College Football Playoff

How Strength of Schedule Affects College Football Playoff Rankings

Victoria Barnett

By Victoria Barnett

December 2, 2015

CFB-Playoff-PREMIUM-BLACK.jpgWhen it comes to the College Football Playoff rankings, the Selection Committee uses a set of factors including win-loss record, strength of schedule, conference championships won, comparison of results against common opponents and head-to-head results.

Of those, strength of schedule is probably the most controversial factor, and we all wonder the weight the committee places on such. We know win-loss record is very important, but we also know it’s not the end all be all. Just look at last year. So what is most important? Strength of schedule has to come into account somewhere.

In fact, College Football Playoff selection committee chair Jeff Long breaks down the schedules of the teams on a sheet of paper so that he can quickly scan how many wins each team has against FCS opponents, Top 25 teams and ones with records over .500. Sure, this might be evaluated differently depending on the committee member, but there’s no doubt it’s important in determining the rankings.

Comparing the Record

As we know, not all 11-1 and 10-2 teams can be looked at the exact same. All wins are not created equal. You have to see who the teams have played and how they have performed in those games. Strength of schedule might not be the most important metric, but it certainly helps narrow down the field.

Let’s look at a few examples. Alabama, Oklahoma, Michigan State, Ohio State and North Carolina have the exact same record of 11-1. Who ranks higher? Alabama followed by Oklahoma, Michigan State, Ohio State and North Carolina, respectively. Why? Look at who they’ve played, who they’ve defeated and who their one loss came from.

We know that Alabama’s schedule has looked a lot different than those of Ohio State or North Carolina. According to ESPN’s FPI (Football Power Index) rankings going into the season, Ohio State sat at 52 and North Carolina at 60 for strength of schedule. Until Michigan State, Ohio State had not played a single ranked team, and then ended up falling flat in the game that mattered most. Even with their win against Michigan, it might not be enough to land them in the playoff.

On the other hand, Alabama had the toughest schedule in the country, according to ESPN. When you look at the schedules and compare Alabama’s one loss to Ole Miss (9-3) to North Carolina’s loss to South Carolina (3-9), you can see why even with the same record, Alabama trumps UNC.

You can tell the committee places at least some emphasis on strength of schedule just by looking at the No. 7-10 spots. If record was everything, North Carolina would be ahead of Stanford, Notre Dame and Florida State. But they aren’t.College-Football-National-Championship-Stadium-VIP-Suites-2-1.jpg

Who Will Make the Cut?

We already know Oklahoma has practically secured a spot in playoff (although not confirmed). There’s also no doubt Alabama’s strength of schedule, along with their 10 quality FBS wins, has impressed the committee. Take that plus a potential win over Florida in the SEC title game, and it looks like the Tide will lock into one of the four seeds. However, a loss to Florida plus a loss to Ole Miss could wipe them out of the playoff.

If the favorites in the ACC and SEC do win their conference championships, the playoff field will be pretty cut and dry. Alabama, Clemson and Big 12 champion Oklahoma will be sitting pretty plus the winner of the Big Ten championship game between Iowa and Michigan State.

If Iowa wins the Big Ten Championship, their finish will most likely guarantee them a spot in the playoff. If the reverse occurs, a one-loss Iowa won’t be too impressive since the Hawkeyes have the worst strength of schedule of the nation’s Top 15 teams. If Michigan State wins the Big Ten Championship, their resume with wins over Oregon, Michigan and Ohio State will provide a strong case for a playoff spot even with their late-in-the-season loss.

Now, if Clemson or Alabama were to lose, it could be an entirely different story. Does this mean North Carolina or Florida could land in the playoff? Well, probably not. There’s always Stanford and the beloved Ohio State. Could it come down to strength of schedule? Hmm.


Why Resume Matters

Let’s look at North Carolina. The Tar Heels have put on quite the show since their loss to South Carolina, but they would have to beat Clemson in the ACC Championship to have a shot in the playoff. Even if they defeat Clemson, they aren’t guaranteed a spot by any means. Sure, defeating the No. 1 team plus winning the conference title would bump their chances, but their fate could lie in how Alabama and Stanford play as well as in their resume.

If UNC wins and Alabama or Stanford lose (or both), the Tar Heels have a better chance, but the playoff selection will probably come down to the teams’ resumes. North Carolina has two wins over FCS opponents, a loss to South Carolina and no wins against teams ranked in the Top 25. Put simply, that doesn’t help their case. Plus, this scenario could even bring Ohio State back into the mix. Talk about complicated.

If things go as expected, the selection committee shouldn’t have too difficult of a time deciding the top 4 seeds. However, if teams start shaking things up and upsets occur, what will it come down to? Possibly strength of schedule. Schedule matters, especially when it comes down to the wire. In the end, many teams will pay the price for a weak schedule and gain the reward for a tough one. Better pray your team’s resume can stack up.


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