It’s certainly not going to make every college football fan happy, but the CFP selection committee’s decision to rank Alabama and Oregon -- both with a loss on their résumés -- ahead of Florida State shows it's willing to consider context that was often lacking in the polls used to compute the BCS.
Based solely on record, Florida State is the obvious No. 1 team in the nation by virtue of being the last undefeated Power 5 conference team. But the committee is considering the quality of wins, the toughness of schedule, the circumstances involved in each game and a host of other metrics when parsing the cases for each team. That’s progress.
The committee is willing to overlook Oregon’s home loss to Arizona in a game it was favored to win by three touchdowns in part because the Ducks have surrounded that loss with quality wins over Michigan State, Stanford, UCLA and Utah, but also because of context. A host of injuries on the offensive line hurt Oregon, but the Ducks have gotten healthier, and in the five games since that loss, they've averaged 48.4 points and surrendered just eight sacks.
Essentially the committee’s ranking boils down to a simple premise that should be applauded in this new age of college football: Oregon is a better team today than it was six weeks ago, and the best teams should be the ones playing for a championship.
Where the committee’s critics have a valid point, however, is whether that same context is applied evenly.
Florida State fans wonder why Oregon gets a pass for its short-handed loss when the Seminoles don’t appear to earn many bonus points for beating Clemson without Jameis Winston or thwarting Louisville’s staunch defense without starting center Austin Barron.
It’s a reasonable point, but if the Seminoles keep winning, they’ll be in the playoff anyway. For the folks in Columbus, Ohio, however, the future isn't nearly so certain.
The cases for both Oregon and Ohio State are similar. Both teams have Heisman candidates at quarterback. Both have prolific offenses. Both are en route to a conference title. The signature win for both teams came against Michigan State. And both have a glaring loss on their record that came, in large part, because of injuries.
The difference is that Ohio State’s stumble at home to Virginia Tech in Week 2 looms large, and is the biggest reason the Buckeyes are No. 6 in the poll.
Let’s first look at those losses. Is Arizona a better loss than Virginia Tech?
Arizona is 8-2 and ranked 15th in the committee’s latest poll. Virginia Tech is 5-5 and narrowly kept its bowl chances alive with a win over Duke last week.
Look a little deeper, though, and the differences aren't nearly so stark. Aside from the win over Oregon, Arizona hasn't beaten a Power 5 team with a winning record. Its two remaining games (at Utah and vs. Arizona State) will tell us more about the Wildcats’ true worth, but they needed a late turnover from Texas-San Antonio to win on Sept. 4, escaped Nevada by just a touchdown a week later, and toppled Cal a week after that thanks to a last-second Hail Mary. Virginia Tech has played essentially as well as Arizona, but while the Wildcats have four one-score wins, the Hokies have four one-score losses.
Again, context means a lot, and in this case, the committee doesn’t seem to be applying it evenly.
But let’s look, too, at how Ohio State lost that game. J.T. Barrett was making just his second start, stepping in for injured star Braxton Miller. The offensive line was in shambles, too, and it surrendered seven sacks. Ohio State still fought back and had a chance to win, but two late turnovers swung the game.
If anything, injuries had a bigger impact on the Buckeyes’ loss than Oregon’s.
And since that loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State has been nearly flawless. The Buckeyes are 8-0 and have won by an average of 28 points -- the top scoring margin for any Power 5 team during that span. Its opponents’ winning percentage during that time is better than that of Oregon, Florida State, Mississippi State and TCU -- teams all ranked ahead of Ohio State. It has toppled two ranked teams in Michigan State and Minnesota. It has scored 49 points or more six times.
If the goal is to put the best teams into the playoff, Ohio State’s case is sound. In fact, there may not be a team in the country playing better football right now than the Buckeyes. Barrett has gone from a deer in headlights to a Heisman candidate. The offensive line has allowed just 10 sacks in the last eight games. The defense is light-years ahead of Oregon by virtually every metric.
But if the playoffs started tomorrow, Ohio State wouldn’t even be the first team left out, and the lackluster schedule in the Big Ten -- something completely out of the Buckeyes’ control -- won't offer many opportunities to change that perception.
Instead, it will be up to the committee to continue to re-evaluate things, to keep adding context -- because if it’s good enough for Oregon, then a few other teams surely deserve a second look, too.