Iowa State appears to be within striking distance of the College Football Playoff, and that has the Allstate Playoff Predictor wondering why.
The model is built on precedent from the selection committee, so in essence the Predictor — which gives Iowa State just a 1% chance to reach the playoff, even in the event it wins the Big 12 — is telling us that the Cyclones’ inclusion would be a dramatic departure from the committee’s past behavior.
Despite that, with 8-2 Iowa State sitting at No. 7, we can see how the season could unfold in its favor. It’s not hard to imagine the following scenario:
That presumably leaves the last spot open for 9-2 Big 12 champion Iowa State or 8-1 non-champion Texas A&M. The Cyclones would have at least a shot to leapfrog the Aggies after earning a conference championship.
So while not large, it seems there is a chance for Iowa State. That chance is really predicated on the Cyclones’ current No. 7 ranking. And that ranking? The Allstate Playoff Predictor is having a hard time figuring out how the committee came to that conclusion.
Can the No. 7 rank be justified by team quality? No, Iowa State ranks 12th in the Football Power Index.
Can the No. 7 rank be justified by résumé? No, Iowa State ranks 14th in FPI in strength of record.
Can the No. 7 rank be justified by number of losses? No, the Cyclones have two losses, with plenty of one- or zero-loss teams behind them.
Those are the key factors in the playoff predictor, built off what has correlated well with the committee’s decisions before. And none of them point to Iowa State sitting at No. 7. The Cyclones’ ranking is an anomaly. Literally. In 10,000 “now-cast” simulations of the committee’s decision this week, Iowa State was ranked seventh or better in … zero of them.
To be fair to both the committee and the model, I’ll give the standard and important caveat I write every week in this space. This season, played during a pandemic, does present extra challenges for modeling the behavior of the committee (and for the committee to evaluate the teams!). Most notably, the committee has previously put an emphasis on number of losses above and beyond strength of record, and that is complicated this season by vastly different numbers of games for different teams. That’s why the Predictor thinks a team such as USC is likely to be perceived better by the committee than it is. Iowa State was ranked No. 7, so there might be other factors at play, too.
But even if we escape the world of opponent-adjusted résumés and predictive team strength, there’s another more traditional hurdle to ranking Iowa State this high: Louisiana.
One of the Cyclones’ two losses came to the Ragin’ Cajuns — a 17-point defeat at home. The committee might note that as a “good” loss because Louisiana, too, is ranked. (Ranked wins and losses is an awful résumé metric but that’s another story for another day.) But here’s the thing: You know who Louisiana’s only loss came to? Undefeated Coastal Carolina! If the No. 13 Chanticleers beat Louisiana again in the Sun Belt championship game, it would seemingly make a tough argument for Iowa State to be ranked ahead of Coastal Carolina, let alone six spots ahead.
The point of focusing on the No. 7 ranking is that it demonstrates Iowa State could be within striking distance of the top four if enough breaks just right elsewhere. But even if Iowa State wins the Big 12, it would lack a playoff résumé, and that’s if we throw out the extra emphasis on number of losses. Iowa State’s strength of record as Big 12 champion projects to have an average rank of 8.1. That would be a far cry from a one-loss Texas A&M (2.4) and also behind an undefeated Pac-12 champion USC (5.0), an undefeated Sun Belt champion Coastal Carolina (5.3), an undefeated AAC champion Cincinnati (7.3) and even an undefeated Colorado as Pac-12 champion (7.4).
Résumé isn’t everything, and some teams can make up for it with their team quality (think: Clemson right now, which currently ranks ninth in SOR but is third in FPI and the committee’s rankings). But again, Iowa State is not that kind of team with its 12th overall FPI ranking.
Ultimately, Iowa State’s chance to earn that last playoff spot is fairly small. In the Allstate Playoff Predictor’s eyes, it’s stunning that there’s a path at all.