|Iowa State||-52||-52 (TCU)||#1|
In 7 of their 12 games, they dealt their opponent their worst loss of the year. In 3 of the other 5, it registered as the 2nd worst loss (or game) of the year. Simply put, teams tend to be at their worst when they play TCU. I don’t think one team can get that lucky 10 of 12 times.
Out of curiosity, I looked to see how the other 6 contenders fared with the same sort of approach:
Alabama – Bama was responsible for Texas A&M’s worst loss of the year. Mississippi State, FAU, Florida, Western Carolina, and Missouri had their 2nd worst losses against the Tide. (1/13 worst, 6/13 top 2)
Baylor – Northwestern State, Buffalo, TCU, Kansas, and Oklahoma had their worst losses against Baylor. Kansas State had its 2nd worst loss. (5/12 worst, 6/12 top 2)
Florida State – The Citadel, Wake Forest, and Louisville had their worst losses against FSU. Virginia had its 2nd worst loss. (3/13 worst, 4/13 top 2)
Ohio State – Navy, Kent State, Illinois, and Wisconsin had their worst losses against OSU. Cincinnati, Maryland, Rutgers, and Michigan State had their 2nd worst losses. (4/13 worst, 8/13 top 2)
Oregon – South Dakota, Michigan State, Washington, Stanford, Colorado, Oregon State, and Arizona each suffered their worst loss of the year against Oregon. UCLA & Utah suffered their 2nd worst losses against the Ducks. (7/13 worst, 9/13 top 2)
In terms of making their opponent play their poorest game of the year, TCU did that with more regularity than any other team in football this year.
Yes, they lost to Baylor, but it was at Baylor by 3 points. I’m not forgiving TCU for that loss, but I’m not ignoring the entire rest of the season either. They’ve played their way into this playoff. Put them in.
3. Florida State Seminoles (13-0)
What makes them great? They haven’t lost. Yes, that’s pretty much it, but that’s a big thing, isn’t it? Herm Edwards doesn’t have to tell you why games are played – you already know. I don’t think Florida State is, right now, one of the 4 best teams in the country, but that’s as good a reason as any to put them in the playoffs. They’ve earned their shot to prove to people just how good or bad they are, once and for all. That’s the problem with subjective decisions trying to nail down who the ‘best’ is. It gets you absolutely nowhere. FSU belongs in the playoff picture because they did what no other team could do – avoid losing. Not Oregon, not TCU, not Alabama, not anyone was as efficient at the single most important thing in football – winning. Sure, everyone else mentioned here was better than FSU at all the ancillary things, but you have to remember that they’re ancillary for a reason. They’re supportive. FSU has the fundamental trait of a champion, and their inclusion in the playoffs needs no further attributes.
4. Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1)
What makes them great? They were able to overcome a loss to an Ole Miss team that lost 3 other games. They were able to overcome a close win over an Arkansas team that, by SEC standards, wasn’t particularly good, even if it did have some nice late-season moments. They did this by beating 10-2 Mississippi State, a quality win by any standard, beating the duo of pretty good but not great 8-4 Tiger teams from the West, and pulverizing 10-3 Missouri in the SEC Championship game. Let’s not underappreciate Alabama’s ability to dominate, either. The media will lazily just look at Alabama’s conference as the only validation for the top 4 they need, but Bama was a really good team this year. They blew out Florida, beat a pretty good West Virginia team by multiple scores, and handed Texas A&M its worst loss since that abomination against Oklahoma in 2003. No, Alabama didn’t earn the #1 spot that so many are handing them because ZOMG!!!SEC!!!, but they’ve earned their place in the playoffs regardless. At this point, the seeding doesn’t really matter aside from the fact they should probably have to play a tougher Oregon squad first.
5. Baylor Bears (11-1)
What makes them great? A really big win. No other contender for the playoffs has a bigger win than Baylor’s 61-58 win over TCU. At this point it’s pretty impossible to discuss Baylor outside of the context of TCU, so we might as well start there. They have identical records, and Baylor beat TCU. That is a simplistic approach, and it’s not an altogether invalid one. If little separated them, I think there’s a very good argument for having Baylor ranked ahead of TCU. However, I don’t think the entire picture is as identical as many would like to make it out to be. Against common opponents, TCU had a score differential of +264. Baylor’s was +187. That’s not really identical. When looking at non-common opponents, Baylor faced a 6-6 Northwestern State from the FCS and 5-6 Buffalo from the MAC. TCU faced a 7-4 Samford from the FCS and 8-4 Minnesota from the Big Ten. Again, not identical at all. That’s why, for all Baylor’s greatness this year – and they have been pretty great – a single home game fluke victory over TCU isn’t enough to overcome an entire season of data which tells us TCU is objectively the better football team. That entire season of data is enough for me.
6. Ohio State Buckeyes (12-1)
What makes them great? Everything except that Virginia Tech loss. They’ve beaten some quality teams, handing losses to Michigan State, Cincinnati, Minnesota, and finally Wisconsin. But among these, only Michigan State qualifies as a truly impressive scalp on OSU’s wall. Sure, the way they beat Wisconsin was impressive, but this same Wisconsin team lost to Northwestern and gave up over 11 yards per play passing to LSU – yes, the 2014 version of LSU that still hasn’t found a quarterback it really likes. Wisconsin rode a fairly easy schedule to Indianapolis, and I suppose there’s a reasonable argument Ohio State did as well, though I won’t get into it here – especially after I’ve ranked them behind Baylor, the czars of easy scheduling. As you saw above in the TCU section, Ohio State did a good job making opponents have bad days, thanks to a lot of big wins against middle-of-the-pack teams. Navy, Kent State, Rutgers, Maryland. These are the teams against whom Ohio State really looked like a champion. Is that compelling enough? I can’t say that it is. Yes, the 59-0 win over Wisconsin is a big exclamation point on their case, but don’t be overly fooled by the score differential in that one. Wisconsin is as much a one-trick pony as any team in the country, relying on Melvin Gordon for pretty much all offensive needs. Gordon was responsible for 42% of Wisconsin’s yards this year. QBs Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy combined to average fewer yards per attempt through the air (7.06) than Gordon got on the ground (8.0) and a 13:10 TD to interception ratio to boot. I bring all of this up to illustrate how no team in the Big Ten was as ill-equipped to dig its way out of a hole as Wisconsin. When it was forced to, a bad game turned worse and the eye-popping final tally was reached. I’m not saying you shouldn’t treat this as a big, blowout win. You should. I’m saying you shouldn’t really treat this one drastically different than you treated OSU’s blowouts over Maryland or Rutgers. And we still come back to the loss – by double digits, to a 6-6 Virginia Tech team that lost to Wake Forest. No other team has anything as remotely embarrassing on their resume, and it does need to be held against Ohio State in comparison. When you lose a game like that, you need to not only dominate your schedule, you need your schedule to help you out by showing some dominance of its own. The Big Ten didn’t exactly do that, and as a result Ohio State should be on the outside looking in.