While there is no doubt that Houston deserves the accolades it’s garnered for upsetting No. 3 Oklahoma, is the Cougars’ 2016 schedule seriously worthy of a Playoff slot?
In ESPN’s Heather Dinich’s opinion, “If the Cougars go undefeated, there’s no question the selection committee would seriously consider them for the top four.”
Let’s say, for instance, that Alabama wins the SEC by running the tables and Florida State topples Clemson and breezes through the rest of its ACC slate and bests Florida. Then, Michigan beats Ohio State and wins the Big Ten and Stanford captures the Pac-12, but suffers losses to Washington and Notre Dame. Over in the Big 12, Oklahoma roars back after its Week 1 loss and strings together 11 consecutive wins to finish 11-1.
Alabama, Florida State and Michigan are in. Stanford is out. The final slot comes down to the one-loss Sooners and Houston, which also runs the table and posts a 13-0 mark after beating Cincinnati in the American Athletic title game.
Who gets the nod?
The committee has been clear about the criteria it will use to make its decision—“Championships won. Strength of schedule. Head-to-head competition. Comparative outcomes of common opponents.”
So, the Cougars get one point for beating Oklahoma straight-up. Both get a point for winning a conference crown. Since the two programs don’t share any common opponents this season, it will come down to strength of schedule.
Take a look.
HOUSTON – (14) Oklahoma (at NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas), Lamar, at Cincinnati, at Texas State, UConn, at Navy, Tulsa, at SMU, UCF, Tulane, (13) Louisville, and at Memphis.
OKLAHOMA – (6) Houston (at NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas), ULM, (4) Ohio State, at (15) TCU, (11) Texas, Kansas State, at Texas Tech, Kansas, at Iowa State, (23) Baylor, at West Virginia, and (22) Oklahoma State.
|Power Five Opponents||2||10|
|Group of Five Opponents||9||2|
|Winning Opponents from 2015||5||7|
|Combined Winning % in 2015||47.3%||56.5%|
|Ranked as of Week 2, 2016||2||6|
Oklahoma’s schedule isn’t just marginally more difficult than Houston’s, it’s overwhelmingly so.
First, the Sooners will play five times, think about that, five times more Power opponents than will the Cougars. If both teams are playing at the same level, it means, theoretically, that Oklahoma has a five times greater chance of losing in 10 of the 12 weeks than does Houston.
The Sooners earn another difficulty point by not playing an FCS school. This while Houston squares off with the Lamar Cardinals, a program that’s only posted a winning record once in the last 16 tries.
As far as performance last season, Oklahoma’s combined slate went 87-67 including double-digit finishes by Ohio State (12-1), TCU (11-2), Baylor (10-3), Oklahoma State (10-3) and yes, the Cougars (13-1). Houston’s opponents went 71-79 with only Oklahoma (11-2) and Navy (11-2) finishing with ten wins or better.
Other than the Sooners, the only other currently ranked team that the Cougars will face this season is Louisville at No. 13 in the latest AP poll. That game doesn’t happen until Nov. 17, after the Cardinals host No. 3 Florida State and travel to No. 2 Clemson. It’s reasonable to assume that unless Louisville is a Top 5 team in hiding, it will move down in, if not out of, the rankings before making the trek to Houston.
As of now, the Sooners will face five additional ranked teams including No. 4 Ohio State and No. 11 Texas. In total, it’s at least three times as many Top 25 foes as what Houston will have by season’s end.
The message is clear: Oklahoma’s schedule is more difficult.
So, based on the committee’s own criteria, the two schools—13-0 Houston and 11-1 Oklahoma—would be tied.
Many would rightly argue that the tie had already been settled, on the field, in the head-to-head game in Week 1. But, don’t forget that committee set a precedent on straight-up wins in 2014. The only difference is it decided a series of rankings as opposed to a Playoff spot.
Baylor outlasted TCU 61-58 in Week 7 of the 2014 season. By the time the first CFB Playoff rankings were first released in Week 10 both teams were 6-1 but, despite the head-to-head win, the Bears came in at No. 13 while the Horned Frogs were No. 7.
By Week 11 both teams were 7-1 with Baylor moving to No. 12 and TCU to No. 6. Moving into Week 12 both were 8-1 and Baylor was No. 7 while TCU was No. 4 (significant because the top four teams advance to the Playoff).
This went on, TCU ranked higher than Baylor (despite even records), until the Week 16 rankings, the final standings coming into the Playoff. The Bears (now 11-1) were fresh off beating No. 9 Kansas State and the Horned Frogs (also 11-1) had just blown out Iowa State. This prompted the committee to move Baylor up one spot to No. 5 and TCU down three to No. 6.
It was an empty victory for the Bears, who fell just out of the top four and therefore didn’t make the Playoff (Ohio State’s shut out of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game propelled it into the coveted No. 4 slot).
The series of choices set a precedent—strength of schedule trumps head-to-head wins in the rankings that decide which teams make the playoff. It was what compelled the committee to rank Baylor lower than TCU even after the head-to-head win, and ultimately what that kept the Bears out of the Playoff.
So, what would the committee do in the case study of Oklahoma vs. Houston?
Though the Cougars would likely be considered, seriously, it’s unlikely that the CFB Playoff brain trust wouldn’t use schedule strength to justify what would be advertised as a “paper thin” verdict for the Sooners.
Their body of work would be arguably more impressive as would winning the Big 12 vs. winning the American Athletic.
If you’re still not convinced, think back to TCU and Baylor. The Bears beat the Horned Frogs, on the field, and were still ranked lower, by the committee, for six consecutive weeks. Given that the two schools play in the same conference, their schedules were very similar. The big exception was that Baylor didn’t play a Power team out of conference while TCU played Minnesota. That was enough to give the Horned Frogs the edge with the committee.
Houston and Oklahoma, on the other hand, are almost on different planets from a scheduling standpoint. It affords the committee an easy way out, because the disparity is so obvious and they’ve gotten away with it before.
Conveniently, the wide gap in schedule strength would also serve as the perfect cover-up for another, even more controversial issue. Like in the case of Ohio State vs. Baylor, Houston is a less-attractive partner financially for the Playoff. In other words, Oklahoma draws more national viewership and has a bigger fan base more prone to travel.
This silent point, never to be listed in the committee’s criteria, goes to the Sooners.
Strength of schedule is why it is unlikely that any Group of 5 will ever make it into the CFB Playoff. That is, until there are more than four slots to fill.
It’s both a justification and an excuse.