It's Not Over Yet: What the Past Three Novembers Have Taught Us About the Playoff Rankings

By Nick Polak on October 31, 2017 at 7:30 am
December 31, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; General view of the College Football Playoff championship trophy during the game between the Clemson Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes at University of Phoenix Stadium.
© Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
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With the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season set to drop on Tuesday, the narrative following Penn State's painful loss to Ohio State was that the Nittany Lions chances playoff chances had been dealt a major hit. And to be clear, that narrative is not incorrect.

But before we decide to dismiss the possibility of the playoff altogether (looking at y'all), let's review the situation.

  • Penn State has a straightforward path to an 11-1 regular season finish, with the toughest remaining test being a Michigan State who just lost in triple overtime to a Northwestern team that Penn State pummeled
  • Should they do that, their only blemish will be a one-point loss to a probable top-5 team
  • Even after the loss, the Lions are likely to be ranked around No. 7 or No. 8

Keeping those facts in mind, let's take a quick look at how weeks 9-14 of the regular season have played out over the past three years of the College Football Playoff era.


2014

  No. 1 No. 2 No. 3 No. 4
Initial Rankings (Final Rank) Mississippi State (7) Florida State (3) Auburn (19) Ole Miss (9)
Final Rankings (Starting Rank) Alabama (6) Oregon (5) Florida State (2) Ohio State (16)

Post-Playoff Ranking Losses by Top-10 Teams: 12

Post-Playoff Ranking Losses by Top-5 Teams: 3

2015

  No. 1 No. 2 No. 3 No. 4
Initial Rankings (Final Rank) Clemson (1) LSU (20) Ohio State (7) Alabama (2)
Final Rankings (Starting Rank) Clemson (1) Alabama (4) Michigan State (7) Oklahoma (15)

Post-Playoff Ranking Losses by Top-10 Teams: 13

Post-Playoff Ranking Losses by Top-5 Teams: 6

2016

  No. 1 No. 2 No. 3 No. 4
Initial Rankings (Final Rank) Alabama (1) Clemson (2) Michigan (6) Texas A&M (NR)
Final Rankings (Starting Rank) Alabama (1) Clemson (2) Ohio State (6) Washington (5)

Post-Playoff Ranking Losses by Top-10 Teams: 11

Post-Playoff Ranking Losses by Top-5 Teams: 5


Observations

Of the 12 teams to be ranked as top-four teams in the initial rankings, only five of them ended up making the playoff. The teams that eventually replaced them in the top group have come from as far down in the ranks as No. 16 (Ohio State in 2014) but typically start in the 5-8 range. No more than two of the initial top-four in any one year made it to the final four.

Every year of the playoff era has seen at least 11 top-ten teams and at least three top-five teams lose over the final stretch. Everyone knows that November is as chaotic a time there is for college football, but the amount of bloodshed among the top-ranked teams in the country during critical stretches of football is pretty shocking.

To be fair, some of these losses were to fellow top-25, and in some cases, fellow top-ten opponents. But the point remains. No one is safe after Halloween, and there's no reason to believe that this won't hold true in 2017, as well.

Of the 12 teams to make the playoffs, only one was NOT a conference champion. Of course, those would be the 2016 Ohio State Buckeyes. The committee chose them over conference champion, two-loss Penn State. And while that sucked for the Nittany Lion last year, now there is at least a precedent for it now that could help them out this year.

Of all the teams ranked inside the top-ten in the initial rankings each year, only 8 of the 30 went undefeated the rest of the way. This was pointed out to me by @PHook4000 on Twitter, and it's a very interesting point. Of those eight teams, only one of them did not make the playoff (TCU in 2014). Now, most of those teams also played for and won their conference title games, but the added perception surrounding the teams finishing in such strong manners is certainly a factor to consider.


What does all of this mean for Penn State?

It means that this is far from over. They absolutely still need help, but this is far, far from settled. Aside from Alabama's dominance, college football isn't predictable. Just think back to this time last year. How many people honestly thought that No. 2 Michigan would get beaten at their own game by Iowa? Who foresaw Pitt putting up 43 points on the vaunted defense of No. 3 Clemson? Which projection system had Houston blowing out No. 3 Louisville?

As solid as the current top five or six teams look right now is as unbeatable as 2014 Mississippi State looked. As primed to knock off Bama as 2015 LSU was. As ready to prove their doubters wrong as 2016 Texas A&M seemed to be.

And as far as the current top teams go, there are still plenty of challenges ahead. Ohio State is set to travel to Iowa City and host Michigan State, as well as face Wisconsin in a possible Big Ten championship game. Georgia still has to play Auburn as well as a presumed SEC title clash with Alabama. Notre Dame has Stanford, Miami, and an always-pesky Navy on the schedule. Clemson has to face Florida State, NC State, and rival South Carolina.

Penn State doesn't have any chances at marquee wins left on the board unless they sneak their way to a Big Ten East title, but their resume, single-point loss, and star power will keep them around as a contender. As long as the they can continue winning the games they're supposed to win and avoid the exact kind of upset that is proven to be common among college football's elite this time of year, they will be comfortably within striking distance of a playoff spot when that chaos comes.

And if the past three years are any indication, that chaos will come. It's not over.

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