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What Happens If Alabama Loses? Some Surprising Data May Hold the Key

by on November 29, 2018 5:00 AM

Let’s start with a premise some media members have already advanced: Alabama is a lock for the College Football Playoff even if they lose to Georgia on Saturday night. In their opinion, the perception of SEC strength is such that Alabama as a one-loss SEC runner-up should still get into the playoff over other one-loss conference champs.

But in researching some data, a funny thing happened on the way to the blind acceptance of the SEC strength of schedule as fact. A cornerstone of the SEC’s perceived strength is the large number of ranked teams in the league as opposed to the Big Ten and Big 12. The SEC teams’ win-loss records for eight ranked teams this week are helped because they play just eight conference games and schedule lower-division FCS teams to add a win to the ledger.

If Big Ten or Big 12 teams played eight conference games instead of nine they too would have more ranked teams. If Iowa and Wisconsin did not have cross-division games against Penn State and instead played an FCS game as SEC teams do, they too could be 9-3 and 8-4 and ranked like Mississippi State or Texas A&M. If Michigan State played Chattanooga instead of a crossover game against Northwestern they’d likely be 8-4 and ranked as well.

And let’s not forget the Pac 12 also plays nine conference games. If Washington State played a creampuff game rather than an extra crossover game against USC, they’d be 11-1 and playing for the conference championship.

So let’s look at the strength of schedule for the teams, assuming the premise that both Ohio State and Oklahoma win but Alabama loses. In no way am I suggesting that any of those are givens. Ohio State faces Northwestern, which boasts a league-best 15-1 record in their last 16 Big Ten games, and Oklahoma plays Texas – a team the Sooners lost to on a neutral field this year.

But use this premise: Ohio State, Clemson, UCF and Oklahoma win and Alabama loses, likely putting Notre Dame (12-0), ACC champion Clemson (13-0) and SEC champion Georgia (12-1) in the playoff. For the final slot, Big Ten Champion Ohio State (12-1), Big 12 Champion Oklahoma (12-1), SEC runner-up Alabama (12-1) and AAC champion UCF (12-0) would be your pool.

On the surface the composite record of Alabama’s opponents including Georgia is 86-70, but upon closer look Alabama’s opponents played 23 games against FCS opponents and just 94 games against Power 5 teams — compiling a 37-57 record. That means Alabama’s opponents averaged fewer than three wins over Power 5 teams with a win percentage of 39.3 percent.

What about Oklahoma? The Sooners’ opponents have a 72-70 record but they too played a lot of FCS games (12). Still, the OU schedule comes up better than Alabama’s because they play in a nine-conference game Power 5 league. While Alabama opponents played 94 Power 5 games, OU opponents played 114, going 51-63 for a 44.7 percent win rate.

And by the time Saturday night is over, Ohio State’s schedule will feature 12 of 13 games against Power 5 teams. While those teams had a 75-81 record, Ohio State opponents played just four FCS games and a whopping 123 games against Power 5 teams for a 52-71 record with a 42.3 percent winning rate.

As for UCF, their opponents are 70-72 overall but played just 23 Power 5 games going 11-12.

What it breaks down to is this: UCF’s opponents have averaged one win against Power 5 teams this year, Alabama’s averaged 2.8, Oklahoma’s averaged 3.9 and Ohio State’s 4.0. That is a notable disparity. (Quick methodology note: teams playing rematches in a conference championship game had their opponent’s record and wins counted twice).

Now let’s go to a second scenario that assumes Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and UCF win. So who is the No. 1 seed?

If the seeding is weighted on schedule strength then, surprisingly, Notre Dame makes a strong case. Their opponents have a 75-67 record, but where the Irish schedule stands out is in their opponent’s Power 5 record. In the 100 games against Power 5 teams, Notre Dame’s 12 opponents have tallied a 50-50 record. Clemson’s have a 46-58 record, a 44.2 percent win rate.

Some in the SEC media are already making their case for Alabama should the Tide lose Saturday night. They pound that message home so that by the time the committee meets this weekend they will have heard the refrain over and over again and normalized that to factual equivalence.

If Alabama wins, and Texas or Northwestern pull the upset, there will be little intrigue and the committee can wrap up their meeting in about half an hour.

But if Alabama is the team to get upset… the committee is not a sequestered jury instructed to avoid all media about the case. These are human beings susceptible to perceptions of conventional wisdom. Hopefully they will look at all factors and come to the decision by focusing on fact-based evidence based solely on performance this year.

State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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