One of the biggest debates of last season’s college football playoff selection was the inclusion of Ohio State and Washington and the exclusion of Penn State. Ohio State beat Oklahoma by three touchdowns in Norman, and coupled with their one loss (albeit to Penn State), their resume seemed to be the best of the three, unless you chalk up their selection to their seat at the Old Boys Club table. When the dust settled, the Lions’ loss to Pitt seemed to be the primary reason the committee selected 1-loss Washington over 2-loss PSU. The Huskies had a great year, and given their 7-win 2015-16 season, it was great to see them back on top of the Pac-12. The problem with their selection, to many fans and experts alike, was that their non-conference schedule was comprised of 2-10 Rutgers, 4-loss Idaho and 3-8 Portland State of the FCS.
While Penn State lacked a true marquee non-conference opponent, Pitt boasted 2 top-10 wins and Temple was a 10-win conference champion. It’s reasonable to give Washington a pass for Rutgers, as the games are scheduled years in advance with no way of knowing how good the opponent will be when the game arrives. But, when a bad Rutgers team in a down year is the best game of your non-conference set, it’s hard to understand why that kind of scheduling is rewarded. Anyone who watched the Wisconsin-LSU game at Lambeau Field can see why the system should encourage more A-list non-conference games and discourage glorified scrimmages.
As a result, the primary rationale for why Penn State was not included in the CFP was that they had one more loss than either Ohio State or Washington. So, is the message from that reasoning to just schedule 3 Portland State’s, collect the wins and enter the CFP on a high note? To answer that question, it is worth a look back at the first three college football playoff champions.
Last year, despite a bad home loss to Pitt, Clemson opened the year with a win at Auburn. Alabama opened the year against #20 Wisconsin in Arlington and overcame a close home loss to #15 Ole Miss. The tricky case is Ohio State from 2014, which lost a bad home game against Virginia Tech. The loss came early in the year and they were breaking in a freshman QB; the team ran the table and made the first CFP field. That year, Baylor beat TCU in a video-game like shoot-out (losing the following week at unranked WVU), but did not play a conference championship game. OSU’s tougher schedule, a dominant performance in blowing out Wisconsin and outright conference championship gave them the edge with the committee.
All three champions had a major non-conference game on their resumes, an outright conference championship, and only one loss. From that, the argument can be made that scheduling a major non-conference game would help. As a December SI article points out, Ohio State’s win at Oklahoma likely pushed the Buckeyes into the field despite the loss to Penn State. Had Oklahoma won that game, they undoubtedly would have been #3 in the CFP field. With 4 playoff slots and 5 major conferences, conference championships can’t hold that much weight, despite the strength of the conference. In an 8-team field, the equation changes to where conference champions would likely be guaranteed an invite, incentivizing teams to schedule winnable games early in the year. In the current CFP format, however, you can’t lose to a mediocre team at any point in the season AND absorb a 39-point blowout conference loss. Winning games is the most important metric, and beating good teams is an appropriate tie-breaker. If a team doesn’t win its games, it becomes very hard to argue too loudly. Had Penn State beaten Pitt, they would have jumped Washington. They should continue scheduling quality opponents (as they have done with Pitt, Virginia Tech, Auburn and West Virginia) as they continue to gain national notoriety as a resurgent powerhouse program that fans want to see compete at the highest level.
About the Author:
Adam Kimmel is the founder and Principal at ASK Consulting Solutions, a technical writing firm specializing in engineering content writing. A 2003 graduate and avid fan of Penn State, Adam has followed Penn State football for over 25 years, attending nearly 50 games and researching historical players and teams. He is also a Manager of R&D, and can be found on LinkedIn