Andrea AdelsonESPN Staff Writer
The anticipation leading into the newest College Football playoff selection committee’s rankings ratcheted up once Ohio State beat Michigan.
Who would the selection committee put in a better position to make the final top four? An Oklahoma team without much in the way of a defense, or an Ohio State team with the worst loss among playoff contenders?
The committee went with Oklahoma at No. 5, putting the Sooners in a great position to move up into the final top four Sunday. It was the right decision for multiple reasons. The biggest is the worst-loss factor. No playoff-contending team should lose by 29 points to 6-6 Purdue (no offense, Boilermakers). The same argument holds this year as it did last year, when Ohio State was left out of the playoff in large part because of a 31-point loss to Iowa.
Yes, Ohio State has a better win than Oklahoma, and the way it crushed the rival Wolverines 62-39 impressed anybody who watched. But the committee also takes the long view when it comes to the entirety of a team’s schedule to avoid the recency bias that comes with what happens in the days preceding the release of the rankings.
That is where the famous “eye test” comes into play. Before beating up on Michigan, Ohio State nearly lost to Maryland, a team that failed to reach bowl eligibility. It struggled against Nebraska, needing a second-half rally to put away another team that finished with a losing record. Over the final month of the season, more pundits questioned whether Urban Meyer had lost a grip on his team than whether this team was actually playoff-worthy.
Now for Oklahoma. Anybody who has tuned in this season understands the defense has struggled, even after Lincoln Riley fired Mike Stoops and made Ruffin McNeill defensive coordinator. Oklahoma is giving up an average of 449 yards and 32.8 points. But its offense is a sight to behold, and so is Kyler Murray, who is making a serious push for the Heisman Trophy.
As bad as the defense has been, the offense has been the opposite. Oklahoma leads the nation in scoring (50.3 points per game) and total offense (583.8 yards per game), and as last weekend’s 59-56 win over West Virginia showed, the Sooners can win with offense. OK, maybe they showed that throughout the season.
Finally, let’s just compare résumés. Oklahoma ranks No. 5 in ESPN’s Football Power Index; Ohio State ranks No. 6. Oklahoma ranks No. 34 in strength of schedule; Ohio State ranks No. 48. Oklahoma has three top-25 wins; Ohio State has two. The only metric where Ohio State is ahead is in strength of record: The Buckeyes are No. 5, and the Sooners are No. 6.
Let’s look ahead to this weekend, and their respective conference championship games. Oklahoma plays a more difficult, ranked opponent in rival Texas, another opportunity to impress the committee. Ohio State plays Northwestern, and the committee will look down on anything less than a blowout. If all the favorites win, without question Oklahoma has the inside track at the No. 4 playoff spot.
But that’s a big if, right? Because this could all come down to what happens in the SEC championship between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Georgia. If the Bulldogs pull the upset, what would the committee do with a one-loss Alabama team, especially if Oklahoma and Ohio State win their respective conferences?
Last season set a precedent, when one-loss non-champion Alabama made it, and ended up winning the national title. If the Crimson Tide lose a close game to the Bulldogs, is there anything that would convince the committee Oklahoma or Ohio State is the better team — especially since Alabama has been ranked No. 1 all season?
There’s one more ranking that should be noted this week, and that’s UCF. The Knights moved up one spot to No. 8 but remain behind two-loss Michigan, a team that was embarrassed a week ago. No matter what CFP executive director Bill Hancock says about there being an avenue for UCF to make the playoff, this week’s ranking proved once again there simply is not a viable path.
UCF lost its best player, quarterback McKenzie Milton, to a devastating knee injury against South Florida, yet still looked dominant in a 38-10 road win over its rival. Over its past two games, UCF has given up 23 total points and played its best football of the season.
It wasn’t enough to move ahead of a team that lost by 23 points in a game it was favored to win. Here is the kicker in all this: UCF must beat Memphis in the American Athletic Conference championship game Saturday, without Milton, to secure a New Year’s Six game, because the rules state that the top-ranked Group of 5 champion gets that spot.
It should be noted the same requirement doesn’t apply to the Power 5, where teams that don’t win the conference championship can make the playoff. But if UCF loses, and finishes as the highest-ranked Group of 5 team, it won’t have the opportunity to make the New Year’s Six. So Milton’s traumatic injury could mean the difference between UCF making the Fiesta Bowl and or landing in the Birmingham Bowl.
That’s why the Mountain West championship game between No. 22 Boise State and No. 25 Fresno State now has even greater meaning. If UCF loses, the Mountain West winner would more than likely find itself in a New Year’s Six game.