Alabama is, by popular consensus, the best team in the country this year. In Sunday’s major polls, the Crimson Tide received all but two first-place votes. Every single voter in the Coaches’ Poll put Alabama first, while 59 out of 61 voters in the AP Poll gave the Tide the highest slot. The other two first-place votes went to the Georgia Bulldogs.
The College Football Playoff selection committee, however, has shown a willingness to deviate from the human polls in the past. In fact, the committee’s protocols explicitly prohibit its members from using any polls or rankings that involve a preseason ranking to help determine where to rank teams. The committee often thinks along the same way as the polls, but it doesn’t copy the polls. It is certainly not obligated to follow the polls–its rules explicitly prohibit intentionally doing that.
Why, then, should the committee deviate from the polls on Alabama’s rankings? It’s quite simple. The committee, since the CFP started in 2014, has used its platform to send messages. In 2014, it ranked Marshall much lower than in the human polls to show the importance of strength of schedule. In 2015, undefeated Oklahoma State was several spots lower late in the year than in the major polls–and behind several one-loss teams–to show that quality wins matter more than being an undefeated power conference team. And who can forget late in 2014, when Florida State fell as low as No. 4 in the committee’s rankings, and TCU dropped three spots the final week of the season? The committee has sent clear messages that it does things differently, and it has another opportunity to do so this week.
What is the message it should send?
Much has been made about the fact that Wisconsin has an easy schedule this year. It’s true. The Badgers are in a relatively weak Big Ten West, where they likely will not face a single ranked opponent (though Northwestern might have potential). Wisconsin also avoided the top teams from the East in cross-divisional play, and non-conference foe BYU is the most disappointing team in all of FBS this year. Wisconsin’s spot in the rankings, even at 8-0, is a question mark. A 12-1 Wisconsin team is very questionable for the CFP, and for good reason.
What isn’t talked about, though, is that Alabama’s strength of schedule to this point is no better than Wisconsin’s. Okay, it’s a little better than Wisconsin’s–but not by much. The Colley Matrix–the purest wins-and-losses-only strength of schedule metric out there, has Alabama’s SOS as worse than UCF’s.
The committee has explicitly used “wins over teams with .500 or better records” as a major SOS metric the past two years. Alabama has exactly three of those so far–and two of those teams are in the Mountain West Conference. According to Bill Connelly’s widely-respected S&P ratings, the only two teams in the top half of college football that Alabama has beaten are Fresno State and Colorado State. Alabama’s opponents so far went 1-7 this past weekend, with the one win coming from Arkansas (over Ole Miss, who also played Alabama).
Now, Alabama is not going to end the year with no valuable wins. The Tide’s final three SEC opponents all already have six wins. Either LSU, Auburn, or Mississippi State will end the season ranked–and probably more than just one of them. Alabama’s resume will not be weak in four weeks. But right now, it absolutely is. Alabama does not have a strong resume in the slightest.
The committee can absolutely reiterate the emphasis on quality wins on Tuesday night. It can put Alabama below No. 1–or even below No. 2. And the committee can clearly explain that while Alabama is clearly the best team in the country right now, it just does not have the resume to represent that. When those wins come in the coming weeks, Alabama’s ranking will rise. Until then, though, the message of Alabama being below No. 1 will be huge.
Georgia has one of the best wins in the country right now. On top of that, Georgia also has a win over Mississippi State, who is also significantly better than Alabama’s best win. Not only would ranking Georgia ahead of Alabama be understandable, not doing it would require a serious defense of the decision.
On top of that, though, there are other teams with better wins than Alabama has–and not all of them have a loss that should hold them back. First and foremost, we have to look at Notre Dame. The Irish actually have three wins (Michigan State, USC, and N.C. State) better than Alabama’s best win. And if the committee has Georgia ranked ahead of Alabama, there is no reason that a one-point loss to Georgia should necessitate being behind Alabama.
The Stronger Message
We can discuss a few other teams that also have better wins than Alabama, but Oklahoma has a loss that will keep it behind the Tide, without question. Ohio State’s win over Penn State is far better than anything Alabama has done, but the loss to Oklahoma isn’t as good as the loss to Georgia. Clemson arguably has four wins better than Alabama’s best win, but the Tigers also have a bad loss to Syracuse. We could also talk about UCF, who is undefeated in dominant fashion, as the Knights’ wins over Memphis and Navy are better than any of Alabama’s wins. But, realistically, it’s too early for a Group of 5 team to be ranked so high, regardless of what advanced stats say.
The committee can absolutely send a message to the college football world by putting Alabama below No. 1. It would show that quality wins mean more than looking dominant. The committee can send an even stronger message by slotting the Tide below No. 2. Whether that second slot goes to Notre Dame or someone else, putting a team with better wins ahead of Alabama would show that the committee is now overawed by the Crimson Tide brand. It would also show that quality wins mean even more than being named Alabama–something many college football fans might be doubting at the moment.
Ranking Alabama at No. 1 makes sense; the Crimson Tide certainly is the best team right now. But showing that resumes still matter makes sense too, and does a lot more for college football.
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