For much of this week, the question in college football (other than “did Tennessee take lessons in stability from the Italian government?”) has been “what happens if Ohio State beats Wisconsin?”
Assuming that Oklahoma beats TCU (and the Sooners are a 7.5-point favorite, although SP+ projects a closer game), an Ohio State victory would mean a debate between Alabama and Ohio State for the last College Football Playoff spot. Two of the three dominant programs of the young Playoff era, coached by the two best coaches in college football, would be fighting for the fourth and final bid. One team would have a better record and less baggage in the loss column; the other would have a conference title and better wins.
If Alabama or Ohio State makes the playoff, that team could become the favorite. They are the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country according to SP+. They are No. 1 and No. 3 according to the Sagarin Predictor, with No. 2 Penn State out of the running. This is not college basketball, where the last weekend before the tournament is spent debating which 18-12 team should make the Big Dance to become cannon fodder. The Alabama-Ohio State argument would be important, because either team would have a very good chance of winning the title.
As Bill Connelly has pointed out repeatedly (including in the link above), this has been a year without a dominant team, especially compared to 2016:
At this point in the 2016 season, six teams had an SP+ rating of plus-22.3 or higher (meaning they were measured as 22.3 points or better than the average FBS team), including all four eventual College Football Playoff participants. Louisville was No. 7 at plus-21.4.
Your current No. 1 team for 2017, Ohio State, would have ranked eighth at plus-21.3. Wisconsin is almost literally the same team this year (plus-18.6) as last year (plus-19.2), only the Badgers were 10th in 2016. They’re third this time around.
In this respect, 2017 is like 2007, 1990, and 1984, the three wildest seasons in college football history. Those seasons also lacked a dominant team:
- 1984 came when Miami, Penn State, and Oklahoma were dominant, but thanks to some well-timed upsets and a favorable schedule, BYU came out with the crown. By SRS, the Cougars were the weakest national champion since 1980 by a healthy margin.
- 1990 came when Miami, Florida State, and Notre Dame were the top teams in college football. All three suffered shocking losses in 1990, opening the door for Georgia Tech to win its first national title since 1952 and Colorado to share the title, its only title in school history.
- 2007 was nuts in every way, finishing with the first two-loss national champion of the modern era, an LSU that contrived to lose to Kentucky and Arkansas. USC, Florida, and Texas were the best programs at the time, but none of them were around when the dust settled.
BYU, Colorado, Georgia Tech, and a team coached by Les Miles: those are the types of teams that should win chaos seasons. Or, as Commodus put it in Gladiator, “Striking story. Now, the people want know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do.”
Thematically speaking, Gladiator could not end with Commodus defeating Maximus, and a wild 2017 cannot end with Nick Saban or Urban Meyer winning the national title.
Between 2009 and 2016, Alabama’s teams posted SP+ ratings in a range between 22.2 (2013) and 34 (2016). The 2017 Tide are at 20.2, which means that they could be a two-point underdog to the Tide that got thrashed in the Sugar Bowl by Oklahoma and an 11.8 underdog to the 2016 Bama team with the epic defensive front.
Ohio State’s period of dominance is shorter, but the point remains the same. The 2014 team posted a remarkable 30.2 SP+ rating. The Buckeyes followed that with a 24.0 rating in 2015 and a 24.6 rating last year. This year’s team checks in at 21.3, which means that the 2017 Buckeyes would be a field-goal underdog to the last two Ohio State teams and a 9-point underdog to the 2014 national champions.
Alabama and Ohio State should win championships when they put great teams on the field. We do not want to look back on 2017 and say, “Yeah, that version of the Tide/Bucks was markedly weaker than the versions that came before, but they won a title anyway.” Meyer and Saban should not add to their nine combined national titles with B- teams (relative to their high standards).
This line of reasoning also applies to other contenders, all of whom already have titles in the 2000s:
- Oklahoma sits at 16.3. Baker Mayfield is fun, but that wretched defense is ranked No. 100 in defensive SP+. This Oklahoma team would’ve likely lost to plenty of Sooners teams since 2005, a team so unusually flawed that it managed to produce a game in which Adrian Peterson ran for -4 yards against Kansas.
- Auburn’s 16.9 rating is a field goal worse than the 2013 team and a touchdown worse than 2010 and 2014. Auburn is a hot team right now, but over the course of an entire season, Gus Malzahn has produced better editions. (Still, a two-loss team of Tigers from the SEC West winning 10 years after 2007 would be poetic.)
- Clemson’s 15.5 rating is significantly worse than 2016’s 26.9 or 2015’s 26.8. It’s almost the same as that of the 2014 team, which started the season with Cole Stoudt at quarterback and lost on its two trips to Georgia by a combined 46 points.
- USC is likely out, but this is obviously far from the most worthy Trojans team of this millennium anyway.
Wisconsin is the first candidate. The Badgers have an SP+ rating of 18.6. If they finish the season there, this would be Wisconsin’s best rating since 1912, better than any of the Barry Alvarez or Bret Bielema Rose Bowl teams. That 1912 team, coached by the itinerant William Juneau, won the Western Conference and did not allow more than 12 points in a game. This year’s team has allowed only one opponent to score more than 17 by riding its traditional formula of in-state walk-ons and program continuity to great success. Wisconsin has never claimed a national title, so for this season to end like 1984 or 1990, the Badgers would be the ideal champion.
Georgia is another team to consider. The Dawgs have an SP+ rating of 18.0, which puts them in the range of their best recent teams. By SRS, this is the best Georgia team since 1981, and it’s one of Uga’s whiskers away from being the best since 1971. A Georgia national title in 2017 would fit with the theme of chaos seasons producing unlikely champions (the Dawgs haven’t won a national title in 37 years), and it would represent the stroke of good fortune that eluded Mark Richt when he produced top teams.
If the favorites prevail, then neither will get a shot at the national championship, and we’ll get a champion that is a step below some of its recent predecessors. In a season without dominant teams, it would only be appropriate for the Dawgs and Badgers to pull off a pair of upsets and then meet in Atlanta.
Miami is a strange case. On the one hand, the Canes’ 12.4 SP+ rating is almost 4 points worse than the 2016 team that went 9-4. On the other hand, SRS likes this Canes team more than any other since 2004. In a strange season, why not anoint the team that almost lost to North Carolina and did lose to Pitt, but also blew out Virginia Tech and Notre Dame? And given that it took Miami 13 years to make an ACC title game, there would be some topsy turvy novelty to a Miami national title in 2017. Your mileage may vary.
TCU is probably out of the race, but has one of its four best teams since the 1950s and the second best of its brief Power 5 era. The Horned Frogs haven’t been able to claim a national title since 1938, so TCU sneaking into the field would be fun and also appropriate vengeance for the 2009 and 2010 teams not having a shot for the temerity of playing in the Mountain West.