Playoff contenders ponder running up scores
This is the time of year when teams fighting for spots in the College Football Playoff might be tempted to run up big margins in hopes of impressing the selection committee.
Whether that strategy actually makes a difference is up for debate.
Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt, who chairs the College Football Playoff committee, says the committee doesn’t take margin of victory into account.
“We talk about how that team has performed each and every week,” Hocutt said. “We talk about ‘Was that a convincing win?’ ... I believe, in certain games a convincing win can be a 14-0 score, and in other games it can be a 35-7 score. I think in the game of college football, a convincing win can vary. But in no way do we incent margin of victory.”
Yet that didn’t stop Louisville coach Bobby Petrino from bringing up margin of victory recently when he complained about his team’s position in the rankings. “Maybe I made a mistake, looking back at it,” he said. “(Against) Florida State, we should’ve kept all the starters in and scored 80 points and done that.”
Louisville beat Florida State 63-20 on Sept. 17 and has outscored teams by an average margin of 29.3 points this season. Even after trailing Wake Forest at the start of the fourth quarter last week, Louisville went on to win 44-12 .
Of course, scoring 80 against Florida State technically shouldn’t have mattered to the committee if it isn’t taking margin of victory into account. But how do the committee members not pay attention to the actual scores of games?
“I think they do to some degree,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “That’s probably the best way to say it. I think they take all of it into consideration. But it’s a very bright group that, in some cases, it probably doesn’t matter too much to them, and in some cases it does.”
Jeff Sagarin, who has his own rating system to rank teams, says common sense shows that the playoff committee does factor in the scores of each game. Sagarin cited the 2014 season, when eventual national champion Ohio State leapfrogged TCU to earn the fourth playoff spot after trouncing Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game.
“Their problem is if they ever verbalize, ‘Oh, we look at scores,’ then people will castigate them for encouraging teams to run up the score, so they have to pretend they don’t,” Sagarin said.
Sagarin says his own ratings are based on “who did you play, where did you play and what was the score.” His current rankings are virtually identical to the CFP rankings, with one notable exception. The CFP rankings have Clemson fourth and Louisville fifth, while Sagarin’s ratings reverse the order of those two Atlantic Coast Conference teams.
Both rankings have Alabama first, Ohio State second, Michigan third and Washington sixth.
“You get better accuracy predicting future games when you use the score,” Sagarin said. “That’s all I can say about it. If people want to ignore the scores, that’s their business, but the committee, I don’t think they do (ignore the scores).”
Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose team has appeared in each of the first two playoffs, says he doesn’t believe margin of victory should be factored into the CFP rankings.
“I don’t think that beating another team by an embarrassing score really should be something that (should be rewarded) from a sportsmanship standpoint or a common respect standpoint for the other team and their players and their families,” Saban said. “That’s not really something that should be a part of the game.”
But Hocutt acknowledged the committee discusses what constitutes a convincing win. How often has “the eye test” come up as a way to judge a team during the playoff era? Sagarin notes the frequent references to “style points.”
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher recalls the example of his 2014 team that went undefeated in the regular season but only earned a No. 3 seed in the playoff behind Alabama and Oregon, who had each lost a game. Florida State played several close games that year, and committee members often referred to the Seminoles’ lack of “game control” without specifically mentioning scores.
“We were undefeated, hadn’t lost in two years, but game control,” Fisher said this week. “I haven’t heard ‘game control’ anymore. Did that one go out of the equation?”
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer says he doesn’t mind a scenario in which the committee considers how well a team played without specifically analyzing the victory margin. Meyer was concerned that if the victory margin becomes an ultimate measuring stick, teams might start acting “...I guess the term is very unsportsmanlike.”
“I’m hoping the committee — I have great confidence there — just looks at the body of work, the strength of schedule and how they played,” Meyer said.
The dilemma in that approach is determining how a team played without considering victory margin. That backs up Sagarin’s notion that scores are taken into consideration, whether or not the committee says so.