Pac-12: college football playoff

videoLet's take a minute to appreciate just how well this all worked out.
The playoff was supposed to diminish the regular season, but instead we got passionate debate, huge games and high drama on a weekly basis.

The playoff was supposed to undermine conference titles, but instead we saw the one Power 5 league without a championship game miss out on a shot at a national title.

The doubters suggested the playoff would only serve to give undeserving teams a chance to win it all, but instead Ohio State -- a team that may well have finished fifth or sixth in the final polls under the old system -- not only won it all, but proved it was no fluke.

From start to finish, we just witnessed the best season in college football history.

But just because the end result was everything we'd hoped for doesn't mean the path we took to get there was the ideal one. The playoff changed the game in so many significant and positive ways, but the process in Year 1 was still very much trial and error, and so it's incumbent upon us to evaluate those trials, pick apart the errors and figure how we can make 2015 even better.

With that in mind, here are a few lessons we learned from this year's playoff debates.

Good teams can come from bad leagues

It's now been two years since the SEC won a national championship, and the two teams that took home the hardware in its place came from the two Power 5 leagues that earned the most criticism nationally - the ACC and Big Ten.

To read David Hale's full story, click here.

If Oregon wins the inaugural College Football Playoff, the Pac-12 will cap the greatest season in its history, including iterations as the Pac-8 and Pac-10. Perhaps we should toss an "arguably" in there, particularly if the conference's seven other bowl teams go belly-up in some form or fashion, but why be wishy-washy?

After Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was the overwhelming winner of the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, the Pac-12 completed a sweep through the award season like some morphing of "Titanic," "Ben Hur" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" at the Oscars. Combine Mariota with Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright, and the Pac-12 has produced the season's most decorated offensive and defensive players. Not since 2002, when USC QB Carson Palmer won the Heisman and Arizona State LB Terrell Suggs swept most defensive awards has this happened.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks have a chance to make this a historic season for the Pac-12.
Mariota also won the Maxwell and Walter Camp player of the year awards, as well as the Davey O'Brien and Unitas awards as the nation's top QB. Wright won the Lombardi, Bednarik and Nagurski awards. Further, UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks won the Butkus Award, Utah defensive end Nate Orchard won the Hendricks Award and Utah punter Tom Hackett won the Ray Guy Award.

Toss in eight players on the ESPN.com All-America team -- from seven different schools -- and six teams ranked in the final pre-bowl CFP rankings and it feels like an unprecedented season for national recognition in the Pac-12.

Well, at least if the Ducks take care of business.

The season Palmer and Suggs were college football's most celebrated players, just two Pac-10 teams ended up ranked, though both were in the top 10 (USC and Washington State), while Colorado, then in the Big 12, also finished ranked. In 2004, USC won the national title, Trojans QB Matt Leinart won the Heisman and California finished in the top 10. Arizona State also finished ranked, while Utah went undefeated, though as a Mountain West Conference member. Obviously, if you fudge with conference membership issues, you can make things look better retroactively than they were in their present time.

In 2000, three teams -- No. 3 Washington, No. 4 Oregon State and No. 7 Oregon -- finished ranked in the top seven. In 1984, the Pac-10 won the Rose (USC), Orange (Washington) and Fiesta (UCLA) bowls and finished with three top-10 teams, including No. 2 Washington, which was victimized by BYU's dubious national title.

So there have been plenty of impressive seasons, just not anything as scintillating as 2014 if Oregon wins the title.

Oregon, of course, hoisting the new 35-pound, cylindrical trophy as the last team standing is hardly a sure thing. First, the Ducks get defending national champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual. While many have questioned the Seminoles this season because every game has been a nail-biter, that doesn't change the fact the nation's only unbeaten Power 5 conference team -- winners of 29 games in a row, no less -- own the fourth quarter. In football, owning the fourth quarter is almost always a good thing.

If Oregon manages to win that CFP semifinal game, the good money is on it getting a shot at top-ranked Alabama in the national title game, though throwing funereal dirt on Ohio State this season has proved difficult. Ohio State is the Count Dracula of college football this season -- perennially undead. That duly noted, knocking aside Alabama -- the game's most dynastic program, led by its most celebrated coach in Nick Saban -- while the Crimson Tide also stand as the bell cow of the dominant SEC would be the ultimate achievement for a team and conference eager to solidify its super-elite standing.

The simple fact that Oregon has not won a national title in football -- and the Pac-12/10 hasn't claimed one since 2004 -- stands out on both literal and symbolic levels. There has not been a first-time national champion since Florida won in 1996, while a Pac-12/10 team other than USC hasn't won one since Washington in 1991. Before that, if then-Big 8 member Colorado's 1990 title doesn't count, it's UCLA in 1954.

So Oregon taking that final step into the light would represent a pretty dramatic development, particularly after the school already upgraded its trophy case with its first Heisman. It would complete a climb started in the 1990s and show other mid-to-low-level Power 5 teams that all they need to transform into a superpower is good coaching, strong administration and a sugar-daddy billionaire booster.

As for the conference in general, it would be a big deal to have a non-USC national title in the coffers, and it would be further validation of the depth and quality of the conference. Last season, for the first time since 2009, the conference didn't finish with a top-five team, but for the first time ever it finished with six teams ranked in the final AP poll. So the Ducks at the top would provide some nice symmetry.

As for the entire postseason, the Pac-12 is favored in seven of its eight bowl games, with UCLA being only a slight underdog to Kansas State, with the line trending down since opening at 3 1/2 points. So the conference is set up for success. Anything fewer than six wins -- including Oregon in the Rose Bowl -- would be a disappointment, an underachievement.

You know, not unlike last season, when the conference went 6-3 and graded a mere "Gentleman's C" from the Pac-12 blog.

While Washington and Oregon State fans will be hard-pressed to force out a "Go Ducks!" and USC fans probably aren't ready to admit a new member to the college football penthouse, if Oregon can make its tide rise to the top -- and roll the Tide along the way -- it will boost all Pac-12 ships.

Saban the most feared among contenders 

December, 7, 2014
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It’s Selection Day and the first time in history that college football will have a four-team bracket.

When it comes to the playoff, who would coaches least like to see on the other sideline? I’ve ranked the top six from the playoff contenders. This is a reprise of an exercise from the spring. Alabama’s Nick Saban was No. 1 back in May. Spoiler alert: He’s still No. 1 now. But there is a caveat attached this time. FSU’s Jimbo Fisher was No. 3 in the spring, but he has fallen in the most recent round of polling. TCU’s Gary Patterson is the name on the rise.

If anything has been made clear by the College Football Playoff committee's rankings over the past several weeks, it's that in its view, the Pac-12 stacks up favorably among the Power 5 conferences. With half the Pac-12 -- and five of the six teams in the South Division -- ranked in the latest batch, only the 14-team SEC has more (7).

Yet there remains a possible scenario in which the Pac-12 champion would not be a part of the inaugural four-team playoff. Not if it's No. 2 Oregon, of course. The Ducks (11-1) are locked into a trip to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day if they end a two-game skid against No. 7 Arizona on Friday in the Pac-12 championship game.

The Wildcats, however, face an uncertain fate.

Should it beat Oregon, Arizona (10-2) would likely be the only two-loss team considered for one of the four spots and would need to jump two teams in a group that figures to consist of No. 6 Baylor, No. 5 Ohio State, No. 4 Florida State and No. 3 TCU to remain in national-title contention. A hiccup from one or more is what the Wildcats will be cheering for, but if that doesn't happen it's still possible for them to earn a berth.

For argument's sake, let's say in addition to Arizona, everyone in contention wins this weekend: Baylor over No. 9 Kansas State, Ohio State over No. 15 Wisconsin, Florida State over No. 11 Georgia Tech, TCU over Iowa State and No. 1 Alabama over No. 16 Missouri.

Alabama and Florida State are both in, no questions asked. There's no way to justify an alternative, which leaves two spots for Arizona, Baylor, Ohio State and TCU. Based on the Horned Frogs' No. 3 ranking this week, it's hard to see them falling out of favor (and the top four) with a win, but in Year 1 of the playoff era there's no precedent to develop firm expectations.

Selection committee chairman Jeff Long has said all along that they start from scratch each week and a final look at TCU's regular-season schedule would show just two wins against ranked teams -- Oklahoma and Kansas State. With a win in the Pac-12 title game, Arizona would finish with four wins against ranked teams, including to two against an Oregon team that likely wouldn't fall past No. 7.

While Arizona's two losses will be a valid point of contention for those arguing in favor of Ohio State, Baylor and TCU, it should be noted both losses were competitive games against ranked teams and one (USC) came without 1,200-yard rusher Nick Wilson. There will always be the "a loss is a loss" crowd, which is fine, but the committee has already shown it doesn't necessarily think like that with undefeated Florida State behind one-loss Alabama, Oregon and TCU.

If TCU can be ranked ahead of Florida State with only two wins against ranked teams, it's certainly within reason for Arizona to wind up ahead of Ohio State (two ranked wins and an unranked loss), which is without quarterback J.T. Barrett, and Baylor (three ranked wins and an unranked loss) despite having one more loss. Especially considering the Wildcats will have played the more difficult overall schedule and don't own a loss as bad as Ohio State's to Virginia Tech or Baylor's to West Virginia.

I haven't seen Ohio State, Baylor or TCU enough to forecast with much accuracy how any of them would fare against Arizona, so I won't pretend. The takeaway here is that Arizona shouldn't be written off because of its record. The Wildcats' body of work measures up well and if they pull off another Oregon upset, it would be interesting to see how things shake out.

With all that said, Oregon by a touchdown.

Are TCU, FSU locks for the playoff? 

December, 2, 2014
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In Sunday’s Playoff Forecast, I referenced the selection committee’s written protocol that says in order for a non-champion of a conference to reach the playoff, it must be “unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.”

In theory, whether the committee will consider Baylor and TCU to be co-champions of the Big 12 if both win on Saturday would be important. In reality, the committee may have just told us that, conference title or not, it believes TCU is unequivocally one of the four best in college football.

Much attention will be given to Florida State falling to No. 4 in this week’s rankings, but TCU moving up to No. 3 is a much more significant story. If the Horned Frogs had been ranked fourth this week, there would have been legitimate reason to believe that they would be bumped out of the top four if Baylor beats Kansas State on Saturday, since the Bears have a head-to-head win over TCU that the committee doesn’t seem to have considered yet. But dropping the Frogs completely out of the top four from the No. 3 spot, while not impossible, seems much less likely.

If there’s one guarantee for the top six teams this weekend, it’s that TCU will have a comfortable win over Big 12 cellar dweller Iowa State and finish 11-1. The committee knows this. That’s why I have a hard time believing it would’ve moved the Frogs into the top three if there was any chance that it wouldn’t place them into the playoff this Sunday. So, what happens if Alabama, Oregon and Florida State all win, and Baylor also has an impressive victory over KSU? I have no idea, but it would be shocking to see TCU displaced from the top four … and even more shocking if the Seminoles were left out.

Yes, it’s alarming to see the Power 5’s lone undefeated team sitting at No. 4 in the rankings,

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A great mystery has been lost amid the jocularity surrounding celebrity journalist and sixth-grader Charlie Papé's quizzing Oregon coach Mark Helfrich about the future of Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota. While we can all appreciate that top topics of conversation at Papé's O'Hara Catholic School in Eugene are "Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota," what has been over looked is Papé mentioned four topics of interest but never provided that final topic.

While Papé's life story is certain to shortly be developed into a movie -- think one part "Network," one part "Frozen" and one part "Wonder Years" -- we feel certain that elusive No. 4 concerns who will be the Pac-12's South Division champion, for that is a potential and worrisome foil for his troika of topics. It is against whom Oregon fans -- girls and boys, of course -- could see their prayers answered (or not) and against whom Mariota could secure the Ducks' first Heisman Trophy (or not).

After all, there has to be a villain menacing Papé's sixth-grade trinity, right?

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIIf Jim Mora's Bruins beat Stanford on Friday, UCLA will meet the Ducks in a conference title game that is setting up to have major national significance.
A lot became clear in college football this weekend, and not just that Helfrich clearly enjoys sixth-graders more than adult reporters. For one, the Heisman race is now down to two outstanding athletes: Mariota and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who is posting a historically good season. The only problem with Gordon's candidacy is not a person in the world would select him over Mariota in a football draft, and that includes all those Badgers jumping around in Madison. With Mariota, Wisconsin would be unbeaten.

Second, the once-muddled South picture will be resolved with finality on Friday before nightfall.

If UCLA beats Stanford at home, the Bruins will not only play Mariota and the Ducks for the conference title on Dec. 5 in Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, they also will be well positioned to play themselves into the College Football Playoff. Their case for the CFP could be decisively made, in fact, with the opportunity to erase one of their two losses by beating the No. 1 or No. 2 team on the final day of the season.

Ah, but down in the desert of Tucson they will be rooting hard for the Cardinal while simultaneously renewing the love fest that is the Territorial Cup. If the Bruins fall, the winner between Arizona and Arizona State captures the South title. Both teams figure to be ranked near the top-10 when the selection committee announces its rankings on Tuesday. The Wildcats and Sun Devils haven't met as ranked teams since 1986. Further, with both sitting at 9-2, this is the first meeting in which both will have at least nine wins since 1975. So, yeah, this is a big Territorial Cup.

And guess what? If the Territorial Cup winner paired that quality victory with a win over Oregon, it also would have a good case for the CFP, though it's likely a couple of dominoes would have to fall ahead of the Wildcats and Sun Devils in the rankings.

Though we should make no assumptions of any kind for Saturday, which includes what the Ducks do at Oregon State in the Civil War, Friday should be a great fun, a joyous conflagration of rivalry and national relevance.

Last year was a breakthrough for the Pac-12. Six teams finished ranked and nine played in bowl games. Five teams posted double-digit wins. There were no naysayers -- at least credible naysayers -- to the conference's overall depth and strength.

Yet there was a chink in the 2013 armor: Just one team, No. 9 Oregon, was ranked in the final AP top 10. The conference was highly respected and completely out of the national picture, though obviously Stanford, ranked No. 5 after winning the Pac-12 title, could have made some noise if it had beaten Michigan State in the Rose Bowl.

That is the step forward the conference can take as we hit the home stretch of 2014, with winning the conference's first national title since 2004 being the biggest and most elusive prize. The Pac-12 title game is setting up to have major national significance, so fans from all corners of the country as well as many in flyover and frozen states will tune in. Some folks out West will be agitating for the Pac-12 title game to become a de facto CFP play-in game, even with a two-loss champion, and fans from other regions need to watch in order to make themselves into educated trolls so they can best fight against this position on Twitter afterward.

Oregon, as a 12-1 Pac-12 champ, by the way, would have the strongest case for the No. 1 overall seed.

This past week, a reader and Arizona fan questioned the idea of Pac-12 collectivism -- the idea that a fan of a Pac-12 team should also root hard for the conference in general. He made a fair and not uncommon point, one that aligns with the big-city vibe of the Pac-12 and its pro sports towns.

But college football isn't set up like pro sports, even with this new playoff. It's still a beauty contest and whom you hang out with matters. You can't just root for one team and wish ill on all others. Six teams ranked in the top-20 and more than one perceived national title contender bolsters Colorado just like it bolsters Oregon. It also pays better when they distribute cash from the new playoff/bowl model.

Further, it's fun to know that a prominent TV in a Jackson, Mississippi, sports bar will be tuned to the Pac-12 on Friday, or that a crew of Ohio State students will be marinating in a Columbus apartment checking out the Territorial Cup, or that a dad in Dallas will shush his children so he can better counter the arguments stacked against his TCU/Baylor team by these darned, overrated Pac-12 squads.

Now what we really need is for Papé to contact a friend at Holy Spirit Catholic School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and get him to tell Nick Saban about the gospel of Jesus, girls, Marcus Mariota and the Pac-12 South.

Breaking down the conference races

November, 10, 2014
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After a weekend that featured six matchups between ranked teams, we have emerged with newfound clarity in the conference races.

Ohio State, Baylor, Oregon and Alabama each beat a top-20 opponent on Saturday and now controls its own destiny in conference races.

Using projections by ESPN’s Football Power Index, let’s break down how each of the Power 5 conferences are projected to finish, starting the with most likely conference winners.

ACC
FPI’s Projected Winner: Florida State (75 percent), Duke (19 percent)

Florida State has the best chance of any Power 5 school to win its conference. FPI projects that the Seminoles have a 99 percent chance to win their division and a 77 percent chance to beat the winner of the ACC Coastal division in the ACC Championship Game, should they get there.

Duke is in the driver’s seat in the Coastal division, one game ahead in the loss column over Miami (FL) and Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils hold the head-to-head tiebreaker versus the Yellow Jackets, and although they lost to Miami (FL), the Hurricanes still have Florida State left on their schedule.

Big 12
FPI’s Projected Winner: Baylor (72 percent), TCU (24 percent), Kansas State (4 percent)

After its win against Oklahoma, Baylor’s chance of winning the Big 12 rose from 27 percent to 72 percent. By most measures, TCU has a more impressive résumé than Baylor, but the Bears hold the head-to-head tiebreaker after defeating the Horned Frogs on Oct. 11 in an unlikely 21-point fourth-quarter comeback.

TCU (68 percent) and Baylor (67 percent) have the best chances among Power 5 one-loss teams to win out. If both teams run the table, Baylor will be the Big 12 champion.

FPI projects that Kansas State, which also has one conference loss, has a four percent chance to win the Big 12 because of its schedule. The Wildcats have to play West Virginia and Baylor on the road, but if they beat Baylor in the final week of the season, things could get interesting. FPI projects that there is a 29 percent chance that Baylor, TCU and Kansas State win their other remaining games, resulting in a three-way tie.

Pac-12
FPI’s Projected Winner: Oregon (71 percent), Arizona State (13 percent), UCLA (10 percent)

Oregon has already clinched the Pac-12 North, so its only barrier to a conference championship will come in that Pac-12 Championship Game. Arizona State, which is one of nine remaining one-loss teams, has a 51 percent chance to win the Pac-12 South, according to FPI, followed by UCLA (30 percent).

The Sun Devils have three remaining conference games, including a tough road test against rival Arizona on Nov. 28, while the Bruins have two. If these teams were to finish with the same record, UCLA owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, and would face Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game – a game that FPI projects the Ducks have more than a 70 percent chance to win.

Big Ten
FPI’s Projected Winner: Ohio State (65 percent), Wisconsin (22 percent), Nebraska (11 percent)

Ohio State’s win against Michigan State on Saturday may have been the biggest win of the weekend in terms of conference championships. Not only did Ohio State put itself in a great position to win its division (FPI projects the Buckeyes have a 98 percent chance to win the Big Ten East), but it knocked its greatest competition out of the race.

One of the biggest games of this upcoming weekend in terms of divisional races features the top two teams in the Big Ten West – Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Because the game is in Madison, FPI projects that Wisconsin has a 64 percent chance to win. Whichever team wins will put itself in a prime position to win the division and likely face Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.

SEC
FPI’s Projected Winner: Alabama (36 percent), Georgia (27 percent), Mississippi State (19 percent)

The SEC is the most wide open conference. FPI projects that there are three teams – Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi State – with more than a 15 percent chance to win the conference. No other Power 5 conference has more than two such teams.

In the SEC West, FPI projects that Alabama has a 50 percent chance to win the division, largely because it hosts its two biggest competitors – Mississippi State and Auburn – in the next few weeks.

On Saturday, Mississippi State heads to Tuscaloosa in a game with conference and playoff implications. The winner of this game will control its own destiny in the vaunted SEC West and have a great chance to play the SEC East champion in the conference championship game.

Like the SEC West, the East is also quite unsettled.

Although Georgia is currently behind Missouri in the SEC East standings, FPI projects that the Bulldogs have a 60 percent chance to win the division because Missouri has three difficult remaining conference games, while Georgia has one.

Mailbag: Better season for USC or UCLA?

November, 7, 2014
11/07/14
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Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

Follow me on Twitter. Please.

To the notes.

Oscar from Irwindale Calif., writes: At the beginning of the season expectations for UCLA where pretty similar to USC's 2012 high hopes. Fair or unfair USC also had some pretty high expectations, not by experts but by the fan base. In reality who has had a better season so for between the two? UCLA cant beat the good teams and USC cant beat the bad teams.

Ted Miller: Well, USC was preseason AP No. 1 in 2012 and UCLA was preseason No. 7 this year, but I understand your general point. That Trojans team completely collapsed. I'm not expecting that from the Bruins, who are aiming for a fourth win in a row at Washington on Saturday.

I think both USC's and UCLA's deserve "incompletes" at this point. It's too early to judge, though I'd say generally the scale is leaning toward disappointment for both. USC's losses are worse, but UCLA was widely considered a national title contender. The obvious Day of Judgment, of course, will come down to who wins their annual showdown -- a third consecutive win for the Bruins or a breakthrough for the post-sanctions Trojans.

If USC wins its final three regular-season games -- Cal, UCLA, Notre Dame -- it's difficult to believe anyone will consider Steve Sarkisian's first season a disappointment. Same can be said for the Bruins. If UCLA wins out, that would give it a solid shot to still win the South Division and get another crack at Oregon in the Pac-12 title game.

If one or the other -- both? -- ends up with 10 wins, that should rate as a pretty darn successful season, particularly with the Pac-12's depth this fall. But 10 wins without a win over the other might still taste a bit sour.




Tyler from Denver writes: Considering Notre Dame has only two wins against teams with winning records (Stanford and Rice), how bad would an ASU loss look for the Pac 12 in the playoff picture?

Ted Miller: While Notre Dame's schedule has not turned out to be as rugged as it looked in the preseason, and it hasn't yet turned in a marquee victory, let's not completely write off the performance in Tallahassee against Florida State. Whatever you want to say about the penalty that took the apparent game-winning TD off the board, the Fighting Irish certainly showed they can play with just about anybody that night.

So, yes, the most impressive moment for the Irish this year is probably a loss.

But, yes, if Arizona State loses to Notre Dame on Saturday but then went on to win the Pac-12, it would be held against the conference with the College Football Playoff selection committee. If the Sun Devils only win the South Division or even if they falter and don't win it, losing a big nonconference game will be held against the conference, even if we're just talking a national perception among fans and media.

That said, even if Notre Dame ends up 3-0 against the Pac-12, beating Stanford, ASU and USC, I think a 12-1 Oregon team winning the Pac-12 is a near certainty to receive a berth in the CFP.




Brady from Salt Lake City writes: Who has the best defense in the Pac12 ? Do we know the answer already or must we wait for the Utah-Stanford game next weekend to truly know?

Ted Miller: That Stanford-Utah game might end up 6-5, with good defenses owning struggling offenses.

Stanford has notably better numbers at present. In basic statistical terms, Stanford allows fewer points per game (16.1 ppg vs. 21.2 ppg) and yards per play (4.1 ypp vs. 4.90). Stanford's defense also rates as more efficient, according to ESPN Stats & Information metrics, as the Cardinal rank seventh in the nation and the Utes are 14th.

But Stanford is banged up and the ultimate measure will be the numbers at season's end when both have played their full nine-game conference slate. We still could see a passing of the torch from Stanford to Utah as the conference's defensive leader.




Matt from Bellevue Wash., writes: If ASU wins out (don't you just feel a Zona upset in their rivalry game, though, put me down as picking that) But if they do, and they face Oregon. Is that a winner go to the CFB playoff game? Or would ASU somehow get left out?

Ted Miller: Just like Oregon, if ASU finishes as the 12-1 Pac-12 champion, I would bet my house the Sun Devils are invited to the CFP.

Yes, what I am saying is hell will freeze over before the selection committee would pick, say, a two-loss SEC team over ASU or Oregon, teams that would arrive at 12-1 with marquee nonconference victories as well as a Pac-12 title.




Oregonian in Exile in Belgium writes: A lot of the CFP discussion has centered on which 1-loss Power 5 team might get left out of the playoffs, or whether two teams from one Conference (SEC) get in, or even if a 2-loss Conference Champion (PAC-12) could still make the playoffs. Is it a foregone conclusion that an undefeated team from a Power 5 Conference (ACC) will automatically be in the top 4? If the CFP Committee's task is to select the 4 best football teams in the nation, is it not feasible that the final four may exclude an undefeated Champion such as Florida State (anticipating FSU wins out) who consistently struggles against good or mid-level teams (OK State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville)? Despite the no losses, is FSU a better football team than 1-loss teams like Oregon, Auburn, Michigan State, TCU, Kansas State, Alabama, or Arizona State?

Ted Miller: As certain as I am that a 12-1 Pac-12 champion will be invited to the CFP, I am even more certain that an unbeaten Florida State team will be invited.

The Seminoles, for one, would be an undefeated defending champion, winners of 29 consecutive games. And everyone knows they are good.

In fact, if the committee left undefeated FSU, I'd join those nutty, thin-skinned, paranoid Seminoles fans in storming the Gaylord Hotel.

Stats to know: Six ranked CFB games

November, 6, 2014
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Saturday, there will be six games between teams ranked in the top 20 of the latest College Football Playoff rankings. Below are the stats you need to know heading into each game.

(4) Oregon at (17) Utah, Saturday 10 ET
FPI projection: Oregon 67 percent chance to win

Matchup to watch: Utah’s pass rush versus Oregon’s pass protection – Utah leads the FBS with 39 sacks and has had at least four sacks in an FBS-high six games. In the two games that Oregon allowed more than four sacks, the Ducks lost to Arizona and played a close game against Washington State. Not coincidently, those were the two games that left tackle Jake Fisher was sidelined with a knee injury. Fisher vs Utah DE Nate Orchard will be a specific matchup to watch as Orchard is tied for second in the FBS with 12 sacks.

Player to watch: How can Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota not be the player to watch? Mariota leads the nation in Total QBR (91.2) and touchdowns responsible for (34) and is averaging the second-most yards per pass (10.3) in the nation.

Stat to know: Oregon is 31-0 since the start of the 2012 season when it scores at least 30 points. Utah has held its last nine opponents, dating to last season, to fewer than 30 points, tied for the longest active streak in the FBS.

(5) Alabama at (16) LSU, Saturday 8 ET
FPI projection: Alabama 60 percent chance to win

Matchup to watch: LSU rushing offense against Alabama rushing defense - LSU has run the ball on an SEC-high 67 percent of its plays this season. The Tigers are 6-0 this season when they rush for at least 150 yards and 1-2 when they do not. They will have a tough test against an Alabama defense that has allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game (78.1) and fewest rushing touchdowns (2) in the FBS.

Player to watch: Amari Cooper had a school-record 224 receiving yards in his last game, a 14-point win at Tennessee. Cooper has been responsible for 49 percent of Alabama’s receiving yards this season, the highest percentage for any FBS player. He also leads the nation with 20 receptions that have gained 20 yards or more and ranks second in receiving yards per game (141.5).

Stat to know: LSU has an FBS-high 24 come-from-behind fourth-quarter wins since Les Miles was hired in 2005. No other SEC school has more than 15 such wins.

(7) Kansas State at (6) TCU , Saturday 7:30 ET
FPI projection: TCU 36 percent chance to win

Matchup to watch: TCU’s big-play offense vs. Kansas State’s disciplined defense – TCU leads the Big 12 with 57 plays of 20 yards or longer. Those plays have gained 247.5 yards per game, second-most in the FBS behind Marshall. Conversely, Kansas State is tied for the second-fewest plays (22) and fourth-fewest yards (86.9) allowed on plays of 20 yards or longer.

Player to watch: Last week, Tyler Lockett passed Jordy Nelson for second on Kansas State’s all-time receiving yards list. He needs 156 more yards to pass his father, Kevin, for most in school history. He will likely be matched against TCU’s Kevin White, who helped shut down one of the top receivers in the nation, West Virginia’s Kevin White, last week.

Stat to know: Kansas State has seven turnovers this season (T-seventh in the FBS), four of which were of little harm because they came with the Wildcats leading by 24 or more points. TCU leads the nation with 26 turnovers forced and is one of two teams (Oregon) that has forced at least two turnovers in every game this season.

(14) Ohio State at (8) Michigan State, Saturday 8 ET
FPI projection: Ohio State 52 percent chance to win

Matchup to watch: Ohio State run game vs Michigan State run defense - Since its loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State is averaging 295.3 rushing yards per game, fifth-most in the FBS. Michigan State ranks sixth in the FBS in rush yards per game allowed and has held five of its eight opponents under 100 rushing yards.

Player to watch: Jeremy Langford has rushed for at least 100 yards in 12 straight conference games, tied for the longest streak in the last 10 seasons with Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey. Last season against Ohio State, Langford gained 93 of his 128 rush yards after contact, the most yards after contact that Ohio State has allowed to a player in the last two seasons.

Stat to know: J.T. Barrett has been responsible for 29 touchdowns, tied for third-most in the FBS and on pace to break Braxton Miller’s school record of 36 set last season. Barrett has been responsible for at least four touchdowns in four of eight games this season. Michigan State has not allowed a player to account for four touchdowns since Taylor Martinez scored four in Nebraska’s win in East Lansing on Nov. 3, 2012.

(10) Notre Dame at (9) Arizona State, Saturday 3:30 ET
FPI projection: Notre Dame 52 percent chance to win

Matchup to watch: Everett Golson against Arizona State pressure package - Arizona State sends five or more pass rushers on 55 percent of opponents’ dropbacks, the second-highest percentage for a Power 5 team. On such plays, the Sun Devils rank third among Power 5 defenses in both yards per play (2.9) and sacks (16).

Golson has thrown four of his seven interceptions this season against a blitz, including both of his picks against Florida State. Golson has averaged 5.9 yards per attempt against the blitz this season, 1.2 less than the average for a Power 5 quarterback.

Player to watch: Golson has been responsible for 29 touchdowns this season, tied with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett for third-most in the FBS and on pace to break the Notre Dame record for a season (39 in 13 games by Brady Quinn in 2006). In the Irish’s win last week against Navy, Golson became the first player in Notre Dame history to pass and rush for at least three touchdowns in the same game. Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight is the only other FBS player to accomplish that feat this season (vs Iowa State).

Stat to know: Notre Dame is 12-0 since the start of last season when it has one or fewer turnovers and 4-5 when it has two or more, including the Irish’s loss to Florida State this season. Arizona State is 4-0 this season when it has forced multiple turnovers.

(12) Baylor at (15) Oklahoma, Saturday 12 ET
FPI projection: Oklahoma 66 percent chance to win

Matchup to watch: Baylor’s pass offense vs Oklahoma’s pass defense - Baylor has a Power 5-high 17 touchdowns on passes thrown 20 yards or longer. Oklahoma has allowed the most touchdowns in the Big 12 on such passes but also is tied for the conference lead with four interceptions. Zach Sanchez has three of those four interceptions and will be matched up against one of Baylor’s explosive wide receivers. The Bears have four receivers who have gained 300 yards and are averaging more than 16 yards per reception.

Player to watch: Trevor Knight had his best statistical game of the season last week against Iowa State, accounting for a career-high 376 yards of total offense and six touchdowns. The Sooners probably will need another big game from Knight to match Baylor’s high-powered offensive numbers. Last season, with Blake Bell at quarterback for Oklahoma, Baylor won by 29 and held the Sooners to a 3.5 raw QBR, their lowest in a game since the 2005 season.

Stat to know: Baylor has never beaten Oklahoma in Norman in 11 games dating to the first meeting in 1974.

Oregon, Arizona State make their moves

November, 3, 2014
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And just like that, we have Pac-12 clarity. Or potential clarity, which some fussbudgets might insist is nothing like clarity.

[+] EnlargeCharles Nelson
AP Photo/Ryan KangCharles Nelson and No. 5 Oregon still have to face Utah, Colorado and Oregon State this season.
After impressively exorcising its Stanford demons a day after All Hallows' Eve, Oregon owns a decisive lead in the Pac-12 North Division and is likely to earn a promotion Tuesday into the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings. If the Ducks win out, they are all but certain to earn a berth in the inaugural four-team playoff.

Meanwhile, the nutty South emerged from the fog with a new leader: Arizona State. The defending South Division champion, left for roadkill after yielding a 62-27 drubbing at home to preseason division favorite UCLA on Sept. 25, now stands as the South's highest-ranked and only one-loss team. If the Sun Devils win out -- which would include a victory over No. 10 Notre Dame on Saturday -- they also are all but certain to earn a berth in the playoff.

Oh, but fans of these teams should stop leaping into the air and clicking their heels together, particularly the Sun Devils. While Oregon has what amounts to an insurmountable three-game lead in the North with three games to play, the same can't be said for Arizona State and neither has much -- if any -- margin for error in the national framework. If the Sun Devils slip, then Arizona, UCLA, USC and Utah could climb back into the picture, perhaps forcing the South into one of those complicated tiebreaking tangles.

And if the Ducks let up, starting with what might be a tricky trip to Utah on Saturday, their playoff hopes could go poof and all that post-Arizona loss hand-wringing would recommence in Eugene.

So not surprisingly, winning continues to be the best recipe for remaining in a happy place.

If we contract from the inexorably forward-thinking nature of college football analysis, however, we see two teams asserting themselves in ways that just a few weeks back seemed unlikely. Recall: Oregon's offensive line was once a shambles and Arizona State couldn't stop anybody with a rebuilt defense.

Oregon yielded 12 sacks in back-to-back games against Washington State and Arizona and struggled to run the ball, but since Jake Fisher returned from injury at left tackle, the O-line has transformed. Against Stanford, the Ducks surrendered just one sack and rushed for 267 yards. On a down note, RT Matt Pierson hurt his knee against the Cardinal. His status, as well as the potential return of Andre Yruretagoyena, remains uncertain.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsTaylor Kelly and the No. 14 Sun Devils have four games left on their schedule, including a matchup Saturday against No. 10 Notre Dame.
Utah's defensive front is outstanding, particularly on the edges with ends Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick. So, yeah, don't start celebrating a playoff berth just yet, Ducks.

As for the Sun Devils, the defense that was young, sloppy and overwhelmed while giving up 580 yards to the Bruins has held its last three foes to an average of 12 points per game. While Stanford, Washington and Utah have been struggling to score points, there's no question a defense that replaced nine starters from 2013 has become more confident, aggressive and sounder in terms of scheme. After the game, coach Todd Graham admitted he's never had a unit improve as much in a single season.

It will be interesting to see how ASU responds against Notre Dame. The Sun Devils lost at Notre Dame 37-34 last season in an oddly flat performance. While losing to the Fighting Irish won't affect the Sun Devils' position in the South, it probably would eliminate them from the national discussion, even if they went on to win the Pac-12. Losing to Notre Dame, which has already beaten Stanford, would also hurt the Pac-12's overall Q-rating while bolstering the Irish's chances to take a coveted playoff spot.

As for the South race, the Sun Devils have a far more forgiving schedule ahead than Arizona and UCLA. The Wildcats have four remaining conference games, including a visit to Utah, and UCLA has Washington, USC and Stanford on the slate. USC, which lost to the Sun Devils on a Hail Mary pass, has only two remaining conference games -- California and at UCLA -- before concluding with a visit from Notre Dame.

Will the Irish be going for a Pac-12 sweep that final weekend? That would be pretty galling for a conference that views itself as every bit the rival of the SEC for the nation's top conference.

Yet the present is newsworthy enough for the Pac-12. On a weekend when Oregon and Arizona State made conference and national statements, including Ducks QB Marcus Mariota establishing himself as a solid Heisman Trophy favorite, it still shouldn't be overlooked that Washington State lost QB Connor Halliday to a season-ending leg injury against USC and Oregon State QB Sean Mannion eclipsed Matt Barkley for the most career passing yards in Pac-12 history (12,454).

Halliday, a brash, swashbuckling battler, was on pace to challenge a number of passing records before he went down, while the Beavers' struggles this fall shouldn't reduce Mannion's career achievement.

In the end, however, the winners get the headlines, and Oregon and Arizona State have made themselves the Pac-12's headlining teams. Now, can they get to a Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 5 without suffering another blemish, thereby making the title game, in effect, a national quarterfinal that also crowns a Pac-12 Coach of the Year?

Say the Ducks and Devils (hopefully): "We're just focused on Utah/Notre Dame."

National links: Beware the big day 

October, 28, 2014
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Welcome to terrific Tuesday. Or terrible Tuesday. All depends on your perspective.

The College Football Playoff selection committee began deliberations on Monday in Grapevine, Texas. Tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET, Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long will unveil to a most curious audience the first-ever CFP rankings.

It's a historic time -- and surely chaotic.

Marc Tracy of the New York Times, in assessing the moment, writes that “historians will most likely date the end of the era of good feelings to 7:31.”

With that in mind, some advice for fans from the Big Ten to the SEC:

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Oregon-Michigan State laden with meaning

September, 1, 2014
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Marcus Mariota and Connor CookAP PhotoThe performances of Marcus Mariota, left, and Connor Cook will go a long way in determining the outcome of Saturday's Oregon-Michigan State game.
There will be no "real" Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015. The "real" Rose Bowl, whose purity previously had been diluted by the BCS, is a casualty of the College Football Playoff this season. While that will make many of us old fogies wince, the only constructive response is to embrace change and recognize the fulfillment of decades-long clamoring for a playoff was inevitably going to kill off some cherished institutions with its birth.

As a consolation prize, however, the college football gods have given us No. 8 Michigan State visiting No. 3 Oregon on Saturday. It's a Rose Bowl matchup the first weekend of September, with the (alleged) Big Ten best versus (alleged) Pac-12 best. With Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out for the season and UCLA's less than scintillating performance at Virginia, this one has gained further traction as a potential CFP selection committee barometer for both teams and both conferences.

No, there will be no sunset behind the San Gabriel Mountains at Autzen Stadium, but there likely will be rosy fingers of meaning extending from whatever happens Saturday. For one, an early-season victory over a top-10 team in a nonconference game is exactly what the selection committee claims it will pay homage to. As an optional challenge boldly undertaken outside of the rote bureaucracy of conference scheduling, this game should serve as a badge of honor for teams trying to distinguish themselves to 13 judges in a conference room Dec. 7.

Ah, the committee. We can be fairly certain that, for better or worse, the great "Transitive Property of College Football" will play a role in its deliberations, and that is the perception prize the Spartans and Ducks will battle over in addition to the scoreboard numbers.

If Oregon wins, it will thereby -- transitively -- be better than any team the Spartans beat over the remainder of their season. If Michigan State ends up the Big Ten champion at 12-1, the Ducks will be viewed as the de facto Big Ten champs -- at least if the Ducks do well enough over the rest of their season to merit such an overreaching (overreacting?) designation. This playoff math would be rendered less relevant if Oregon, in this scenario, meanders to a 10-2 finish and fails to win the Pac-12's North Division.

The same goes for Michigan State, perhaps even more so because the rest of its schedule is not as demanding. If the Spartans beat a Ducks team -- in fearsome Autzen Stadium, the Pac-12's toughest road venue, no less -- that goes on to win the ostensibly SEC-ish Pac-12, their bounty could be a defensible claim to the top perch in two Power 5 conferences. That is, of course, if they take care of business over the entire season.

So the function is almost a transference of the Rose Bowl's typical season-ending meaning, just without any of the cool pageantry. A further twist is that both teams after the game become each other's biggest fans, with both winner and loser wanting the other to make the result a more impressive measure of itself.

Not that you'll hear Ducks coach Mark Helfrich or Spartans leader Mark Dantonio celebrating this sort of curlicue thinking. They've got teams with big goals, including playoff goals, but placing this game on such a pedestal could make a loss feel catastrophic within the locker room. Then what about the next 10 or 11 games?

“[This is] game No. 2. We have 10 games after that. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves," Dantonio said. "It’s not an end-all either way. That’s going to be a measuring stick game for us. Where are we at? Who are we? It will give us a little more of a sense of identity early in the season.”

Once you get past going John le Carré on potential selection committee intrigues, the football part of this football game is pretty cool, too. Although the teams share a team color of green, that's pretty much where the commonality ends, and even then, Oregon long ago went ludicrous speed on the notion of team colors and sartorial standards.

Speaking of ludicrous speed, Oregon, you might have heard, plays fast and furious on offense and piles up yards and points like a frenzying school of pirañas. Meanwhile, Michigan State, as you know, plays defense like a thick wall of titanium. Wall? It's more like an impregnable box -- with walls slowly closing together.

Last year, Oregon ranked No. 2 in the nation in total offense (565 yards per game) and No. 4 in scoring offense (45.5 ppg). Michigan State ranked No. 2 in total defense (252.2 ypg) and No. 3 in scoring defense (13.2 ppg). The Spartans also enter the game knowing they beat the Pac-12 team that beat the Ducks, given that they dispatched Stanford 24-20 in the 2014 Rose Bowl.

Of course, an over-reliance on what happened the past season is one of the greatest weaknesses in so-called college football punditry. The first weekend has already shown us that projecting forward based on returning starters and extrapolated improvement is an inexact science. Both Oregon and Michigan State are missing key players from 2013 on both sides of the ball. They also have shiny new players ready to glow.

Still, the circumstantial evidence suggests both teams will lean on their obvious strengths on Saturday. The Ducks and quarterback Marcus Mariota, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, rolled up 673 yards without really trying in an opening win over South Dakota, while Michigan State's defense throttled Jacksonville State 45-7 yielding just 244 yards.

The obvious only goes so far. The game ultimately might swing on the secondary quantities. Spartans quarterback Connor Cook has been surging since the middle of the past year, and he was darn near perfect in the opener and actually earned a perfect rating of 100 in ESPN.com's Total QB Rating. Oregon's defense has long been given short shrift, despite ranking among the nation's leaders and sending numerous players to the NFL.

The sum conclusion is that, while we will go Rose Bowl-less this season, this is a game that has plenty to offer, both in football on Saturday and in potential micro-analyzed meaning as the season progresses.

Video: Football playoff is simple ... right?

August, 30, 2014
8/30/14
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Leaving behind the crystal of the BCS and bringing in the gold of a new era: Tom Rinaldi takes a look at the new solution: the College Football Playoff system -- simple ... right?
USC athletic director Pat Haden and Stanford professor Condoleezza Rice, both members of the College Football Playoff selection committee, have been recused from voting for their respective schools, the committee announced Thursday.

Seven other members of the 13-member selection committee will be barred from voting or discussing schools they are affiliated with. They will, however, be permitted to answer factual questions relating to their respective schools.

Former Stanford, Washington and Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham was not recused. Willingham recently served as a volunteer assistant coach with the Stanford women's golf team, but has not done so the past two seasons.

When the selection committee was named last year, Stanford coach David Shaw spoke to both Willingham's and Rice's objectivity and character.

"No offense to either one of those, [but] if I was going to pack the jury, I wouldn't pick them because they're going to be unbelievably unbiased," Shaw said. "I would love to have some biased people on there, but those are two people that I don't think you can question their integrity. They're going to do and fight for what they believe is right."

Rice and Willingham aren't the only two with Stanford ties. West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck has a daughter attending Stanford, and his two older children are former Stanford student-athletes and graduates. Luck is permitted to discuss and vote on Stanford, but not West Virginia.

The committee will be responsible for ranking 25 teams throughout the season and is ultimately responsible for selecting the four teams to take part in the first College Football Playoff in addition to the six bowl games on New Year's Day. The committee met for three days this week in Colorado Springs, but won't convene again in person until Oct. 27-28. From there, they will meet every Monday and Tuesday for the rest of the year.

The first rankings for the playoff will be revealed Oct. 28 on ESPN.
Little will be more interesting this fall than following -- and speculating about -- the College Football Playoff selection committee as it conducts what is certain to be its highly controversial process.

The biggest curiosity likely will fall on how the committee assesses and then uses strength of schedule. Want controversy? What if a 1-loss SEC team beats out an undefeated Big 12 team? Or a two-loss Pac-12 team beats out a 1-loss SEC team?

We'd have the equivalent of pitchforks and torches on Twitter.

With this in mind, ESPN.com's mathematically inclined analyst Brad Edwards looked at some of the challenges ahead for the committee and offered some insightful advice Insider.

As for the process, he noted that it will be different than the NCAA men's basketball tournament selection committee.
Current indications are that the football committee will have no common data source, and it will be up to each member to decide which numbers, if any, are worth evaluating. Some people might argue that this will cause the football committee to be less analytical than the basketball version, but I disagree. I think less structure will better allow a room of intelligent people to make their decisions as informed as possible.

Edwards then uses some ESPN Stats & Info metrics to break down how things might have stacked up in 2013: Average In-Game Win Probability and Chance of W-L Record for an Average Top-25 Team.

That introduced one of our above apocalyptic scenarios: The 2013 Stanford problem. What Stanford did last season against a brutal 13-game schedule before the Rose Bowl -- going 11-2 -- was arguably as impressive as what any other team accomplished, including unbeaten Florida State. Edwards has the numbers to prove it. Consider this point:
Perhaps the more interesting revelation is that going 11-2 against Stanford's schedule was deemed to be harder than going 11-1 against Alabama's. Thanks to the Big Ten championship game, Michigan State's one-loss record was also more unlikely than Alabama's.

Now can you imagine if the selection committee picked Stanford over Alabama last season? Oh my.

Yet this is the reality if the selection committee does its job the right way. While the traditional polls have typically privileged record -- and sometimes regional biases -- the selection committee must recognize that schedule often determines record. Teams that play a nine-game conference schedule and a tough nonconference slate should be given a substantial head start compared to teams that play eight conference games and a poor-to-middling nonconference schedule.
It may not happen in the first season of the College Football Playoff, but at some point in the first few seasons, there will be a two-loss team that's more deserving of a playoff berth than a one-loss team (or a whole pack of one-loss teams). Whenever that does happen, it will be important for the credibility of the selection committee that the two-loss team is rewarded accordingly. This is one way for the committee to prove that it's superior to its predecessors -- the polls and BCS standings, which were never quite able to acknowledge that the loss column isn't always the most important number.

The good news, as Edwards notes, is we already are seeing teams beefing up future nonconference schedules. The Pac-12 blog has long thought that, after rivalry games, big-time September nonconference games are the best thing in college football.

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