The committee will meet just twice more this year. So far, the job has been pretty easy: Copy, paste. Indeed, there has been so much chalk at the top of the rankings this year, it’s hardly worth the price of the flights for the committee to meet about it.
But even if the upsets haven’t sent the rankings into chaos just yet, it’s worth reconsidering some of the underlying assumptions we’ve used to inform the standings. Because 12 weeks into the 2023 season, there has not been much to be surprised about, but there’s always plenty to be angry about.
Losses by teams ranked in the AP top 8 at this point in…
2014 – 20
2015 – 17
2016 – 19
2017 – 17
2018 – 16
2019 – 12
2021 – 15
2022 – 15
2023 – 6*
*all were vs teams ranked 13 or better at the time.
— 💫🅰️♈️🆔 (@ADavidHaleJoint) November 19, 2023
This is the part where we’re supposed to lament the Seminoles’ precipitous tumble from No. 4 to No. 5 after Jordan Travis was injured in a win over North Alabama.
Well, we’re not going to do that. Washington, as we noted each of the past two weeks, had as good a claim as any to the top four, and after its win against Oregon State in Week 12, it has vaulted into the No. 1 spot in ESPN’s strength of record. No one should be angry the Huskies are at No. 4. If anything, the Huskies should be upset they’re not higher.
The problem for Florida State is that’s where the conversation seems to end. But it shouldn’t.
Ohio State and Michigan each have résumés underpinned almost entirely by beating Penn State. Michigan’s next-best win is Maryland. Heck, eight of Michigan’s 11 wins have come against teams ranked 60th or worse in the Football Power Index (FPI). That’s a higher share of wins against bottom-half teams than Tulane. Ohio State’s second-best win is a last-second score against Notre Dame (when the Irish used only 10 defenders), a team Louisville — FSU’s ACC title game opponent — beat by 13. And how do we know Penn State is good? The Nittany Lions’ lone relevant win is over Iowa. Iowa, people! The Hawkeyes treat the forward pass like the Amish treat electric cars.
The season for both Michigan and Ohio State essentially comes down to which one beats the other, a borderline one-game season, and yet there’s no question whatsoever that the winner will be in the playoff.
FSU though? Even if the Seminoles finish 13-0, there will be a chorus of folks who think they don’t belong because they play in the ACC or because they’ve played too many close games or, most significantly now, because they don’t have their starting QB.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that Stetson Bennett wasn’t Georgia’s top quarterback option in 2021. Nor was Jake Fromm when the Bulldogs made it to the national title game in 2017. That 2017 game was won by a QB coming off the bench (Tua Tagovailoa). Trevor Lawrence wasn’t Clemson’s starter for the first four weeks of 2018 when the Tigers won it all. Max Duggan lost the starting QB job for TCU coming out of fall camp last year, but he still led the Horned Frogs to the title game. And, of course, there’s Cardale Jones, who came to Ohio State’s rescue in 2014 and won the Buckeyes a national title.
Now, no one is confusing Tate Rodemaker with Tagovailoa or Lawrence, but is there any proof he can’t play at least as well as Jones, Bennett or Duggan? And the point here isn’t that anything is guaranteed for FSU post-Travis, but the history of No. 2 (or No. 3) QBs in September making noise in January is actually a lot more extensive than most folks remember.
So yes, Washington is deserving. So, too, is Florida State — with or without Travis. And if the Noles win the next two against Florida and Louisville, there shouldn’t be a second’s worth of debate. They’re in.
A few quick “did you knows” on the Cardinals:
Did you know Louisville has six wins against bowl-eligible Power 5 opponents? That’s more than any other team in the country.
Did you know Louisville has a road win over a ranked opponent, something Oregon, Alabama and Missouri are all missing from their résumés?
Did you know Louisville’s strength of record is better than Missouri’s?
And yes, Louisville lost to Pitt in a game in which its best offensive player had two touches and, in the rain and bad weather, the Cardinals turned the ball over three times.
The Pitt loss is an anchor dragging Louisville or understandable reasons, but it certainly feels like a dominant win over Notre Dame or a road win against 8-3 NC State should count for something. And while this was largely semantics before Travis’ injury at Florida State, there’s a very real scenario now where Louisville runs the table the rest of the way and earns an ACC championship with a 12-1 record.
And if that happens, the committee has made it clear the Cards will still be at the back of the line when it comes to playoff positioning.
Let’s do a little blind résumé evaluation here:
Team A: 9-2, No. 17 in SP+ and No. 11 in strength of record; best win vs. SP+ No. 14, losses by a combined 19 points to teams ranked in the FPI top 40, one loss at home, one on the road
Team B: 9-2, No. 16 in SP+ and No. 8 strength of record; best win vs. SP+ No. 11, losses by a combined 49 points to teams ranked in the FPI top 40, both losses on the road
Team C: 9-2, No. 15 in SP+ and No. 13 strength of record; best win vs. SP+ No. 8, losses by a combined eight points to teams ranked in the FPI top 40, both losses on the road
Best win goes to Team C, closest losses go to Team C, and the best SP+ ranking goes to Team C. There’s more to the story, of course, but that’s a good starting point to say Team C is the best of the bunch, right?
Well, Team C is the Sooners. Team B is Ole Miss, ranked one spot higher. and Team A is Missouri, ranked four spots higher. Even Penn State comes in ahead of Oklahoma.
Oklahoma is being judged by its losses, and comparatively the close Ls to Kansas and Oklahoma State might seem a bit worse than blowout defeats at the hands of Georgia or LSU. But Oklahoma was probably the better team in both losses, but a bit of bad timing and bad luck (and a few bad plays) made the difference. Kansas is a solid team, and was healthier when it beat Oklahoma. Oklahoma State wavers between a poodle and a rabid pit bull, and the Sooners happened to catch the Pokes on a pit bull day. But they also beat Texas, a team that has legitimate national title aspirations, and that shows where Oklahoma’s ceiling is.
Where is Missouri or Penn State or Ole Miss’s ceiling? Not nearly so high.
4. Utah Utes (7-4, unranked)
We’ve reached the point in the season where four-loss teams are in the top 25, yet Utah isn’t one of them. Is that fair?
Well, the Utes are likely damaged by their current trend line — losses in three of four, two of which were by 28 or more. But it’s also worth remembering all four losses came to teams currently in the committee’s top 16, while the Utes also have solid wins over Florida, UCLA and USC. Compare that to Tennessee, the highest ranked of the four-loss teams, and it’s a no brainer. Utah has the better strength of record, a head-to-head win over a team that beat Tennessee, and a higher ranked best win (UCLA, No. 25 in SP+ for Utah; No. 33 Kentucky for Tennessee). And even if we’re taking a “What have you done for me lately?” approach, the Vols, too, are coming off back-to-back blowout losses.
Could this all be a conspiracy by the committee to prop up the SEC and hurt the eventual Pac-12 champion? You didn’t hear that from us.
To its credit, the committee has routinely overlooked the bottom-line win-loss record in favor of considering the context of those wins and losses. This is critical at the top of the rankings, but the same level of nuance isn’t always afforded the bottom of the rankings. To which we give you the second-highest ranked Group of 5 team: Liberty at No. 25.
The Flames are 11-0, which is laudable. But their best win came against New Mexico State in Week 2, a time before the Aggies had learned how to play football. Their second-best win came against Jacksonville State, a program in its first year of FBS play. All 11 of Liberty’s wins have come against teams ranked 80th or worse in the current FPI. Compare that to, say, Toledo (10-1 with a win over Miami-Ohio) or UNLV (9-2 with wins over San José State, Air Force and Vanderbilt) and it starts to seem like Liberty benefits strictly from the zero in the loss column. But would you be taking Liberty over Illinois? That’s where Toledo’s loss came from. Or how about Michigan? Because half of UNLV’s losses came at the Big House.
The race for the Group of 5’s New Year’s Six bid is being led (rightfully) by Tulane, but if the Green Wave slip up in the final two weeks (vs. red-hot UTSA and SMU in the AAC championship), the bid shouldn’t belong to Liberty just because they had the easiest path to an undefeated season.