Wednesday roundtable: Would selection committee choose Spartans or Cardinal?

Dec. 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Under next year’s four-team playoff system, three of the teams likely to be chosen by the selection committee are current BCS No. 1 Florida State, No. 2 Auburn and No. 3 Alabama. The fourth team in the bracket would likely be either No. 4 Michigan State or No. 5 Stanford, the two teams that (under this year’s system) will square off in the 100th Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1. Though the Cardinal has played a considerably tougher schedule than the Spartans, it has a worse record than Michigan State. We asked Daily football writers Winston Shi, Vihan Lakshman and Do-Hyoung Park: If the playoff were in place, which team should the selection committee choose?

Condoleezza Rice (left) and the rest of the College Football Playoff selection committee would be hard-pressed to choose between No. 4 Michigan State and No. 5 Stanford if the new postseason system was in place this year. (DANI VERNON/
Condoleezza Rice (left) and the rest of the College Football Playoff selection committee would be hard-pressed to choose between No. 4 Michigan State and No. 5 Stanford if the new postseason system was in place this year. (DANI VERNON/

Winston: I would pick Stanford, but it would be fair to say that my judgment is slanted in this regard. To be honest, I have watched very little of Michigan State (or, for that matter, No. 6 Baylor) this year. I am not qualified to opine on these teams’ subjective qualities. With that in mind, I still think I can justify slotting Stanford at No. 4.

How difficult would it be for Stanford to go undefeated this year? For an elite team, that would be the only strength of schedule that matters. Historical research (credit to Brian Fremeau) shows that top-12 teams (i.e. teams in the top 10 percent of the FBS) are almost guaranteed to beat teams outside the top 50. Teams ranked 26-50 upset elite teams 1/7 of the time. That rate doubles against teams ranked 13-25. (Naturally, top-12 teams playing each other beat each other 50% of the time.) This is a rough estimate, but its basic validity should be apparent.

Going from the AP Poll in order to make use of the “others receiving votes” section, Michigan State has played No. 25 Notre Dame, No. 27 Iowa, No. 36 Minnesota and No. 7 Ohio State. Nebraska and Michigan didn’t receive votes, but let’s call them top-50 teams. A top-12 team should go undefeated against this schedule approximately 19.3 percent of the time.

Compare that to Stanford. The Cardinal has played No. 16 Arizona State twice, No. 17 UCLA, No. 10 Oregon, No. 26 USC and No. 25 Notre Dame. It has also played a top-50 team in No. 33 Washington. Even a top-12 team would run the table against this slate only 9.6% of the time. In other words, Stanford’s schedule is twice as difficult to go undefeated against as Michigan State’s. Does that make up for Stanford’s extra loss? With all due respect to the Spartans — yes.

Vihan: This is exactly the kind of question that makes me nervous about the new College Football Playoff. Much like when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was expanded to 68 teams, the four-team playoff will not end the contentious debates, but merely shift the conversation from who should be No. 2 and No. 3 to who should be No. 4 and No. 5.

In the case of choosing between Stanford and Michigan State, there is certainly no easy answer, but I’m going to go the with Spartans. Winston makes an excellent point that Stanford’s schedule has been absolutely brutal this season, and I’m not sure any team would be able to emerge with a better record than the Cardinal’s. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s fair to penalize Sparty for consistently showing up every week and taking care of business en route to an 11-1 record. It’s also worth noting that Michigan State’s lone loss to Notre Dame happened back on Sept. 21, a millennium in college football time; Mark Dantonio’s squad ran the table in the crucial months of October and November and physically dominated then-No. 2 Ohio State in the last week’s Big Ten Championship.

However, to completely justify placing Michigan State in the College Football Playoff over the Cardinal and its formidable resume, the Spartans have to pass the eye test — and they do with flying colors. Sparty boasts the top-ranked defense in the country and plays with extreme physical intensity on both sides of the ball. Ultimately, over the past two months, Michigan State has been more consistent than Stanford, and they should be rewarded with a berth in the top four.

Do: The fact of the matter is that both Stanford and Michigan State are more than deserving of being included in this group after fantastic seasons. So I ask: Why not include both of them? If the playoff had started this year, my personal vote would have been to put Michigan State as the third seed and Stanford as the fourth seed, with No. 3 Alabama serving as the odd team out. (Residual Auburn fans remaining on our site after the explosion of “War Damn Winston,” this one’s for you.)

Now, before you guys pelt me with your Nick Saban effigies, brand me as a heretic and prepare to burn me at the stake, hear me out.

The college football playoff is designed to reward the four teams in the country that had the best seasons. Alabama couldn’t even win its own division this year. Michigan State and Stanford did. The last few seasons and Bama’s perceived aura of invincibility cast aside (as they rightfully ought to be), does Alabama’s season look like one of the best four in the country this year?

Answer: No, it does not.

Say what you want about FSU’s and MSU’s strengths of schedule, but when they had to win their signature games against Clemson and Ohio State, they did. And convincingly, at that. Alabama couldn’t do that against Auburn, possibly the only marquee opponent on its similarly weak schedule this year. In comparison, Stanford stifled Oregon and Arizona State (twice) amidst its gauntlet of a schedule. Who has Bama beaten this year to warrant this discussion? Three-loss LSU? Four-loss Texas A&M in a close game against the Aggies, who have shown an inability to play any defense down the stretch?

The Tide couldn’t take care of business when it mattered, and the rest of these teams did, winning their conferences in the process. See Winston’s argument above as to why a two-loss Stanford should get in over a one-loss Alabama from a strength-of-schedule standpoint.

Florida State, Auburn, Michigan State and Stanford. End rant.

Winston Shi, Vihan Lakshman and Do-Hyoung Park forgot to mention that 1-11 Cal is actually an elite team that had bad luck with its 4.8 percent bid to go undefeated. Remind them why David Shaw doesn’t like stats at wshi94 ‘at’, vihan ‘at’ and dpark027 ‘at’

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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