I said something that made you mad, and you have questions …
Note: Submitted questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Heard on last Saturday’s podcast your conviction that a one-loss, non-conference champion Tennessee gets in over a one-loss, conference champion TCU, Clemson/North Carolina, and/or USC (assuming one of those four is being considered for the No. 4 spot with Tennessee come selection Sunday). Wouldn’t that decision contradict eight years of evidence from the committee where a one-loss Power 5 conference champion has only been left out once, in favor of another one-loss Power 5 conference champion (save an except for 2020 which I hope we can all agree was a weird season)? And I’m curious why you think Tennessee would deserve another shot at UGA over a team that hasn’t played them this season and is just as likely to get boat-raced in the Peach Bowl? — James
The only decision that would contradict eight years of evidence would be a 12-1 Pac-12 champ USC making the College Football Playoff over an 11-1 Tennessee. Why? Because history tells us that when the committee is torn between two teams, it picks the team it thinks has a better chance of winning if the two teams played.
This scenario assumes TCU goes 13-0 and occupies one spot while Georgia and the Big Ten champ occupy the other two. If TCU is a 12-1 Big 12 champ, then we’re probably talking about three teams for two spots. (And an 11-1 Tennessee probably gets one of those.) I’m not sure where James is getting his evidence. Mine, however, comes from paying attention to the committee these past eight years. Remember, it’s important to separate what the committee chair says from what the committee actually does. Like anything else in life, what you say is meaningless compared to what you do.
In 2014, Ohio State was a conference champ, but one-loss Baylor and TCU were hovering around No. 4. Anyone with a functioning brain knew Baylor was the actual Big 12 champ — Baylor and TCU had the same record; they played and Baylor won — but Ohio State had just crushed favored Wisconsin (you forgot that part, didn’t you) 59-0 using a quarterback (Cardale Jones) who had started the season as the third-stringer. Why did the committee pick Ohio State? Not because of Big Ten bias. Not because it couldn’t decide between Baylor and TCU. It picked Ohio State because the majority of the committee members thought Ohio State would beat Baylor or TCU. And given what we saw from the Buckeyes in the CFP that year, either game probably would have been an absolute bloodbath.
In 2016, Ohio State didn’t win the Big Ten East but was seeded No. 3. Everyone seems to remember this as a debate between Ohio State and two-loss Big Ten champ Penn State, but it wasn’t. The debate was between one-loss Pac-12 champ Washington and Big Ten champ Penn State. Ohio State, which had beaten committee No. 6 Michigan, committee No. 7 Oklahoma and committee No. 8 Wisconsin, had the best set of wins on the field. Committee members decided Ohio State would win against Washington and ranked the Buckeyes ahead of the Huskies.
In 2017, Alabama was the runner-up in the SEC West after losing to West champ Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Ohio State was a two-loss Big Ten champ with a 31-point loss to Iowa on its resume. Did the committee choose Alabama over Ohio State because it had one fewer loss? No. Did the committee choose Alabama over Ohio State because the Buckeyes got blown out by Iowa? Partially. That information fed into committee members’ belief that if Alabama and Ohio State played, Alabama would win.
The only time the committee did pick the one-loss conference champ over a non-conference champ was in 2018, but even then the committee put the lie to the conference-champ-as-deciding factor argument. The committee made 12-1 Big 12 champ Oklahoma the No. 4 team. If a conference title made that much difference, then 12-1 Big Ten champ Ohio State should have been an easy choice at No. 5. Yet the committee made 11-2 SEC runner-up Georgia the No. 5 team and ranked the Buckeyes No. 6. It was this decision, by the way, that turned the Big Ten toward CFP expansion. If you’re looking for an inciting event for the 12-team Playoff, this is it. And why did it happen? Because the committee thought if Georgia and Ohio State played, Georgia would win.
In 2021, the committee didn’t even have to imagine. In comparing 13-0 Cincinnati, which didn’t get the automatic undefeated entry because it wasn’t in a Power 5 league, and 11-1 Notre Dame, the decision was easy. Cincinnati and Notre Dame played. Cincinnati won.
There is no easy nonconference decision-maker this season if it came down to 11-1 SEC East runner-up Tennessee and 12-1 Pac-12 champ USC in competition for the No. 4 spot. James wants to know why I think Tennessee “deserves” another shot at Georgia. This has nothing to do with who deserves anything. I’m telling you what will happen based on what past committees have done. And what will happen is that the committee will decide who it thinks would win if those two teams played and choose Tennessee.
If that version of Tennessee and that version of USC played on a neutral field, Tennessee would be favored by a little more than a touchdown. The committee doesn’t look at theoretical point spreads, but the committee’s history tells us it likes advanced rankings like SP+ and FPI. Those are very similar to the power ratings linemakers use to set the number. If the committee did anything different, it would go against most of the similar decisions it has made in the past.
This is why I’ve always advocated a simpler way to decide who is No. 4 and who is No. 5. The best way is to kidnap the head coach of the No. 1 team, take him to an undisclosed location and administer a truth serum. Then ask that coach one question: Who would you rather play?
So in this case an unmarked van would roll up on Kirby Smart in Athens. A bag would be placed over his head — he’s a former All-SEC safety, so our hired goons are getting elbowed in the face for sure — and the next thing he’d see are the CFP committee members. The needle would go in, and NC State athletic director Boo Corrigan would ask the magic question.
Corrigan: Kirby, would you prefer to play Tennessee or USC?
Smart: Give me the Trojans.
Corrigan: Vols it is.
Now, if we wanted to really ratchet up the drama, let’s say Ohio State lost close to Michigan.
Corrigan: Kirby, who would you least like to play among Ohio State, Tennessee and USC?
The answer to that one would be fascinating.
Andy, this might seem a bit counterintuitive. But which team would be most negatively affected if they were to win the Big Ten West?
If it’s Iowa, does that justify Brian Ferentz sticking around? Does Jeff Brohm end up getting hired elsewhere if it’s Purdue? Similarly, does P.J. Fleck row a different boat somewhere else next season if the Gophers are in the conference championship game? And if it’s Wisconsin, what does that mean for their coaching search?
For likely minimal reward (probably being trounced by Ohio State or Michigan), it seems like there’s the potential for a much higher long-term loss. — Matt
This question perfectly sums up the vibe of the Big Ten West in 2022 because it really doesn’t sound that weird. With five teams — all objectively worse than the best three teams in the Big Ten East — still mathematically alive for the title, who might be harmed the most by earning a trip to Indianapolis?
Matt lays out some compelling reasons why winning could be losing, but I only see one program that might truly be harmed long-term.
For Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue, the benefit of making the Big Ten title game for the first time far outweighs any potential negative. The Illini have to beat Michigan to make that happen, so they feel like the least likely to make it. But if they did, well, they would already have beaten Michigan. So Illinois fans would be pumped and would feel pretty good about their chances in the game. They’d swarm Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, Purdue and Minnesota making the game could make Jeff Brohm and P.J. Fleck more attractive candidates elsewhere, but remember that every Big Ten school is about to get a massive cash infusion. No school in the league should lose a coach to another school unless that school is a legitimate national title contender. They all should be able to pay to keep the coaches they want to keep.
The timing of Paul Chryst’s firing at Wisconsin always felt like a way to get interim coach Jim Leonhard enough runway to earn the job permanently. A Big Ten West title would only serve to reinforce the notion that Leonhard is the correct person to lead the Badgers. He understands the program’s identity as well as anyone. If he retools the offensive staff and revamps the recruiting department to mirror other programs of that level, that feels like a win-win.
Iowa is the one that could be harmed, because, as Matt pointed out, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz might think a division title would justify keeping son Brian as the offensive coordinator when the younger Ferentz’s body of work suggests he harms the program every day he remains in that position.
What makes Iowa so frustrating to watch this year is that the Hawkeyes’ defense and special teams are elite. They are not merely above average. They are not merely good. They are excellent. Last Saturday against Wisconsin, special teams coordinator LeVar Woods’ punt and punt return teams allowed Iowa to effectively dominate that game. But why settle for a 24-10 win in a game that would have ended 44-10 if the Hawkeyes had a remotely competent offense?
It is not hyperbole to say that even an average offense next to that defense and those special teams would make Iowa a top-10 team. But Woods’ and defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s units are wasted by the elder Ferentz’s stubbornness on this subject. Remember, Kirk is the one who encourages the overly conservative ethos that Brian has carried out poorly the past few years.
This feels somewhat similar to the decision Smart faced at Georgia following the 2019 season. Would he keep offensive coordinator James Coley and continue smashing his head against the same offensive brick wall, or would he hire someone else and then empower that person to run a more creative offense? Smart made the change and hired Todd Monken. It took some time to get the quarterback situation figured out, but once Monken accepted midway through the 2021 season that Stetson Bennett gave the Bulldogs the best chance to win, the offense became one of the toughest to stop in the sport. Georgia varies tempo. Georgia spreads out defenses on occasion. The Bulldogs take more offensive risks than they did in Smart’s first few years in charge. But Georgia often puts two tight ends on the field and runs the ball down opponents’ throats. That type of offense is theoretically what Iowa wants to run.
Can Iowa be Georgia? Probably not in the grand scheme because the Bulldogs recruit better raw material. But with a willingness to be more creative and with competent QB coaching, Iowa can be one of the best teams in the Big Ten — even after divisions go away. And if you can be one of the best teams in the Big Ten, then you can compete for national titles.
Kirk Ferentz said he intends to evaluate everything when the season ends. For the sake of the program, here’s hoping he does. Iowa is squandering its defense and its special teams by accepting something south of mediocre on offense, and it’s time that stopped.
Let’s assume everything comes together and A&M somehow beats LSU, which is in a post-Thanksgiving food coma. Then LSU bounces back to take care of Georgia in the SEC championship like Alabama did last year. Does a three-loss SEC champ still get into the Playoff? — Doug
No, but this would be objectively hilarious because it might just convince Jimbo Fisher that he doesn’t need to make any changes whatsoever at Texas A&M. “What do you mean I need to hire an offensive coordinator? Didn’t you just see us beat the SEC West champ? We’re right there.”
Pop the popcorn now.
A Random Ranking
William wants me to rank the best Christmas stocking stuffers. Upon first reading, I wondered if it might be too early. But this allows everyone some time to hit the store and avoid a “Jingle All The Way” scenario.
2. Gummy bears
3. A multitool
4. Good socks that you’d never be willing to pay for yourself
5. Beef jerky
6. Meat seasoning
7. A set of Allen keys
9. Duct tape
*Specifically this tequila, which my wife put in my stocking last year.
(Top photo: Jeffrey Becker / USA Today)
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