As Florida State's playoff résumé is debated, the central discussion comes back to two things:
1. Florida State hasn't played a tough schedule.
2. Florida State has struggled to win the games it has played.
Certainly there's evidence to suggest both of those statements are true and should be considered when deciding FSU's postseason fate -- both in terms of making the playoff and its seeding.
But, of course, there's more to the story, too.
Let's look at the first item. Is FSU's schedule easy?
With no opponents currently ranked in the top 20 (and likely none the rest of the way until, perhaps, the ACC championship game), the obvious answer is yes. (Of note, however: FSU has played two teams ranked in the top 25 and four in the top 40 of ESPN's FPI).
But there are a few other points worth noting, including this one from @NOTSCTheLegend.
Indeed, when Florida State takes on Boston College on Saturday, it will be the fifth time this season that an opponent had either a bye week or an FCS opponent in its previous game. Florida will be No. 6 on that list the following week. That's half of Florida State's entire schedule.
Is the same true for the other playoff contenders? Not exactly.
Here's how many similar games the others have had, with remaining games in parentheses:
(*Note, FCS opponents and season-opening games were not included.)
Ohio State, 4 (0)
Oregon, 3 (1)
Alabama, 3 (1)
TCU, 2 (1)
Baylor, 2 (0)
Mississippi State, 0 (1)
Has that made a real difference in FSU's performance? The Seminoles' first-half struggles suggest that's possible. In the four games that meet this criteria already played, FSU was outscored 78-41. In FSU's other five FBS games, it outscored its opponents 92-49.
Now, that's not entirely a fair representation because the bulk of the latter lopsided scoring came against Oklahoma State, Wake Forest and Syracuse. In games vs. Notre Dame and Virginia, the Seminoles struggled in the first halves, too, in spite of the fact that their opposition had a real opponent the previous week.
Additionally, FSU had a bye to prepare for both Clemson and Louisville, too, so any advantages should've been evened out. (And, yes, we're aware FSU had a distinct disadvantage against Clemson that had nothing to do with bye weeks, other than maybe Jameis Winston got a little bored during his.)
The point, however, is that there's more that goes into creating a tough schedule than just the teams on it.
This shows up a bit in how ESPN measures schedule strength. Based purely on the standard metric, FSU checks in at No. 38. But if we go on strength of record, which measures the odds an average Top 25 team could play the same schedule and end up with the same record, FSU ranks second -- behind Alabama. (Keep this in mind for a little later in the post.)
But let's move on to the second critique of Florida State's play -- that even though it has kept winning, it's not been dominant enough.
Again, if we look at some standard metrics, this makes sense. Here's the margin of victory for the top playoff contenders against Power 5 opponents this year:
Ohio State +17.1
Florida State +13.1
Mississippi State +8.8
The Seminoles rank near the bottom, and when you add the perception of a weak schedule to that, it makes things look even worse.
Even if we get into more advanced measures, FSU doesn't look good. ESPN's Game Control metric -- which, for the purposes of simplicity, measures how nervous a team's fans are during a game -- FSU ranks 34th. The other contenders are all in the top 10.
But there's something else to be considered here. The game control is ugly for FSU because it has had to fight back, while others have jumped out early but cruised late.
In the first half of games, FSU has a +0.7 scoring margin against Power 5 foes -- by far the worst of the playoff contenders. But in the second half of those games, its margin is +12.4 -- the best margin in the nation by any team.
That leads to an interesting question from @SwainJP
@DavidHaleESPN if FSU flipped their first and second half performances, would anyone question them being #1?— JP Swain (@SwainJP) November 16, 2014
Well, it turns out we don't need a hypothetical for this, because there's a perfect real-world example (see chart).
Alabama's margins are almost a perfect mirror image of Florida State's, and when we look back to those strength of record numbers, Alabama is also the only team that's played a schedule tougher than FSU's, so it makes some sense. Yet the narrative surrounding the Crimson Tide certainly is quite a bit different. Add in the fact that Alabama's scoring margin benefits greatly from a 59-0 win over Texas A&M, and the narrative shifts even further.
The irony to this is that usually in sports we reward the “clutch” teams that pull through in the most dramatic fashion (see 2013 Auburn for reference). For Florida State, however, the opposite seems to be true.
In truth, most statisticians would suggest “clutch” is a myth anyway. It's simply a matter of the cream rising to the top. In either case, it should burnish FSU's argument rather than damage it.
All of this isn't to say Florida State is clearly the best team in the country. That's sort of a foolish argument to begin with, since the whole reason we have a playoff now is the collective admission that we can't know who the best team is without playing the games on the field.
But what these numbers should clearly show is that the simple narrative surrounding FSU isn't the full story, and when measuring the top four teams — which is really all we need to do — the Seminoles clearly belong.