November 27, 2015
The Flaw with Strength of Victory
It sounds perfect on paper, the team that looks the best (passes the eye test, so to speak) is the team that is the best. That’s how it’s always been with the bowl championship series committees and has extended into the college football playoff era. A panel judges whether a team is worthy of competing for a national championship based on how they play on Saturdays.
As a whole, this makes a lot of sense. While the whole system is incredibly results-driven, there must be some way to separate the logjam of one-loss teams as the season nears its end. The problem actually really rears its head in the last few weeks, when the upsets start rolling in. Take last week, when one-loss Michigan State knocked off number three and undefeated Ohio State. That same day, one-loss Baylor handed Mike Gundy’s Cowboys their first loss of the season.
Certainly, both of these victories would seem to count as the most impressive of the weekend, and yet when the updated seeding came out, neither Baylor nor Michigan State were in the playoff picture. The obvious argument is that the victories weren’t as impressive since the teams they beat showed flaws that allowed them to get beat. So through the course of the game, Oklahoma State and Ohio State carried their banner of undefeated with a smaller flag that said they were beatable, so to speak.
By the time Michigan State and Baylor had scored their victory, it’s almost as if they actually beat a one-loss team. That’s how it appears if you look at the standings post-game anyway. Literally, it’s correct. The teams they beat are no longer undefeated and no longer hold that regard, so the jump that they make can’t be reflective of having beaten a team that’s unbeatable. It’s a logically flawed cycle, but one that must be considered.
Let’s take a look at another example from this weekend: Notre Dame. In the eighth stop of the Shamrock series, the Irish took on an underrated Boston College team in front of a roused crowd at Fenway Park. The all-green uniforms seemed symbolic of the hue one’s face would take watching both teams play offense. It was a nasty slug fest that resulted in a 19-16 victory for the Irish who remain with only one loss (to number one Clemson).
There are a few ways to look at the results of this game, we can start with the presumed feelings of the college football playoff seeding panel. Notre Dame’s five turnovers show a team with deep flaws that will likely implode in a playoff situation against a superior opponent. The problem with this thinking is two-fold. It can easily be argued that Notre Dame showed an extreme mental toughness to overcome their mistakes away from Southbend and hold on to avoid the upset, good football teams find all different ways to win. The other thing to consider is that Notre Dame has proven in the season that they can compete with the very best when they took Clemson to within a two-point conversion of overtime. That stands as easily the biggest challenge to Clemson’s undefeated campaign.
That game which finished 24-22 on an attempted Deshone Kizer run that would have tied the game has been the main reason that Notre Dame was vaulted into the top 4 anyway.
They certainly lack that “signature victory”, and perhaps their most impressive win was against an underrated Temple team that played them tough the whole way through. It’s not as though that Clemson game suddenly didn’t happen, and the Tigers still hold that undefeated banner so it’s no less impressive. Arguably, since Clemson is the most impressive team in the nation, coming the closest to beating them should, theoretically, be the most impressive feat a team can achieve. And yet, there are clear flaws with this thinking as well. What matters is the almighty “w”, of course.
So these voting panels seek to find this perfect harmony between wins and how impressive a team looks. The latter, by its very nature, is subjective. However, and no matter how many complicated algorithms go into developing this seemingly perfect system, no algorithm can make up for the human error that goes into these rankings. Therein lies the biggest problem with this whole system, arguments can be made for many one-loss teams to be in this top-4. And when the two undefeated teams at the top of the rankings aren’t one and two, criticism is clearly going to be invited. But I believe in an expanded playoff system anyway, just my two cents.