We’ve reached the home stretch of what has been a terrific college football season. Two weeks remain before the four teams to compete for the national title are revealed. Rather than just take the committee’s word for it, I’ve devised a ranking system to determine the four most-deserving teams based on performance on the field. It’s not perfect, just as no ranking system is. However, unlike the committee, I will make every attempt to be transparent, and that starts with what I’m not interested in.
• Who we think would win on a neutral field. This is purely a subjective hypothetical and incapable of being measured.
• What your name is. That is to say, Cincinnati doesn’t get punished for being Cincinnati, while Alabama doesn’t get rewarded for being Alabama.
• Whom have you beaten (lost to) and were they ranked/a quality team when you played them?
• How does your schedule stack up against your peers?
• How have you looked in your games? You don’t get credit for running up the score. At the same time, if you struggled with what was clearly an inferior opponent, that should be accounted for.
• Adjusted record – The number of wins against FBS opponents vs. the total number of losses.
• Strength of schedule – The differential between the number of a team’s opponents’ wins against FBS opponents and the total number of losses. For example, Florida State lost to FCS Jacksonville State. Had FSU won, it would not have counted as a win, but since the Noles lost, it counts as an L.
• Number of opponents faced that are above 0.500.
• Number of opponents that were ranked at the time the team in question played them less the number of said teams that finished the season below 0.500. For example, Alabama beat no. 11 Florida in mid-September, but the Gators are 4-6 against FBS competition heading into the final week of the season, guaranteeing a sub-0.500 finish. Therefore, the Florida win does not count as an adjusted ranked win.
• Another category is not able to be calculated until the AP Poll after the conference championship games has been released. This category will credit a team for all the teams it faced that year who finished the season ranked, regardless of their ranking at the time they played each other. For example, when Michigan met Wisconsin, the Badgers (1-2) were unranked. Since then, the Badgers have won seven straight and are one win away from clinching a spot in the B1G Championship Game. Should the Badgers end up a ranked team by season’s end, the Wolverines would get credit for facing a finished ranked opponent.
• Average point differential in the games that featured an opponent that finished the season above 0.500. For example, Cincinnati has played three opponents thus far that will finish the season above 0.500 (Notre Dame, Central Florida, and Southern Methodist). Cincinnati finished on average plus-26.7 in the point differential for those three games, second only to Georgia’s 27.5.
• By far the most subjective metric, but nevertheless necessary, are the performance issues. For example, of the eight CFP contenders, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State are the only three thus far to have logged a “strike”, so to speak, and not of the bowling variety. Notre Dame narrowly avoided being upset by Toledo – a team with a lot less talent. These same Rockets would lose the very next week to the even lesser-talented Rams of Colorado State by 16. That loss might have been in part due to the emotional letdown of the heartbreaker in South Bend. Toledo would have beaten the Irish had its quarterback taken a knee at the one with 1:35 remaining. Notre Dame had no timeouts and Toledo could have run the clock down and kicked a field goal with no time remaining. Instead, the QB ran it in, Toledo kicks off, and the Irish score the winning touchdown 26 seconds later. Furthermore, Notre Dame’s last seven opponents will all finish below 0.500. The last time the Irish played a team that will definitely finish above 0.500 was the loss to Cincinnati back on Oct. 2. As lucky as the Irish were to beat Toledo, they were pretty unlucky that brand name teams such as Virginia Tech, USC, North Carolina, and Stanford have not secured plus-0.500 win seasons. However, UNC and Virginia both have an opportunity in the season finale. If either win, this would no longer be considered a strike against the Irish. Lastly, when FCS Jacksonville State (a team that’s currently 5-6) knocked off Florida State, the Irish’s three-point win over the Noles became even less impressive than originally thought. Oklahoma State was penalized for its close call, 28-23, against the far less-talented Golden Hurricane of Tulsa. Similar to Notre Dame, the Cowboys haven’t played a team that will for sure finish above 0.500 since Oct. 2 (seven weeks ago) in a win against Baylor. Either Iowa State or Texas Tech with a win in the final week could remove this from negatively impacting Oklahoma State. Lastly, the Sooners had a tremendously close call against Tulane, 40-35, in the opener. Another blot against Oklahoma is the relatively narrow victory against Kansas. In their other eight losses, the Jayhawks lost by an average score of 46-16, or by 30. Oklahoma won by 12. These are subjective, no doubt about it, but when you’re forced to order teams based on merit, these types of instances need to be considered. Fortunately, this category is only one of seven metrics, with the other six being entirely measurable in every way. Lastly and more objectively, head-to-head results amongst contenders are taken into consideration within this category, as well.
Without further ado, here are your rankings amongst CFP contenders heading into the last game of the regular season and two weeks before championship week.
No. 1 Georgia
The Bulldogs finished first in five of the six metrics available to date. Only the Buckeyes have faced more opponents above 0.500 (5). Georgia will face hapless Georgia Tech in the regular season finale before heading to Atlanta to play for the SEC championship.
No. 2 Ohio State
The Buckeyes are fresh (literally) off the 56-7 beatdown of then-CFP-contender Michigan State. Ohio State will cruise into Ann Arbor next week in search of its ninth straight victory over the Wolverines.
No. 3 Alabama
The Crimson Tide held off no. 21 Arkansas, 42-35 Saturday night, the fourth opponent they’ve faced guaranteed to finish above 0.500 for the year, good for second-best amongst CFP contenders. That number could even grow higher if Miami or Tennessee are victorious this upcoming weekend. Alabama squares off against Auburn in the Iron Bowl before colliding with Georgia in Atlanta.
No. 4 Michigan
The one metric that wasn’t a positive for Michigan was the strength of schedule, but that is going to receive a considerable boost when it finishes hosting Ohio State, with the Big Ten East title on the line. If the Wolverines can avoid losing to the Buckeyes for the sixteenth time in 17 tries, they will have punched their ticket to Indy for the first time in school history.
No. 5 Cincinnati
The Bearcats, for the moment, find themselves on the outside looking in, but that changes in about a week. Cincinnati figures to jump the loser of the Michigan-Ohio State game. Clemson and Utah did the Bearcats huge favors over the weekend, dispatching then one-loss Wake Forest and Oregon over the weekend. Even if the Big 12 champ were to leapfrog, Cinci would still be all but guaranteed the fourth spot. The only nightmarish scenario could come out of the SEC. If Bama were to beat Georgia, both would remain in the top 4 and potentially crowd out Cinderella. No two-loss team has ever made the playoff, so Cincinnati is definitely rooting for Georgia. A lot of football to be played yet, including the finale Friday against East Carolina and the AAC Championship Game a week later, but it seems inevitable at this point that the Bearcats crash this party.
No. 6 Notre Dame
I actually wrote Notre Dame off several weeks ago, and when it’s all said and done, I may have been justified. There’s just so many scenarios that would have to unfold for the Irish to back their way in, but for their benefit, let’s entertain some. Arguably the biggest hurdle Notre Dame has to contend with are all the power-5 conference champions. If Cincinnati wins out, that’s three spots up for grabs, which could easily be taken by the SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12 champs. The last thing the Irish need is a Bama upset of Georgia for the SEC title, which would almost assuredly earn the SEC two spots in the playoff. Either the B1G West pulling the upset in Indy or Bedlam squared resulting in the Sooners and the Cowboys cannibalizing could send the Irish to the CFP for the third time.
No. 7 Oklahoma State
The gap between the Cowboys and the Irish is tied for the smallest margin among contenders. All Oklahoma State has to do is win out and Notre Dame will be in its rear-view mirror. After Bedlam, the Cowboys will either get Oklahoma in successive weeks or have to face Baylor, whom they beat by 10 back on Oct. 2.
No. 8 Oklahoma
As bad as it’s looked seemingly all year for the Sooners, fate couldn’t have dealt them a much better hand as the season draws to a close. Oklahoma’s opponents’ win/loss differential is abysmal (-21), second-worse to Cincinnati’s (-22). But the strength of schedule is about to receive significant upgrades over the course of Bedlam and a potential Big 12 Championship Game. The gap between the Sooners and the Cowboys is by far the biggest among CFP contenders, which is why Bedlam couldn’t have come at a better time. Oklahoma can deliver a late stage knockout this weekend despite spending most the season falling way behind on the scorecard.