And then there were seven. Okay, maybe eight. Nine? All right, I'll draw the line at ten. Ten teams that still have mathematical hope of getting into the four-team playoff.
Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Mississippi State, TCU, Ohio State, Baylor, Ole Miss, UCLA and Georgia.
Ten teams, which is way more teams than would be in the mix in a two-team BCS Title Game Era season, and nothing feels cheapened or minimized. My team (Notre Dame) is out of it now officially (Brian Kelly, with Lindsay Lohan-level decision-making in an overtime loss to Northwestern on Saturday, took care of that), and yet I'm as excited for multiple games this Saturday as I've ever been.
The new playoff system has done the exact opposite of what the charlatans behind the BCS and the bowl system said it would -- it's made college football even more compelling, with a ton of games directly involving potential playoff teams, as well as games involving teams (Minnesota-Nebraska, Arizona State-Utah) that have strength of schedule implications for contenders.
In the meantime, we continue to gain awareness of the prism through which the committee views these teams and their performances. Let's look at the latest College Football Playoff rankings, released Tuesday night:
1. Alabama (9-1) 2. Oregon (9-1) 3. Florida State (10-0) 4. Mississippi State (9-1) 5. TCU (9-1) 6. Ohio State (9-1) 7. Baylor (8-1) 8. Ole Miss (8-2) 9. UCLA (8-2) 10. Georgia (8-2) 11. Michigan State (8-2) 12. Kansas State (7-2) 13. Arizona State (8-2) 14. Auburn (7-3) 15. Arizona (8-2) 16. Wisconsin (8-2) 17. Utah (7-3) 18. Georgia Tech (9-2) 19. USC (7-3) 20. Missouri (8-2) 21. Oklahoma (7-3) 22. Clemson (7-3) 23. Nebraska (8-2) 24. Louisville (7-3) 25. Minnesota (7-3)
Now, here's some bonus embedded video of the committee chairman, Arkansas AD Jeff Long, explaining some of the risers and fallers:
And finally, here's what we can read into Long's comments and take away heading into Week 13:
1. Style points are everything. I heard some analysis on Saturday night on ESPN from former Florida State quarterback Danny Kanell (who is rapidly surpassing Trevor Matich in the "Inane Argument Generator" rankings), after highlights of TCU squeaking out a four-point win over Kansas, where Kanell said, "Hey, a win is a win, and that's all that matters." Someone should have punched him, as it was a classic case of either a) an analyst who just doesn't get it or b) an analyst feeling like he has a "words per minute" quota to hit in each turn he gets on the mike.
Actually, Kanell, winning is clearly not all that matters. Ask TCU, which was bumped down from four to five specifically because they struggled in beating a piss-poor Kansas team by four. Ask Florida State, which is the only remaining undefeated team but sits at three because it has struggled in four games on a schedule whose highest opponent is ranked 22nd right now. And ask Mississippi State, which rode a five-point loss in Tuscaloosa to (for now) the fourth spot in the rankings.
And if you don't think style points and how you win or lose are important, check out this incredibly insightful theory on Mississippi State's game management at the end of that Alabama game, a fascinating piece of analysis from David Malinsky of pregame.com:
As handicapping approaches alter for late-season games in the Playoff era, let's submit Mississippi State's final drive at Alabama as a prime exhibit. Mullen's Bulldogs took possession on their own 28-yard line with 3:18 remaining, tailing by 12. In the days of old, that would have meant a desperate hurry-up offense and low-percentage passes down the field, needing two TDs to stay alive in the chase. But what did we see instead? A methodical 13-play drive to the end zone, a march that included five runs.
The difference? Mullen is one of the sharper guys out there - to build the team that he has in Starkville, of all places, is a tribute to that (watch what happens to this program when he leaves for greener pastures, possibly as early as to Florida when this season ends). So let's offer the hypothesis that Mullen believed that a single TD was actually worth a small fortune in regard to how the Playoff committee (again, CAPS "P" and small "c" are intentional) will do their job this week. And if they get it right on Tuesday, offer it up as something important for the future.
If you are rated #1, and lose at Alabama by five points, winning some key stat battles like 26-17 in first downs and 428-335 in total offense (yes, they were leading both categories even before that final drive), you are not supposed to drop much at all. In terms of "quality losses", which will be a measuring stick when comparing the teams with a single defeat, 25-20 in Tuscaloosa should go down as the clear #1. But 25-13 might not have. Mullen called that final drive seemingly believing that; now let's see how it shakes out.
So yeah, Kanell's assessment of the landscape as being a "win and that's all that matters" terrain was a thousand percent inaccurate.
2. The new, hot phrase in this era of playoff football is "control the game." When asked about Florida State still being ranked third despite being undefeated defending champions, Long specifically brought up the fact that they looked at whether or not Florida State "controlled the game" in their match ups with other good teams. They had "several come from behind victories," according to Long. In other words, it's not just the final score, it's how you arrive there. Not only must you arrive at the appropriate destination, but you must take the most scenic route there, as well. Now, Long used the phrase "control the game" when it came to explaining Alabama's rise to number one and their win over Mississippi State, however, one other thing became abundantly clear....
3. The SEC West seems to be fairly insulated. Even though Alabama "controlled the game" (Long's exact words) against Mississippi State, the Bulldogs still got brownie points for staying "within striking distance" of the Crimson Tide. So the SEC West got dual credit, credit for Alabama "controlling a game" and their opponent (i.e. the EXACT team that was "controlled") getting credit for being close enough to stay within a touchdown at the end. Also, for those wringing their hands over LSU, A&M, and Auburn all losing this past weekend, and that somehow hurting Mississippi State, it's clear that as long as SEC teams are losing to other SEC teams, the committee doesn't care. The impression of what the SEC is in the eyes of the committee was established in September and October.
4. Stop expressing your anger over head-to-head being the end-all. The committee clearly disagrees with you. Move along.... If head-to-head trumping everything else is your point of view, that's fine. But the committee clearly disagrees with you, so there's no fighting it for now. Here's the money quote along those lines from Long. When Scott Van Pelt asked him about Baylor being ranked seventh and TCU, who lost to Baylor earlier this season 61-58 in Waco, being ranked fifth, here's what Long said:
"At this point, the committee doesn't feel that Baylor's and TCU's body of work are comparable enough to where the head-to-head would kick in. If Baylor continues to win, then that may come into play in the future."
It's worth noting that Baylor still has a game against 12th ranked Kansas State in Waco during conference championship week in early December, easily the best chance for "style points" in the battle between them and TCU. (By the way, there's still a decent chance both teams could get left out of the playoff. In fact, if the four teams in front of them win out, they probably both will get left out.)
5. I told you last week, do not sleep on UCLA! The Bruins are ranked ninth and play 19th-ranked USC this weekend in Pasadena. Obviously, with two losses, it goes without saying that UCLA has no more mulligans, and they probably need to not only win but to send a statement to the committee. In the grander scheme of things, what needs to happen for UCLA? Why am I so fixated on their seemingly microscopic chances of making the playoff? Well, part of it is financial (I put a few Diet Cokes on them at 100/1 last week), and part of it is because a late-season run by a two-loss team will give us a window into so much -- how the committee processes late-season performance, relative conference strength, conference championships, to name a few.
So how crazy is the notion that UCLA could secure one of these final four spots? Well, let's look:
1. They have a tough schedule, which is more of an asset than a liability when you have two losses in mid-November. Wins over USC and Stanford and a conference title game with Oregon would give them the best three-week home stretch of the "bubble" teams (Mississippi State, TCU, Ohio State, Baylor, Ole Miss, UCLA).
2. UCLA now controls their own destiny in the Pac-12, thanks to Oregon State's win over Arizona State this weekend. So there is no scoreboard watching that needs to go on within the Pac-12. They can win the conference on their own. Important because....
3. ....conjecture when Arizona State was at No. 6 last week was that the Pac-12 title game between them and Oregon, if it had happened, would be a "de facto play-in game." We have no idea if the committee agrees with that, but if they do, then in theory, UCLA just needs to work itself into the fifth or sixth ranked spot in order to "play their way" into the playoff in a game with a highly ranked Oregon. So they need to move up from nine to six over the next two weeks. How does that happen? Well....
4. ....Ole Miss (eighth) and Mississippi State (fourth) play each other in the Egg Bowl. If Ole MIss loses, they're out of the way. If MIssissippi State loses, especially if it's somewhat convincing (i.e., Ole Miss "controls the game") then they're probably out of the way. So math in the SEC will get UCLA to at least eighth. What else....
5. ...do the two Big 12 contenders have one loss in them? TCU plays a suddenly resurgent Texas team on Thanksgiving night in Austin. Baylor plays a cagey Kansas State team in the final weekend of the season. I don't think counting on one of these two teams to lose is being greedy. That gets UCLA to seventh. What else? Well....
6. ...other games that could move teams out of UCLA's path: Auburn beating Alabama, Missouri gumming up the works and not only winning the SEC East but winning the SEC title game, Florida State losing an ACC Title game (less a pipe dream this season than last), Ohio State losing to resurgent Wisconsin in the Big 10 title game. I mean, WE CAN DO THIS, RIGHT??? Now, remember....
6. ....UCLA needs Oregon to keep winning so they have the strongest opponent possible in a Pac-12 title game. Oregon staying at No. 2 or 3 is imperative, but if somehow....
7. ....Auburn won the Iron Bowl, and Oregon moved up to No. 1. Well, then it's all coming together, baby!
OPERATION BRUIN, BITCHES!!!