Starting 11: The Playoff Plot Thickens Edition

It’s Monday, which means the Starting 11 is here and we try to make sense of the looming playoff picture. 

The picture, by the way, is from Louis Nelms and Kyle Mayes. That’s my high school senior picture alongside Phyllis from Finebaum. Incredible work. 

So let’s dive right in. 

1. If all the top seven teams keep winning, the playoff four will be:

1. Alabama 2. Oregon 3. Mississippi State and 4. Florida State. Baylor will be fifth and TCU will be sixth with Ohio State in seventh place. (There’s some possibility Ohio State jumps TCU once the Buckeyes are official Big Ten champs). 

There probably wouldn’t be that much debate over the top three teams — I’m assuming that the committee wouldn’t have the guts to drop undefeated FSU out of the playoff — and 12-1 Oregon and Alabama would be easy decisions. So what about the fourth team?

When you compare resumes it’s pretty easy to see it would be 11-1 Mississippi State. Mississippi State has the best collection of wins of any of the one-loss teams other than Alabama and Oregon — I’m assuming that both of these teams will finish 12-1 — and has by far the best loss. Let’s examine these resumes more closely like we were on the committee.

Let’s start with the losses: Of TCU, Baylor, Mississippi State, and Ohio State only Mississippi State and TCU lost to currently ranked teams. TCU’s loss is to Baylor, a team that has to be ranked above them. Baylor lost by 14 to an unranked West Virginia team, but Ohio State has the worst loss of any of the top six one loss teams, a 14 point home loss to an awful Virginia Tech team. Mississippi State lost by five on the road at Alabama, who may be the top ranked team in the country when the new committee poll comes out Tuesday. Even Oregon, the committee’s present number two team doesn’t have as good of a loss as Mississippi State, having lost at home to Arizona. So of the one loss teams, Mississippi State has the “best loss,” by a pretty substantial margin. TCU has the second best loss, Baylor the third best loss, and Ohio State has the worst loss of all. 

What about best wins? Ohio State and Mississippi State both have one top 25 win — Texas A&M, LSU, and Minnesota fell out of the poll this week — and with the return of Oklahoma to the poll Baylor and TCU each have two top 25 wins. The best win of this group is Baylor over TCU. As I’ll discuss below the non-conference schedule is insubstantial for all of these teams so it has no real impact on this decision. Mississippi State is the only team with a game left against a present top ten opponent while Baylor still has #12 Kansas State the last week of the season. Ohio State will probably get Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, but unfortunately Wisconsin has already lost to LSU, the sixth ranked team in the SEC West. (It’s worth noting that unranked LSU has more top 14 victories, two, than any team in the country.) So that Ohio State win over Wisconsin, if it happens, will be undercut by the fact that the sixth place team in the SEC West also beat them.

(Let me also take a moment to say that I believe the committee should be using the Las Vegas top 25 instead of the actual top 25 to consider wins. Arkansas, for instance, beat top 20 LSU this weekend, but the unranked Razorbacks were favored to win that game. According to Vegas 5-5 Arkansas is a top 25 team. Indeed, the Razorbacks are just two point underdogs to top ten Ole Miss. Arkansas would be favored to beat every ACC team on a neutral field except for FSU, and that game would be tight. Southern Cal just snuck back into the top 25, but they’ve been a Vegas top 25 team all season. If UCLA beats Southern Cal this weekend, USC will fall out of the top 25, but Southern Cal will still be one of the 25 best teams in the country. The Vegas top 25 is more accurate than the actual top 25.)  

Right now the objective rankings of these four teams has to be: 1. Mississippi State 2. Baylor 3. TCU 4. Ohio State and the only possible team you can argue should be ranked above Mississippi State is Baylor.   

That’s why when you consider all the data, 11-1 Mississippi State would be in the playoff.  

2. FSU has no top 25 wins and potentially no Vegas top 25 wins as well.

That’s why I asked an interesting question above, would the committee be willing to acknowledge that there’s no way FSU would be undefeated playing an SEC or Pac 12 schedule and leave them out of the playoff? The Seminoles have been very unimpressive all season long yet they are now the AP number one team. Marshall is also undefeated with no top 25 wins and there’s universal agreement that based on their schedule there’s no way the Thundering Herd should be in the playoff. Interestingly, Marshall would be favored in at least ten of FSU’s 12 games this year too. So it’s not inconceivable at all that the Thundering Herd would also go undefeated against FSU’s schedule. But would 12-0 Marshall playing FSU’s schedule get into the playoff? I doubt it.   

Let me expand the question and ask it to you this way, if Duke were 10-0 and had won every single game the exact same way and by the exact same margin that FSU has, would the Blue Devils be in the playoff in this week’s rankings? No way, right?

So why is FSU getting a pass because they’re a name brand program? Last year should have zero impact on this year. FSU’s team this year is nowhere near as impressive as last year’s team was. In no other sport in the country would we reward a team based on what it did last year. Imagine if NFL fans were advocating that the Seahawks had to make the playoffs this year because they won the Super Bowl last year. That would be laughable, right? Yet people accept that argument in college football, that what happened last year should impact this year’s outcome. That’s even though college football teams often have more player turnover from year to year than top NFL teams do.

All of the off-field attention has actually served to obscure the fact that FSU has not been a very good team on the field this year. Sure, they’ve won, but they remind me of 2012 Notre Dame, another undefeated team that squeaked by inferior competition and then was exposed by Alabama in the BCS title game. If FSU makes the playoff, I think it’s likely that Alabama or Oregon beats them by double digits in the first round of the playoff. 

3. Baylor will pass TCU, maybe even in this week’s committee rankings.

I’m already tired of the “debate” between Baylor and TCU because there’s only one side to the argument — Baylor should be ranked above TCU, period. That was before TCU went out and nearly lost to Kansas. Baylor and TCU played the exact same nine game Big 12 schedule, both of them played an FCS opponent, and both of them played SMU. 

This means that effectively Baylor and TCU played the exact same teams for 11/12ths of their schedule. The only difference? TCU played Minnesota at home in Texas and Baylor played Buffalo on the road in Buffalo. Buffalo is likely to finish 5-7 and Minnesota is likely to finish 7-5. 

In order to slot TCU above Baylor you have to decide that Minnesota at home is so much more difficult of an opponent than Buffalo on the road that it invalidates the head-to-head result between these two teams. 

That’s laughable. 

4. Out of conference schedule is going to be the most overdiscussed element of the playoff this year.

It isn’t going to matter at all, except to hurt teams. Among playoff-contending big five out of conference opponents Ohio State lost to unranked Virginia Tech, TCU beat 7-5 Minnesota, and Baylor and Mississippi State didn’t play any big five conference foes outside of their own conferences. All of this is a wash.

You know who has the best out of conference resume of any top ten team this year? Georgia. The Bulldogs are likely to beat two borderline top 25 opponents from the ACC — Clemson and Georgia Tech — and no one is even going to care a bit because the Bulldogs lost two games in the SEC. Seriously, have you heard anyone mention Georgia’s strong out of conference schedule this year? Of course you haven’t. Because your out of conference schedule doesn’t matter when you lose to South Carolina and Florida. 

The best single out of conference win of the year is Oregon beating Michigan State, but if the Ducks lose to Arizona and then also lose the Pac 12 title game then the Michigan State win won’t matter at all. Indeed, if Oregon never played Michigan State and instead played an FCS school then the Ducks would still get into the playoff at 12-1 even with the loss to Arizona. The Michigan State win doesn’t help Oregon, it only hurts Michigan State.  

My point is simple and a bit counterintuitive — all that matters in the playoff era is going 12-0 or 11-1 in the regular season. For all of the talk about how significant out of conference wins would be, the only real lesson I can see is that you should never play a big five out of conference opponent. Just worry about winning your conference games and schedule guaranteed wins out of conference. Think about where Kansas State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Missouri would all be if they didn’t play a big five out of conference opponent and instead scheduled a guaranteed win. Instead of losing to Auburn, LSU, Virginia Tech, Oregon, and, gag, Indiana, respectively, we’re talking about how good these five teams are. Ohio State would be undefeated, Michigan State’s only loss would be to Ohio State, Wisconsin’s only loss would be to Northwestern, Mizzou’s only loss would be to Georgia and Kansas State’s only loss would be at TCU. All of these teams would still be alive for the playoff. Instead, only Ohio State is still alive. instead of being shut out of the playoff, there’s even an outside shot the Big Ten could be angling for two teams in the playoff. What’s more, none of the five teams that won these games got a substantial benefit from winning big out of conference games either. There’s no such thing as a good out of conference loss. All scheduling one of these games does is eliminate any margin for error in your conference schedule. 

5. Okay, which games could really shake things up from here on out?

This week six of the top seven teams will be twenty point or more favorites and TCU is off. So it’s likely that we’ll enter the final week of the regular season with pretty much the same rankings as we have this week. But if you’re rooting for your team to move up there are several games worth following that could create chaos:

Mississippi State — the game at Ole Miss will be for a spot in the playoff. Win and they’re in, lose and they’re out. This will be around a Vegas pick’em and if you want your team to move up you need to be a massive Rebel fan.

Alabama has Auburn and then the SEC title game against either Missouri or Georgia. Tide fans should want Mizzou because it’s the difference in being around a six point favorite against Georgia or a 16 point favorite against Mizzou. A battered Auburn team appears to have very little left and I expect the Tide to be somewhere around a ten point favorite in the Iron Bowl.   

TCU has a tough game at Texas on Thanksgiving night. I actually give Texas a very good chance to pull off this upset.

Baylor plays Kansas State in Waco on the final Saturday of the Big 12 regular season. The Bears will be around a ten point favorite in this game.  

FSU still has Boston College, Florida, and Duke or Georgia Tech in the ACC title game. The way the Seminoles are playing any of these games could be close. Georgia Tech, in particular, would be a challenge for FSU in the ACC title game. 

Oregon should handle Colorado and Oregon State and will then face one of the Pac 12 South teams, who knows which one, in the conference title game.

Ohio State will play Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

As you can see all seven of these teams could lose between now and the playoff committeeselection. There is still a great deal of uncertainty at play here.  

6. So which teams outside of these seven could make a run at a playoff spot if chaos happens?

I think there are four additional teams with an outside shot at the playoff:

Georgia — the Bulldogs have a final regular season game against Georgia Tech and then, if Mizzou loses one of its final two games, the SEC East champion Bulldogs would face the SEC West champ in the SEC title game. Win out and 11-2 Georgia could find itself in the playoff mix if enough teams above them lose. 

UCLA — I took the Bruins on a 200 to 1 national title flier last week. If UCLA beats USC then the Bruins would be pretty decent favorites against Stanford in the final week of the regular season. A 10-2 UCLA team would win the Pac 12 South and get a chance to erase the regular season loss to Oregon and make a case at 11-2 for a spot in the playoff.

Ole Miss — If Ole Miss beats Arkansas and Mississippi State to finish 10-2 and then Auburn upsets Alabama in the Iron Bowl then the hard luck Rebels would win the SEC West. If a 10-2 Ole Miss team beat the SEC East team in the SEC title game, particularly if it were Georgia, then the 11-2 Rebel resume would look pretty good if there were enough losses above them. 

Arizona — The Wildcats are 8-2 and have top 25 games left against Utah and Arizona State. Win those games to go 10-2 and if UCLA loses Arizona would get a rematch with Oregon in the Pac 12 title game. Could the Wildcats upset the Ducks again? Sure, why not? An 11-2 Pac 12 champ Arizona team would then find itself in the mix for a playoff berth if there were enough losses above them.

I honestly think that’s it. I don’t believe any other teams could make a strong argument for playoff inclusion.

So there are basically eleven teams alive for the playoff right now.

7. Let’s all take a break and watch a Minnesota man eat ice cream in the snow. 

This is just spectacular, the play of the year in the Big Ten. 

8. So who will Florida hire to replace Will Muschamp?

I gave you my list of nine names on Sunday.

Let me add one additional name here — James Franklin at Penn State. I know he’s only been in Happy Valley for a year, but don’t you have to call and inquire if you’re Jeremy Foley? Franklin knows the SEC East and he’s a dynamic recruiter. He’d have top three or four classes every year at Florida and his coaching staff is proven in the league. 

I don’t think Franklin would leave Penn State after a year, but I think you have to make the call. 

9. Todd Gurley’s injury is the latest evidence that age restrictions in football are immoral and anti-capitalistic. 

First, I hope Gurley gets well, but second, he should have never had to return for his junior season if he didn’t want to. Gurley is the second top SEC running back to tear his ACL after he demonstrated he was ready for the NFL but was forced by NFL age restrictions to return to college. Marcus Lattimore’s career is now over without him ever having an NFL carry. Lattimore would have been a first round pick after his freshman season.  

I’m not saying that players have to go pro, I’m saying that it’s immoral, anti-capitalistic, and to me a violation of American anti-trust law to not allow players to go pro without restrictions once they reach 18. If they don’t make it as pros, so what? That’s their risk. Most of these players aren’t getting real educations in college anyway. They’re in college for an attempt to make it pro. 

We don’t demand that Taylor Swift go sing in the Vanderbilt chorus until she’s 21 or insist that Jennifer Lawrence star in “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” at USC, why should we demand that football players stay in school three years? If these age restrictions remain, I think we’re heading towards a player sitting out a season rather than risking injury. I won’t blame the player for doing so either. If I were Jadeveon Clowney, I would have seriously considered sitting. Same with Todd Gurley. It’s not selfish, it’s smart.  

Now some positive news: Melvin Gordon was incredible. 408 yards on just 25 carries? Remember when the black shirts were a feared Nebraska defensive institution. If I’d told you that any running back was ever going to average 16.3 yards per carry on them in a league game, would you have ever believed me? 

10. Tennessee should be the favorite to win the SEC East next year.

Josh Dobbs is simply incredible. I can’t remember seeing a mid-season replacement ever make this much difference for a football team. Dobbs took over a putrid Tennessee offense that looked incapable of scoring against anyone and has been extraordinary against Alabama, South Carolina, and Kentucky. Dobbs has posted 11 touchdowns and in less than three full games of action he’s averaging right at 360 total offensive yards a game. In the game against Kentucky it looked like the late 1990’s all over again. It was no contest. (Kentucky fans had been talking football trash for months and since the first quarter of that game I haven’t heard a word from any of them.)  

If Tennessee beats Mizzou and then Vandy the Vols will finish 4-4 in the SEC and will have come within four points of winning the SEC East — a three point loss at Georgia would decide the division.

When you look at the rest of the division, Tennessee has to be the favorite to win the east next year. Georgia and South Carolina will have new quarterbacks and have to travel to Knoxville. Kentucky and Vandy will still be Kentucky and Vandy. Florida will be breaking in a new coach and Mizzou will be good, but not great. The Vols will have a third straight top five-ish recruiting class under Butch Jones and should be much better next year than this year. How good can Dobbs be with an entire offseason to work and the knowledge that this is his football team to lead?

I would have never believed I would say this when the Vols were down 27-0 to Alabama, but Tennessee should be the favorite to win the SEC East next year. It’s all because of quarterback Josh Dobbs, the man so fast he’s out run his eyebrows.  

11. Here are the SEC power rankings.

1. Alabama

2. Mississippi State

3. Georgia

4. Ole Miss

5. Auburn

6. Mizzou

7. Texas A&M

8. LSU

9. Tennessee

10. Arkansas

11. South Carolina

12. Florida

13. Kentucky

14. Vandy

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.