Friday, December 2, 2016

Don't worry about Michigan

There's an idea out there that Michigan would get into the playoffs ahead of Wisconsin even if Wisconsin beats Penn State tomorrow in the Big Ten Championship game and either Clemson or Washington loses.

I'm not going to get into the subjective debate about which team is actually better, or actually more deserving—that's a black hole. I'm going to tell you why I'm confident about what I think the committee would actually do.

First, the current rankings mean almost nothing. They exist to provide #content for a television show and to provide fodder for sports-talk radio and television. We know this is true because we were alive in 2014, when at this time of year TCU was slotted into the #3 spot in the rankings and Baylor (its fellow Big 12 co-champ, who beat TCU head-to-head) was ranked #6. Then, with both teams idle during championship week (more on that later) TCU magically dropped to #6 and Baylor moved up to #5.

Second, the committee chairman's comments mean nothing. He is just producing #content, the more Delphic the better. Take a look at what Jeff Long said when trying to justify TCU at #3 back in 2014. He said they were #3 because the committee felt "they were an improving team." Then they had a bye week and fell three spots. Apparently they had a setback during the bye week, stopped improving? Nope—you were just a sucker for watching that meaningless show and thinking it meant anything.

Third, we know that the only extent to which the current rankings matter is to provide narrative justifications for the changes they will make next week. What I'm talking about here is very specific: one of the few specific guidelines the committee is supposed to consider is conference championships. (Jeff Long in the clip above: "Championships are certainly what we are supposed to consider.") So what we've seen every year so far in the penultimate rankings is that teams in championship games have been placed behind similar teams that are idle. And in every case the idle team fell behind the team that went on to win its championship game:

Ohio State ranked #5 behind idle #3 TCU; moves past with win.
Florida St. #4 ranked also behind idle #3 TCU; moves past with win.

Stanford ranked #7 behind idle #6 Ohio St., moves ahead with win (despite having one more loss).
Michigan St. ranked #5 behind idle #3 Oklahoma, moves ahead with win.

Teams that win conference championships have always moved ahead of idle teams ranked directly ahead of them, and the penultimate rankings have always been engineered to allow for this move. That's all you need to know, in my opinion.

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