Scouting The SEC: College Football Playoff Rankings

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The College Football Playoff Committee will release its first rankings of the season on Tuesday evening.

It’s the first chance for the people who will decide this year’s Playoff field to share their views on the contenders.

The ranking announcement shows are generally some of the worst made-for-TV nonsense out there.

If you watch closely, the criteria used to judge the teams will vary from week to week, and sometimes even during the course of one show.

A win over a highly-ranked team is a decided advantage right up until someone the committee doesn’t like has one. Then it’s secondary to other factors, such as “game control” or strength of wins.

In the end, it generally boils down to “the eye test” which is a term of art for people who just want to do whatever they want to do without actually justifying it to proles like you.

In an unrelated note, no team from north of the Mason-Dixon line has ever been ranked No. 1 by the College Football Playoff Committee in any week.

Georgia has been ranked No. 1 on two occasions, Mississippi State has been on top of the polls three times, Clemson has been there in eight weeks, and Alabama has been the top seed in 18 different weeks. Yes, an SEC team has been ranked atop the College Football Playoff Committee’s list in 22 of the 30 weeks they’ve released a list.

If you were wondering why a featured titled “Scouting The SEC” would focus so specifically on these rankings, wonder no more.

Tuesday, you will likely hear a lot of talk about the strength of the SEC West schedule and how teams like Alabama are “battle tested.”

How much of that is true this year, and how much is just a result of people making assumptions based on which logos show up on their schedules?

We’ll take a look at the resumes of the seven unbeaten teams, as well as four of the one-loss teams likely to be in the hunt for a spot if someone above them slips up. If you’re going to subject yourself to the rankings show, it will at least give you some sense how creative the committee is getting with its rationale.

All numbers below are from the Sagarin and SP+ computer ranking systems, since those are objective sources unimpressed with wins over not-as-good-as-normal opponents.

Sagarin is a backward-looking system which weighs what a team has done against its schedule compared to the results an average team might have managed.

SP+ is a forward-looking predictive system which accounts for differences in tempo and schedule strength to project the outcome of games still to come.

That provides a decent balance between a couple respected and objective sources looking at teams in different ways.

Here are 10 fun facts before you dive into the data below.

  • Ohio State has the best strength of schedule (20th) in Sagarin of any of the 11 contenders listed below. Oregon (24th) is the only other contender whose schedule ranks among the top-25 right now.
  • OSU’s strength of schedule could actually improve this month, despite facing Rutgers and Maryland. That’s because they’ll close the regular season against No. 5 Penn State and at No. 10 Michigan.
  • The Buckeyes are also the team with the biggest margin of victory (31) of any team’s “best win” over the highest-ranked opponent it has defeated. Also, No. 8 Wisconsin is the highest-ranked opponent any of the contenders has beaten.
  • Only four of the 11 contenders have faced a top-10 team in Sagarin this year. Ohio State (Wisconsin), LSU (Auburn), and Penn State (Michigan) have wins, while Oregon lost to Auburn.
  • Oklahoma plays in the fairly weak Big 12 and has so far mostly faced the dregs of its conference. However the Sooners have a better strength of schedule so far than Georgia in the SEC, even coming off a win over Florida.
  • Minnesota hasn’t played anyone ranked better than 50th in SP+. That will change this weekend when the Gophers face Penn State.
  • It’s November and a 4-4 BYU team has more wins over the top 30 in Sagarin this season (2) than Alabama or Clemson (1 each).
  • Alabama has as many wins over Sagarin top-30 teams (1) as Temple, Illinois, Texas Tech, Pitt, and SMU. They will face LSU this weekend, but if they lose, the Tide will probably only get one more chance at a top-30 team this regular season.
  • LSU has as many wins over SP+ top-15 teams this year (2) as Alabama (0), Clemson (0), Baylor (0), Minnesota (0), Georgia (1), Penn State (1), Oklahoma (0), Oregon (0), and Utah (0) combined.
  • Auburn has played the 3rd-hardest strength of schedule so far this season by Sagarin, proving what a difficult league the SEC is. Michigan State has the 2nd-hardest strength of schedule so far, and Northwestern has the hardest.

Ohio State

Sagarin Rating: 1st
Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 20th
Vs. Sagarin Top 10: 1-0
Vs. Sagarin Top 30: 3-0
SP+ Rating: 1st
Best SP+ Win: 38-7 vs. No. 8 Wisconsin


Sagarin Rating: 4th
Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 34th
Vs. Sagarin Top 10: 1-0
Vs. Sagarin Top 30: 3-0
SP+ Rating: 3rd
Best SP+ Win: 23-20 vs. No. 12 Auburn


Sagarin Rating: 2nd
Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 59th
Vs. Sagarin Top 10: 0-0
Vs. Sagarin Top 30: 1-0
SP+ Rating: 2nd
Best SP+ Win: 47-28 vs. No. 20 Texas A&M


Sagarin Rating: 3rd
Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 64th
Vs. Sagarin Top 10: 0-0
Vs. Sagarin Top 30: 1-0
SP+ Rating: 5th
Best SP+ Win: 24-10 vs. No. 20 Texas A&M

Penn State

Sagarin Rating: 5th
Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 39th
Vs. Sagarin Top 10: 1-0
Vs. Sagarin Top 30: 3-0
SP+ Rating: 7th
Best SP+ Win: 28-21 vs. No. 11 Michigan


Sagarin Rating: 17th
Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 65th
Vs. Sagarin Top 10: 0-0
Vs. Sagarin Top 30: 3-0
SP+ Rating: 15th
Best SP+ Win: 23-21 vs. No. 18 Iowa State


Sagarin Rating: 25th
Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 82nd
Vs. Sagarin Top 10: 0-0
Vs. Sagarin Top 30: 0-0
SP+ Rating: 10th
Best SP+ Win: 34-7 vs. No. 50 Nebraska


Sagarin Rating: 11th
Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 50th
Vs. Sagarin Top 10: 0-0
Vs. Sagarin Top 30: 2-0
SP+ Rating: 6th
Best SP+ Win: 24-17 vs. No. 13 Florida


Sagarin Rating: 6th
Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 49th
Vs. Sagarin Top 10: 0-0
Vs. Sagarin Top 30: 1-1
SP+ Rating: 4th
Best SP+ Win: 34-27 vs. No. 33 Texas


Sagarin Rating: 7th
Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 24th
Vs. Sagarin Top 10: 0-1
Vs. Sagarin Top 30: 2-1
SP+ Rating: 14th
Best SP+ Win: 35-31 at No. 17 Washington


Sagarin Rating: 12th
Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 40th
Vs. Sagarin Top 10: 0-0
Vs. Sagarin Top 30: 1-1
SP+ Rating: 9th
Best SP+ Win: 33-28 at No. 17 Washington

2 Responses

  1. Tom- once again, you have produced meaningful data which reasonable people cannot ignore. The fact that no Northern team has EVER been #1 in the CFP rankings is insane- as are Miss State’s THREE stints at #1. Yet, the CFP committee shows yearly it is NOT reasonable. We already know what company line mouth breathers like Rece Davis will say (“The SEC West is just so tough, their schedules are brutal”)- even though he’s wrong. The troubling part is that CFP committee members believe that nonsense…
    Once again, the bottom line is that OSU has a different bottom line than Ala, LSU, even Georgia. An OSU loss to Ped St or scUM (“they looked so bad against Wisky!”, right Rece and Kirk?) will be essentially fatal. And if Minn somehow makes it to the BIG title game, their opponent (no matter who it is, by the way) will be thought of as “lucky” despite the fact that Minn would have run a late season gauntlet to get there. SEC teams, on the other hand, are forgiven for late season losses out of hand, and their title game is portrayed as some sort of Super Bowl. Saying it is easy- OSU must win out. It’s just ridiculous and provably unfair that their main competitors aren’t judged by those standards.

    1. The committee knows it’s BS, Longtime. But they also know who signs their paychecks.

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