Last week was actually the most bland set of rankings the College Football Playoff selection committee gave us in its short history. The committee spent its first two years trying to drive home the point that every team is re-evaluated every week, so we often saw teams shift when they picked up quality wins or when earlier wins or losses became better or worse.
Last week, we saw nothing like that. We saw teams that lost drop a bunch of spots, seemingly without any particular rhyme or reason as to who dropped how far. Other than that, though, no statements were made. Teams that won slid up. No one really jumped anyone else. It was what we’d come to expect from the polls in the early part of the BCS era and before, but not in recent years and certainly not in the short history of the selection committee.
So what did the committee have in store this week? Were there statements to be made about quality wins and SOS? Or would it be more of the same of the often-ridiculed “poll mentality?”
What the CFP Selection Committee Taught Us: Week 11
— CFBPlayoff (@CFBPlayoff) November 16, 2016
In a dramatic reversal from last week, the selection committee showed right off the bat that it is indeed re-evaluating teams every week. At the top, Clemson was ahead of Michigan last week. This week, even though both picked up bad losses (and Michigan’s was arguably worse), the Wolverines ended up in front of the Tigers. Kirby Hocutt also pointed out that the three Top 10 wins mattered for both of those teams. Even though the AP and Coaches’ Polls have Louisville at No. 3 right now, the committee—for this week, at least—is sticking with resume over “eye test” and “what have you done for me lately.”
Before I discuss further down the rankings, I just want to point out something that seems to have many fans concerned. Many are wondering why—even after losing—Michigan, Wisconsin, and Washington really didn’t drop at all. The reason is simple. As I’ve been saying for several weeks now in CFP Implications (these are the last two examples, but I started pointing it out a few weeks earlier), the teams at the very top of the rankings were just so far ahead of the rest of the country. Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, and Clemson each have three Top 25 wins by CFP ranking; Clemson and Michigan each have three Top 10 wins. On top of that, there just haven’t been any good one-loss teams this year. We’re actually starting to run out of two-loss teams: There are nine P5 two-loss teams, several of which (Florida and Washington State, to start) don’t have any real wins of quality to speak of. The point is, there was no second level of teams waiting to pick up ground when Clemson and Michigan lost. It’s not that Clemson, Michigan, and Washington didn’t deserve to fall. It’s that there were no teams (other than Ohio State) in range to jump them.
Towards the middle of the poll, it could feel like a bit of slipping into poll mentality. The current 8-12 just slid up in front of teams that lost, but it’s not like there is too much to parse between the teams, so there isn’t much about them that changed from last week to this week. There are a few important points to talk about in this region, though. First of all, USC jumped seven spots for its dominant win over Washington. It’s hard for humans to avoid recency bias when trying to evaluate the whole season, but this USC team is different than the one that started the season. The committee is clearly trying to give some weight to USC’s success with Sam Darnold, even though those early-season losses still hold it back somewhat.
An interesting point of contrast in the rankings is Oklahoma at No. 9, while West Virginia is at No. 14. The two have nearly-identical quality of wins, assuming we trade off Oklahoma’s win over free-falling Baylor as equal to West Virginia’s nonconfernce win over BYU. Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated asked Hocutt about the discrepancy in the rankings of these two teams. Hocutt’s response essentially was that Oklahoma and its offense have been impressive while on a seven-game winning streak. This non-answer should be the talk of the committee this week, as Washington State isn’t getting respect for its eight-game winning streak (and the Cougars have a ranked win, something that Oklahoma lacks). The committee seems to be giving Oklahoma extra respect for its nonconference schedule, as it should, but Hocutt should be able to say that. The committee seems to be consistent in valuing quality wins over losses. Oklahoma is the one exception that seems to be rewarded for its losses, rather than its wins. Again, West Virginia has the same wins, along with one fewer loss (West Virginia’s loss also came to a ranked team). Both are 0-1 against ranked teams. Oklahoma has an additional loss on top of that. There is something inconsistent with the placement of these two teams.
There are a few surprises towards the bottom of the rankings. LSU’s beating of Arkansas seemed to give the Tigers an inordinate boost, though it’s possible that the committee is just correcting for dropping LSU too far last week. Tennessee also somehow jumped all the way up from being unranked to No. 19. Maybe that’s because Florida also moved back into the rankings, so the Volunteers’ one meaningful win looks better now.
A potentially meaningful rankings shift is that Boise State jumped Western Michigan this week. Boise State has a loss while Western Michigan doesn’t, but Boise State also has a quality win over Washington State while Western Michigan has exactly one win over an FBS team with a winning record (that number will be bumped to two if Central Michigan can complete its upset bid over Ohio). It makes perfect sense for Boise State to be ahead in that comparison, though it begs the question of why Western Michigan was ahead the last two weeks. We saw the committee do something similar two years ago, when it wouldn’t rank an undefeated Marshall team with a horrible schedule.
Lastly, I want to point out Texas A&M all the way down at No. 25. The Aggies lost a tough game to probably the best 5-5 team that any of us can remember seeing and dropped 17 spots for it. There could be several reasons for this. It could be that the committee felt that it didn’t drop Texas A&M far enough for a much worse loss last year. It could be that the committee has lost faith in the Aggies’ potential due to the injury to Trevor Knight. It could be that the committee felt that this third loss let them out of keeping Texas A&M ahead of Auburn (No. 15 this week), which was the only reason for having the Aggies at No. 8 last week. Any or all of these could be correct. However, it’s baffling to see Texas A&M sitting at No. 25 while it has two wins over teams ahead of it. The Aggies have beaten Auburn and Tennessee this year and both Auburn and Tennessee also have three losses. You have to look all the way up to No. 13 USC (which also has three losses) to find the next-lowest-ranked team with two ranked wins. I understand that Texas A&M is trending downwards while other teams are improving, but just looking at the resumes it’s shocking to see Texas A&M all the way down at No. 25 this week.