Breaking down hypothetical College Football Playoff committee debates


Let’s talk head-to-head matchups.

Except these won’t be played out on the field. The two-team battles we’re discussing today will be waged behind the closed (Zoom?) doors of the College Football Playoff selection committee. We’re asking the question: If it came down to these two teams, in these exact scenarios, which would the committee choose?

To answer these questions we’re relying on our trusty Allstate Playoff Predictor. Because it’s a mathematical model based on the committee’s past behavior, the Predictor won’t tell us definitively whom the committee would choose, but instead will dish out its opinion in probabilities. Sometimes, it will be quite confident; other situations will be more of a toss-up. But it will always have an opinion. So, who gets in …

Undefeated USC vs. one-loss Notre Dame (loss in ACC championship game)

Allstate Playoff Predictor: lean USC

This really could go either way. In a normal season it wouldn’t be close — an undefeated Power 5 conference champion is a shoo-in — but the Pac-12’s abbreviated schedule means that its conference champ won’t have as strong a résumé as schools from other conferences, sometimes even if those other schools have losses. And that’s the case here: We project that Notre Dame with a loss would have a stronger strength of record than an undefeated USC.

But, USC still would have not one but two things going for it here compared to Notre Dame: a zero in the loss column and a conference championship. As we’ve noted before, number of losses shouldn’t be in the Playoff Predictor model because strength of record already incorporates it and the committee has historically placed an extra emphasis on the number of losses regardless of the difficulty of a schedule.

Despite that, this is close. While the Predictor thinks the Trojans would be the (slightly) more likely selection, it wouldn’t be stunned if the committee ultimately sided with the Fighting Irish.

Undefeated BYU vs. two-loss champion Clemson

Allstate Playoff Predictor: BYU more likely, with a caveat

The first part of this equation is very likely to happen. No team is more likely to record an undefeated regular season than BYU, at 89%, with just two games to go (including a gimme against North Alabama). For Clemson, we’re assuming a loss against Virginia Tech before a win over Notre Dame to win the ACC.

This sets up an extreme version of the debate the committee has had for years: best vs. most deserving. There’s not a soul in the world that would argue BYU is better than Clemson, even if the Tigers drop another game. But at the same time, it’s far easier to argue that BYU earned the playoff spot, having gone undefeated and with Clemson having a pair of losses.

The Playoff Predictor thinks the Cougars would probably win this battle, with Clemson’s second loss torpedoing the Tigers’ chances. But would the committee excuse Clemson’s loss to Notre Dame since it didn’t have Trevor Lawrence? It also doesn’t feel impossible that we’d hear the argument that the Tigers are “basically a one-loss champion,” even though that would essentially mean that one of the best college football games of the season actually had no consequences for Clemson. That part is out of the Predictor’s purview and it does not account for it. Without the Lawrence argument, it thinks BYU would have a solid edge.

Undefeated Cincinnati vs. one-loss champion Wisconsin

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: lean Wisconsin

This is interesting because it has a whole confluence of factors flying in different directions. We’ve got Group of 5 vs. Power 5, which normally wouldn’t be a question. But Cincinnati is undefeated against a much longer schedule than Wisconsin — which would be just 6-1 in this scenario and would have a worse strength of record than the Bearcats.

Still, the Allstate Playoff Predictor thinks the Big Ten champ would have the edge. Keep in mind, however: FPI is head over heels for the Badgers. It thinks they’re the fourth-best team in the country, largely based on its preseason opinion since Wisconsin has only played one game. If the Badgers were to stumble en route to that 6-1 record, this could flip.

One-loss champion Oregon vs. 10-1 Texas A&M

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: Texas A&M, clearly

The Allstate Playoff Predictor is sympathetic to the Pac-12’s playoff chances … so long as that Pac-12 champion is undefeated. That goes back to the committee’s deference to the loss column. But once the Pac-12 champion picks up that loss, the Predictor loses any affection it has for the conference. The short schedule without any truly elite wins available means that Oregon’s conference championship wouldn’t be enough to earn the respect of the committee over an A&M team that didn’t reach the SEC championship game but lost to only Alabama.

Résumé-wise, this one isn’t close: A&M would likely have one of the very best strength of records in the country at 10-1 against a schedule that featured Alabama, Florida, Auburn and LSU, while Oregon’s average SOR rank would be 13.

One-loss champion Oklahoma State vs. one-loss non-champion Ohio State

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: lean Ohio State

This is actually too unlikely for the Predictor to make an exact call on. FPI thinks Oklahoma State is only the 18th-best team in college football and thus the chances of it actually winning out are pretty slim. That’s also a factor when it comes to the committee’s decision. While we’ve noted that résumé is more important than team quality — and Oklahoma State would have the résumé edge here in terms of both strength of record and conference championship — the latter does play a role. And this is one of those situations where Ohio State, despite being the non-champion in this matchup, is clearly the better team (the Buckeyes rank second in FPI’s rankings).

Lauren Poe contributed to this article.


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