SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg breaks down the Auburn Tigers’ and Miami Hurricanes’ big wins and what it means going forward. USA TODAY Sports
Saturday comes and goes, and then the real matchup begins. Each weekly meeting of the College Football Playoff selection committee entails a battle between the many analytical metrics at the group’s disposal and the eyeball test, and only one half of the matchup can be predicted with any degree of confidence
In a conference room in Grapevine, Texas, the committee sits at computers, sips on coffee and breaks down the numbers: strength of schedule, résumé of wins, quality of losses, offensive and defensive production. But it isn’t that simple.
The poll era of college football’s national championship was too easily influenced by human error — yes, media voters and even coaches have been known to make a mistake or two, with several examples at our disposal. What followed, the Bowl Championship Series, transferred much of the responsibility to computers and algorithms, to often disastrous effect.
PLAYOFF: Week 3 rankings
The Playoff’s selection format has found a middle ground. Even those who balk at the four-team field and call for an increased bracket must admit: This is an improvement. But old habits are still hard to break.
It’s an important theme to consider — that individual teams and programs are given the benefit of the doubt by the selection committee — as the Playoff search reaches its home stretch, with the final rankings just three weeks away. On one hand, the committee will have it easy should the status quo hold. On the other, the potential for one final blip of chaos could lead to a precarious situation involving as many as nine teams from four major conferences.
Begin with this week’s rankings, released Tuesday evening, which stuck to the rough outline provided by the two major polls: Alabama gained the top spot following Georgia’s first loss, followed by Clemson, Miami (Fla.) and Oklahoma. Rounding out the top eight were Wisconsin, Auburn, Georgia and Notre Dame. Ohio State was ninth. Barring an outrageous close to the regular season, the final four-team field will come from this group.
“Lots of debate on teams one through five and where they went,” said Playoff selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt. “We talked a lot about the Sooners. Three wins against teams ranked in the top 13 of this week’s rankings. It’s the loss to Iowa State that did not allow Oklahoma to rank higher this week.”
Now, it could be simple. Alabama beats Auburn in the Iron Bowl and then Georgia to win the Southeastern Conference championship. Miami and Clemson win out through the end of November, and then one defeats the other in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. Oklahoma and Wisconsin win out to place four Power Five conference winners — all but the Pac-12 Conference — into national semifinals, as the format was created to do.
Don’t bet on it. The nightmare scenario for the committee would entail a degree of messiness across each of those four major leagues, and from two in particular: the SEC and the Big Ten. It’s in these two conferences that the committee’s historic preference toward Alabama and Ohio State could add drama to an already contentious debate.
Think about the scenarios. In the SEC, Alabama defeats Auburn but loses to Georgia, giving the league a pair of 12-1 teams. In the Big Ten, the Buckeyes impress in lopsided wins against Illinois and Michigan before dismantling unbeaten Wisconsin to claim the conference championship. At 11-2, Ohio State would be the first two-loss team to reach a national semifinal in the format’s brief existence.
The committee already has shown a willingness to give Alabama the benefit of the doubt. The debut rankings, released Oct. 31, had the Crimson Tide ranked second despite then owning just one victory against a Power Five opponent with a winning record.
In other words, the Crimson Tide aced the eyeball test — because there were few metrics in Alabama’s corner, especially when compared to its rivals for a top-four spot. Though that has since changed, as the Tide have added nice wins against LSU and Mississippi State, the same theme would apply should they fail to take home the SEC title: Alabama would be a strong contender for the top four because of the respect and admiration the committee pays college football’s most dominant program.
We already have seen this from Ohio State. Twice the Buckeyes have reached the semifinals, in 2014 and 2016, the latter despite failing to win their own division, let alone the Big Ten as a whole. This year would be slightly different: OSU would wear the Big Ten crown, a significant asset in its corner, but would have two defeats, one an impossible-to-ignore meltdown at Iowa earlier this month.
“The loss to Iowa was a convincing loss in the eyes of the selection committee,” Hocutt said. “Still an extremely talented and good football team. The selection committee was extremely impressed with the win and the manner with which the win came about over Michigan State last week.”
It’s even possible that these two powers will end up battling for the final open spot in the field, should Oklahoma, Georgia and one of Miami or Clemson occupy three of the four spots. Then comes the conundrum: One-loss Alabama, albeit without a conference title, against two-loss Ohio State, winners of a strong league but owners of one horrific defeat. Of all things, a program that is perennially given the benefit of the doubt by the committee — whether that’s the Tide or the Buckeyes — would fall short of the Playoff by losing the eyeball test.