How will Memphis fit with the Playoff committee?

October 28th, 2015

Regardless of what happens from here on out, anyone who closely follows the machinations of the College Football Playoff selection committee owes a debt of gratitude to Memphis.

When the committee convenes this coming weekend and prepares to reveal its first 25-team ranking of the 2015 season, its treatment of Memphis will offer a valuable window in to the process that never came up last season: How do committee members evaluate an unbeaten team from outside the Power Five conferences with quality wins on its résumé?

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the Tigers are No. 16 this week in the Amway Coaches Poll and are 30-point favorites this weekend to beat 2-5 Tulane at home. Barring the biggest upset in college football this season, Memphis will be 8-0 heading into the first official CFP ranking that will be released on Nov. 3.

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This will be new territory for the selection committee.

Last year, Marshall was unbeaten when the first ranking came out but had not played anyone from the Power Five conferences and had one of the weakest schedules in the Football Bowl Subdivision. East Carolina at 6-1 cracked the first ranking last season as No. 23, but there were no teams from the “Group of Five” conferences in the second, third and fourth rankings. Marshall reached 11-0 before finally getting ranked 24th by the committee on Nov. 14, but was one place behind 9-2 Boise State.

Ultimately, where the committee placed those teams was irrelevant to the larger Playoff process. Marshall was never going to have the schedule strength to be ranked very high coming out of Conference USA, and the only question was whether an undefeated record would be enough to snag the highly coveted New Year’s Six bowl bid that goes goes to the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion (Marshall took care of that discussion for the committee by losing to Western Kentucky on Nov. 28 of last season).

The situation with Memphis is much different at the moment. The Tigers own one of the most valuable and potentially landscape-defining wins of the season, beating Ole Miss 37-24 on Oct. 17. That’s the same Ole Miss team that delivered Alabama its only loss thus far, winning in Tuscaloosa back in Week 3. And the nature of Memphis’ performance was such that the committee could not reasonably eye-test it as some sort of fluke. It was a pretty thorough domination.
USP NCAA FOOTBALL: MEMPHIS AT TULSA S FBC USA OK

Memphis players have had a lot to celebrate in 2015, but they need to keep winning.(Photo: Rob Ferguson, USA TODAY Sports)

And when you juxtapose that against some teams that have played some fairly weak schedules so far (TCU and Baylor, for instance, are yet to face a ranked team), where the committee slots Memphis next week will be pretty revealing.

Ever since the Playoff process was hammered out, the working theory has been that it’s even harder now for a team from outside the power conferences to crash the Playoff than it would have been in the BCS because of the committee’s emphasis on strength of schedule. Though it never happened, there were a couple seasons in the BCS era when one or two results going a different way could have resulted in an undefeated Boise State or TCU (then in the Mountain West) getting high enough in the polls to crash the championship game.

What nobody could foresee was the potential for a non-Power Five team playing a representative schedule and how that might disrupt the process. And as we sit here today, Memphis has not played a vastly different schedule than many of the teams the committee will be talking about.

Jeff Sagarin’s strength of schedule metric has Memphis at 71, Ohio State at 70, Oklahoma State at 79. ESPN’s Strength of Record, a metric that measures the record against schedule difficulty, has Memphis at No. 8. If you were to rank the 12 unbeaten teams remaining in the Football Bowl Subdivision by their best win, Memphis would probably slot behind only Clemson (which beat Notre Dame), Michigan State (which won at Michigan) and LSU (which beat Florida).

Obviously this could all be deemed irrelevant at the end. Memphis could lose a game in the surprisingly stout American Athletic Conference. Ole Miss could lose several more times, devaluing the Tigers’ win against the Rebels. The committee might get lucky and have a controversy-free Playoff selection process with an unbeaten Clemson, an unbeaten LSU, an unbeaten Ohio State and an unbeaten TCU or Baylor.

But purely as an academic exercise — which is really all the committee represents until the final rankings — its treatment of Memphis next Tuesday night will tell us a lot about whether the committee cares more about results and data or if it ranks purely on conference affiliation.

Courtesy of: USA Today

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