Trying to get Dan Mullen or anybody at Mississippi State to talk about the what-ifs this week as they relate to the College Football Playoff is about as easy as getting Mullen to utter the words “Ole Miss.”
To Mullen, Ole Miss will forever be the “school up north.”
The Egg Bowl has never carried higher stakes for the Bulldogs, who need to win Saturday in Oxford if they hope to hang onto one of those top four spots in the playoff committee’s final rankings. If Alabama wins later Saturday night against Auburn in the Iron Bowl, Mississippi State would be shut out of the SEC championship game regardless of the Egg Bowl result.
If the Bulldogs are shut out of the playoff in that scenario, somebody has some serious explaining to do.
I keep thinking back to Bill Hancock’s comments prior to the season. Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, said the committee would “evaluate a team based on who they played over 12 games.”
If Mississippi State handles its business Saturday, there won’t be four teams in America that can claim a better résumé than the Bulldogs, who would have gone 7-1 in arguably the toughest division in the history of college football with that one loss coming on the road to the No. 1 team (Alabama) by five points.
That’s not to dismiss what Baylor, Ohio State or TCU has done this season. All three teams have done enough to be in the playoff conversation. But a question the committee members need to be asking is a simple one: What would those three teams’ record be this season had they played Mississippi State’s schedule?
For that matter, what would anybody’s record be?
According to ESPN’s strength of record metric, Mississippi State ranks No. 3 behind only Alabama and Florida State. Strength of record measures how difficult it is to achieve a team’s record, given its schedule.
Nobody is defending Mississippi State’s nonconference schedule this season. But going back to Hancock’s comments, the committee weighs the entire schedule, not just a pocket of the schedule.
With Arkansas moving into ESPN’s power rankings this week at No. 25, that means all seven teams in the SEC West have been ranked in that poll at some point this season. All seven are bowl eligible. One of the knocks against Mississippi State is that some of its wins have lost their luster because those teams have since dropped out of the rankings. The reason they’ve dropped out of the rankings is because the West has cannibalized itself.
My guess is that Mississippi State would gladly trade schedules with Baylor, Ohio State or TCU … or even Florida State.
The great unknown at this point, and something that should probably be unnerving for Mississippi State, is how much conference championships will be weighted by the committee. All conference championships aren’t created equal. But if Ohio State wins the Big Ten, for instance, would that trump what Mississippi State has done over the course of the season without winning the SEC title?
Already, ESPN insider Brad Edwards has predicted that Ohio State, No. 6 in the latest rankings, is in good position to vault into the top four should the Buckeyes go on to win the Big Ten title. And that's an Ohio State team dragging around a loss to Virginia Tech, the same Virginia Tech team that lost to Wake Forest a week ago.
We've heard so much about good wins and bad losses, but let's cut to the heart of this debate. In other words, what would be more difficult to accomplish this season -- winning the Big Ten title or winning a share of the SEC West Title? Committee chairman Jeff Long has an excellent resource sitting right down the hall from him. His coach at Arkansas, Bret Bielema, would offer a pretty decent perspective. He went to three straight Rose Bowls at Wisconsin and now has the Hogs playing as well as anybody in the SEC.
Maybe this is all a moot point. Maybe there are still two or three upsets in the works that will clear up the playoff picture, and maybe Ole Miss rains on Mississippi State’s playoff parade this weekend.
But if everything holds steady, and the top teams keep winning, this whole “best four teams” mantra that we’ve heard about since the playoff became a reality is going to be put to the test.
If it’s truly the best four conference champions, then come out and say that. The last time I checked, that’s not the way it’s supposed to work, even though my sense from the beginning was that there would be a considerable push to have four different conferences represented in this first playoff.
Up until now, Mississippi State has been in the top four every week the playoff rankings have been unveiled. So it’s clear the committee has treated the Bulldogs with great respect to this point.
Somehow, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Mississippi State would be a top-four team every week until the very last poll -- the only one that counts.
With it being a four-team playoff, it’s only natural that the No. 4 team would be scrutinized heavily. And for the record, according to ESPN’s strength of schedule rankings, Mississippi State (50th) is ahead of TCU (52nd), Ohio State (55th) and Baylor (61st).
It all makes you wonder if we would even be having this conversation if this were one of the bluebloods in the SEC, say Alabama, Florida, Georgia or LSU, and they had the same résumé as Mississippi State. But it’s not one of the bluebloods. It’s Mississippi State, and the Bulldogs are fighting like hell to shake the stigma that they’re somehow not legit.
Ultimately, it’s up to Mississippi State on Saturday in one of the most anticipated Egg Bowls ever to state its case one last time.
And then it will be in the committee’s hands to sort it all out, and refreshingly, history, tradition and a team's brand are not going to matter as much as the team on the field and what that team has accomplished this season.
At least we can hope.