Strength of schedule is ambiguous but crucial to playoff committee

CFP committee close to finalizing top four teams (1:25)

ESPN CFP reporter Heather Dinich reports from Grapevine, TX, where the College Football Playoff committee is examining the top teams in the nation. (1:25)

College Football Playoff selection committee chair Jeff Long brings a color-coded sheet of paper with him to the group's meetings in Dallas every week to help him determine his top 25 teams.

The "big board," as he refers to it, breaks down the schedules of each team. It is in an easy-to-read format that he can scan quickly to see how many wins each team has had against FCS opponents, Top 25 teams and teams with records over .500.

There is one number that sums it up on his sheet: the strength-of-schedule rank.

It is an ambiguous metric, and one that can be viewed differently by all 12 committee members; CFP executive director Bill Hancock calls strength-of-schedule evaluations more of an art than a science. But there is no questioning its importance to the committee as the members debate the top four teams in the country, starting this week.

"All 10-2 teams are not the same," Hancock said. "The committee examines how that 10-2 record was compiled. Who did the teams play? How did they perform in those games? It's very important."

This week, the committee had 11 undefeated teams and 12 one-loss teams to compare. It would be inaccurate to call strength of schedule more important than any of the other criteria the committee uses in its evaluation, but it certainly will help the group narrow the field.

"It's what they've done thus far," Long said recently. "Some of those résumés don't have much on them thus far."

Here's a look at five undefeated teams that will give the committee the biggest headaches because of their strength of schedules -- or lack thereof -- ranked in order of the most cause for concern right now. Note that the SOS listed here comes from ESPN's Stats & Information group:

1. Baylor: The Bears have passed the eye test, averaging 61.1 points per game, but against whom?

Wins vs. FCS teams: 1 (Lamar)
Wins vs. FBS teams with records over .500: 1 (Texas Tech)
Wins vs. teams ranked in top 30 of Football Power Index: 1 (No. 28 West Virginia)
Opponents' combined winning percentage: 35.2 percent
SOS played: No. 109
Remaining SOS: 9
Overall SOS: 57

2. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys' close win at West Virginia came against a common opponent with that of Baylor, and the Bears took care of business at home against the Mountaineers 62-38.

Wins vs. FCS teams: 1 (Central Arkansas)
Wins vs. FBS teams with records over. 500: 2 (Central Michigan, Texas Tech)
Wins vs. teams ranked in top 30 of FPI: 1 (in overtime at No. 28 WVU)
Opponents' combined winning percentage: 39 percent
SOS played: 66
Remaining SOS: 2
Overall SOS: 37

3. Ohio State: The selection committee does not care what happened last season. It will evaluate the Buckeyes solely on what they've done to date, with their national title carrying no weight.

Wins vs. FCS teams: 0
Wins vs. FBS teams with records over .500: 3 (NIU, Western Michigan and Penn State)
Wins vs. teams ranked in top 30 of FPI: 0
Opponents' combined winning percentage: 57.7 percent
SOS played: 72
Remaining SOS: 32
Overall SOS: 57

4. Iowa: Upon further review, the Hawkeyes should be getting more credit. It would help Iowa, though, if the committee has Northwestern, Wisconsin and/or Pitt ranked.

Wins vs. FCS teams: 1 (Illinois State)
Wins vs. FBS teams with records over .500: 3 (Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Northwestern)
Wins vs. teams ranked in top 30 of FPI: 1 (No. 24 Wisconsin)
Opponents' combined winning percentage: 55.3 percent
SOS played: 63
SOS remaining: 56
Overall SOS: 62

5. TCU: The Horned Frogs have arguably the best quarterback in the country in Trevone Boykin, but West Virginia is the only team he has faced ranked in the top 40 in defensive efficiency.

Wins vs. FCS teams: 1 (Stephen F. Austin)
Wins vs. FBS teams with records over .500: 1 (Texas Tech)
Wins vs. teams ranked in top 30 of FPI: 1 (No. 28 West Virginia)
Opponents' combined winning percentage: 39.7 percent
SOS played: 48
SOS remaining: 22
Overall SOS: 40

The committee uses seven rounds of voting to rank its Top 25 and compares teams in groups of six to eight. Selection committee members can use whatever statistics they would like, as long as they know and understand how each statistic is derived.

Each committee member has a binder with a stats page for all 128 teams; it includes an entire section dedicated to schedule strength but does not include a singular strength-of-schedule ranking. There are 10 different categories focused on the performance of each team's opponents and combined represent a key source in the committee's evaluations. Those numbers attempt to answer this critical question: How good are the teams they're playing?

"It's not exact, and it's not a determiner in itself; it's just one thing you have available to look at as you're comparing teams that are very close to each other," Long said. "We may have a discussion that says their opponents' record ratio is 20th in the country, but I think that's a stronger schedule or maybe not as strong. We even debate that.

"We don't look at somebody and say, 'Oh, their strength of schedule is eight and someone else is 10th, so therefore the one with the eight has a stronger schedule, therefore they're ranked higher.' It doesn't happen like that. It's one of the factors that goes into all of the different things we're looking at in that room and discussing."

It's one factor Baylor can't seem to shake and TCU would prefer to ignore.

"They said before we got into the Big 12 it was, 'Well, we didn't play anybody,'" TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "I thought as soon as you got into the league, it made a difference. Now it doesn't make a difference anymore.

"For me, it's who are the four best teams. You pick it, you give me those reasons. Don't give me strength of schedule; give me what they do, what they don't do. I can tell you by the end of the week [after watching game film] who's got the best offensive line, the best secondary in the league. That's why I have no problem with the committee, how they do it, as long as you tell me the reasons why those are the four best teams you're going to pick and we'll go forward."