In the age of the College Football Playoff, the selection committee’s decision on the top 4 teams to play in the semifinals is a constant source of controversy. Talking heads begin as early as Week 4 in trying to predict who will be a playoff team. As long as there is only a 4 team playoff and it is basically a double elimination tournament, college football pundits and fans alike will spend the season speculating who will still be at the top come selection Sunday.
The 2018 season has seen the first serious discussion about how to treat independents when comparing to teams in the Power 5 conferences. While Notre Dame was ranked in the top 4 one week in 2016 and twice in 2017, this season was the first time the Irish have gone undefeated in the CFP era. The pundits typically question whether the Notre Dame schedule, whose historically strong opponents seemed to all have down years, had a sufficiently hard schedule to be considered for the playoff. Tim Tebow has doubts about Notre Dame’s strength of schedule.
How should we think about a 12-0 Notre Dame this year? Is the 2018 Notre Dame a playoff caliber team? The eye tests of sports pundits say no. What does the data say about the 2018 Fighting Irish compared to the previous 16 College Football Playoff teams? Let’s see which former College Football Playoff teams Notre Dame has beat in each category shown by their logos.
13 of 16 previous CFP teams won their conference championship. This seems to be strong evidence that it is a requirement. What might work against that is the 2015 Oklahoma Sooners didn’t win their conference championship because the Big 12 didn’t have a conference championship. This was the last year the Big 12 didn’t have a conference championship because of how the committee treated 11-1 TCU and Baylor teams by dropping them out of the CFP in favor of conference champions.
Maybe even more importantly than the 2015 Oklahoma Sooners who didn’t have a championship game to play in, 2016 Ohio State Buckeyes and 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide didn’t even make it into their conference championships. In 2016, Ohio State was picked over a 2 loss Big 10 champ Penn State Nittany Lions. In 2017, Alabama was picked alongside the SEC champ Georgia Bulldogs.
Maybe a final word on conference championships. The conference championships almost always have a ranked opponent and bowl eligible teams, and by definition a Power 5 FBS team. Notre Dame, without a conference championship, is comparable to the 13 previous CFP teams with conference championships including this game and would be more favorable without it.
Summary: because 3 previous teams failed to even play in a conference championship game this seems to be in Notre Dame’s favor.
Wins Over Ranked Opponents
The average number of wins over ranked opponents is 4.2. Notre Dame beat 3. Notre Dame is a little below the average but certainly not the lowest ever, this number is higher than 60% of the 16 previous CFP teams.
Summary: not the strongest piece of evidence for Notre Dame. They are within the normal range but nothing spectacular.
Number of games against FBS opponents
Since each conference has their own number of conference games and FCS games, this will vary between conferences. The average is 10.4 games and Notre Dame played 10 which is roughly on the average. Comparing this against even the SEC, considered the toughest conference, the SEC plays an 8 game conference schedule with an out of conference Power 5 opponent. Most seasons, SEC teams will play 3 FCS teams. These teams are paid millions of dollars to get beaten brutally by SEC teams. So even a SEC team must play in the SEC championship to catch Notre Dame’s 10 FBS games per season.
Summary: one of the strongest statistics in Notre Dame’s favor. Most conferences only play an 8 game schedule and need a conference championship game to catch up to Notre Dame’s normal season.
What do the computers say?
The S&P+ and Sagarin ratings are computer models which rank football teams which are influential on commentators and even the selection committee takes into account. S&P+ ranks Notre Dame at at 6 with an average of 5.2 for CFP teams. Sagarin has Notre Dame at 7 with the average CFP team at 4.7 Both of these are within the normal range of themodels. 2014 Florida State, 2015 Michigan State, 2016 Washington and 2017 Oklahoma were ranked lower than Notre Dame in the S&P+. Sagarin had Florida State and Michigan State both below Notre Dame’s rank. So Notre Dame isn’t the lowest in either and is pretty much in the middle of both averages.
Summary: fairly even piece of data for Notre Dame’s strength of schedule argument.
Average Number of Bowl Eligible Opponents
Notre Dame played 8 teams going to Bowl games this year with the average number for CFP teams at 8.9. The last 2 National Championship teams, 2017 Alabama and 2016 Clemson both only played 8 Bowl eligible teams. 2015 Clemson who went to the National Championship only won 7. Oregon and Washington only beat 6 bowl eligible teams and they had to go to conference championships to get to 6.
Summary: strong piece of data for Notre Dame. Playing a schedule filled with winning teams is a good differentiator to look for teams that are preying on a weak run or on average winning opponents.
Comparing Notre Dame to the 16 previous College Football Playoff teams, we see in all the metrics they are within the normal range although not at the top of most. But maybe we need to find a metric that explains why the Committee would select Notre Dame that shows they are like the previous 16 teams. And if they are like the previous teams, are they better than this year’s close teams like Oklahoma, Ohio State and Georgia? Maybe instead of looking only at the wins they had, we should look at the losses.
When looking at all of the teams in the previous playoffs, the average point deficit in a loss is 6.4. The worst loss ever for an eventual CFP team was last year’s Georgia Bulldogs getting run over by Auburn. But like with Oklahoma this year, Georgia thoroughly beat Auburn in the SEC title game. Only 4 teams had double digit losses. Notre Dame never lost so is in the rare company of 2014 Florida State, 2015 Clemson and 2016 Alabama. Oklahoma lost by 3 to #15 Texas in a neutral site. Georgia would lose 36-16 at #11 LSU and by 7 to #1 Alabama in the SEC title game. Ohio State lost at West Lafayette by 29 to an unranked Purdue who would finish 6-6. By this metric Oklahoma and Notre Dame are within the range of previous CFP teams because Notre Dame went undefeated and Oklahoma had only 1 loss in a 1 score game.
Win Your Clunkers
Maybe a better final metric would be a combined statistic for point deficit in a loss, total losses and a penalty for losing to an unranked team. I call this the Clunker Coefficient, add all the point deficits in losses and multiply them by the number of losses adding an extra loss for each unranked team.
Clunker Coefficient = Total Losses Point Difference X Number of Games Lost
Example: Ohio State 2017
Losses: 15 points to a ranked Oklahoma and 30 points to unranked Iowa State
Total Losses Point Difference: 15 + 30 = 45
Number of Games Lost: 2 Games Lost + 1 penalty for unranked loss = 3
Clunker Coefficient: 45 X 3 = 135
|2018 Team||Loss Point Difference||Games Lost||Clunker Coefficient|
|Georgia||20 + 7 =27||2||54|
|Ohio State||29||1 + 1 (unranked penalty) = 2||58|
So this year Notre Dame would be 0, Oklahoma would be 3, Georgia would be 54 and Ohio State would be 58. It always takes into account whether a team is ranked and how big the loss is. We know the committee is sensitive to big losses with its history on the Ohio State massive losses. We know it has yet to allow a 2 loss team. The Clunker Coefficient is a single score metric that measures the penalty for different loss totals, loss scores and loss opponent ranks.
It is hard to win week in and week out. It is hard to beat good teams week in and week out. It seems also really hard for even elite teams to avoid a trap game. So the Clunker Coefficient gives a single numeric score that reflects the teams ability to avoid losing, losing bad and losing to clunkers. The average Clunker Coefficient for CFP teams is 8.5. Comparing that to this year’s 4 CFP teams with scores of 0, 0, 0 and 3 they seem appropriate. Compared to 54 for Georgia and 58 for Ohio State we can see they are far past the average and past the historical worst score of 28 for Ohio State’s 2015 loss to an unranked Virginia Tech.
So what you’re saying is UCF should be in?
Looking at all of the preliminary metrics would indicate that while Notre Dame’s 2018 performance is largely consistent with the previous College Football Playoff teams, UCF is not. While UCF did play 11 FBS teams, it played only 1 Power 5 team while all other CFP teams played at least 9. It beat no ranked teams and only 6 Bowl eligible teams compared to 8.8 average. While ranking models place UCF high in the overall rating their models are based on UCF’s ability to beat its historic opponents, not Power 5 opponents. As undefeated “defending National Champions”, the Clunker Coefficient would need a penalty for non-Power schools. Michigan was 60 on Clunker Coefficient and Washington was 66 so we can estimate this year’s Clunker Coefficient non-Power penalty at 63. A best fit penalty for non-Power schools can be a future project for a broader ranking tool.
So given all of the standard metrics, the 2018 Notre Dame is strong compared to the 16 team field of previous CFP semifinalists. Knowing that all of our normal metrics lead us to believe Notre Dame should be a CFP finalist, why is it that pundits and fans hesitate to put them in the playoff? Some of it could be Notre Dame’s polarizing position as an independent considered to be a Power 5 team. Possibly there is a lingering bias against what some might think is an team past its prime but still trading on old wins. Probably the main question is will Notre Dame get smoked again like the 2012 BCS Championship game. First, a playoff is a strong precaution against any team sneaking into the National Championship. Lucky teams are unlikely to be lucky when playing Alabama, Clemson or Oklahoma. So maybe the best way to understand if a seemingly lucky Notre Dame is really sneaking in compared to a couple teams who look to be playoff caliber but have a loss or two is the Clunker Coefficient. It puts Oklahoma and historical CFP teams very close to Notre Dame in 2018. The Clunker Coefficient does a great job in magnifying the difference between 0, 1 and 2 loss teams to see if our intuition that they might be in the same group as undefeateds is correct.
The title of this article is a nod to the SBNation podcast with a similar name, Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody.