Tuesday will bring the 2021 season’s first edition of the weekly College Football Playoff rankings, a brilliant piece of sports entertainment ex nihilo from ESPN.
The weekly iterations of the rankings mean nothing. The people who contribute to them explicitly say they start over each week, so what you saw the week before purportedly has no relationship to how the teams are ordered the next. The only edition that matters won’t be unveiled until the regular season is over and done.
Nevertheless, Tuesday’s release will still prompt endless speculation about what it all means. And because teams will have numbers next to their names, some fans will start playing the “disrespect” card. Fans of the Oklahoma Sooners will probably be doing some of the loudest pissing and moaning.
According to data analysts Dave Bartoo and Adam McClintock, the Sooners will check in at eight in the first edition of the rankings. Bartoo and McClintock collaborate on a proprietary model that has a strong track record of accurately predicting the weekly CFP rankings. Since the advent of the postseason tournament in 2014, their average miss in the top 25 teams is just 0.9 spots through all 49 sets of rankings. (The projections are available through McClintock’s Patreon page.)
Bartoo and McClintock maintain that common talking points about the rankings among the punditry like the so-called eye test and “strength of record” are bunk. Instead, the members of the CFP selection committee adhere to a consistent set of criteria for evaluating teams. Key factors include metrics such as wins and losses along with a handful of less obvious measures like “quality wins” and “game control.” As such, the results don’t really change, even if the narratives spun by the committee spokespersons do.
Despite OU’s 9-0 record, its body of work to this point in the season doesn’t compare favorably to other highly ranked contenders. A few examples of areas where the Sooners currently fall short:
Strength of schedule
OU has played a pitiful schedule to date, based on the committee’s admittedly bizarre measure of schedule strength. The metric essentially combines the records of teams’ opponents and their opponents’ opponents. OU’s SOS ranks 119th overall. That makes sense considering the Sooners have faced the likes of Tulane (1-7), Kansas (1-7) and a poor FCS team in Western Carolina (2-6).
It’s difficult to put this metric in context, but it theoretically reflects dominance over opponents. Guess what? OU’s number, 18.7, stinks. That happens when a team habitually lets the teams on the other sideline hang around.
Quality wins and top 25 wins
Again, OU can’t offer much to brag about when it comes to either of these metrics. Quality wins cover victories over teams with overall records better than .500. The Sooners have two: Texas Tech (5-4) and Kansas State (5-3). Meanwhile, if we use last week’s AP Top 25 as a proxy for the committee’s top 25, OU has yet to accrue one win in this category.
Note that Georgia, the model’s clear-cut No. 1 team, boasts five quality wins and two top 25 wins.
On the flip side, starting eighth is far from a death sentence for OU’s CFP hopes. The Sooners still have the most important number on their side: zero. Keep winning and OU will have no trouble finishing in the top four.
Keep in mind:
Some teams in front of OU will lose
Michigan State and Ohio State will probably come in ahead of the Sooners on Tuesday. They play in a couple weeks, meaning the Buckeyes will pick up a second loss or the Spartans will notch their first. Either way, only one of them will get a chance to play for the Big Ten championship, so the other will get knocked out of the mix.
Georgia and Alabama presents a similar situation. Assuming they meet in the SEC title game, the Crimson Tide may pick up a second loss, which would likely eliminate them from consideration. If Bama beats the Bulldogs, Georgia could offer a decent argument for inclusion, but that probably won’t come at the expense of excluding an undefeated OU team.
OU has meat left on the bone.
Between Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma State, the Sooners have an opportunity to collect two top 25 wins and three quality wins before the end of the regular season. Additionally, making the Big 12 championship game gives OU a shot at another quality and top 25 win.
Then there’s the bump that typically comes from a conference championship. So don’t trip when OU’s name is called on Tuesday night. If the Sooners win out, they will make the final four comfortably.