Sunday, November 27, 2016

Michigan Is One Of The Four Best Teams, But They Cannot Be Allowed In The Playoffs. Here Is Why:

Ohio State and Michigan came into yesterday's game with a single loss apiece. Besides the normal interest sports fans have in a Michigan/Ohio State game, it was assumed that a playoff spot was on the line. And it showed up in the tv ratings:
The fact is that, in a loss, Michigan impressed. The game effectively was a draw, on the road at Ohio State. In overtime, the game literally came down to a 50/50 call, the 4th down scramble by JT Barrett that could have gone either way. It was so close that whatever call was made on the field necessarily had to stand on review. Had officials ruled Barrett an inch short, Michigan would have won. But they did not, and Ohio State won on the next play. It's literally as close as a game can get.

And the computer ratings recognize that. Michigan's ratings in metrics like the S&P and Sagarin all rose slightly after yesterday's games. And naturally, this is leading commentators to declare that Michigan should not be punished for a loss, and that as one of the four best teams in the nation they must be allowed into the playoffs. Here's a smattering:
Is Michigan one of the four best teams in the country? Probably.

The most accurate ratings for college football (and the ratings that most closely match the Vegas lines) are the S&P and Sagarin, and they both have Michigan safely in the Top 4. While there might be some rating you can find somewhere with Michigan outside the Top 4, it's safe to say that there's a general consensus in the computer models that Michigan is one of the four best teams:

But even though Michigan is one of the four "best" teams, they cannot be allowed in the playoffs.

Why? Because at the end of a season, teams must be rewarded for wins and losses, not for how good they are.

First of all, we all know who the best team in college football is. It's Alabama, and it's not that close. But if we wanted to give the title to the best team, we'd just halt the season right now and hand the trophy to Alabama. Alabama was the best team in the country two seasons ago, and they got knocked off in the playoffs by Ohio State. On any given day, anybody can beat anybody, and the whole point of having a playoffs is to add excitement by increasing the odds that an unlikely team wins the national title.

More importantly, if we rank teams by how good they are rather than by wins and losses, games would stop mattering. Why on Earth would anybody but Big Ten fans give a shit whether Michigan or Ohio State won that overtime? No matter whether that JT Barrett 4th down run was ruled a first down or not, both Michigan and Ohio State were going to end up in the Top 3 of the Sagarin and S&P ratings. So why would any non-Big Ten fans care about whether it was converted? Michigan fans complain that they had bad luck - and they're right! - but that's the point of playing the games. There is random luck, and it leads to unpredictability, and it forces us to watch and care.

To use a college basketball example: Imagine any game that comes down to a buzzer beating shot. Don't you want to care if that shot goes in? Because the Pomeroy ratings don't - not by any measurable amount. But it matters for their resume, and as long as the Selection Committee judges teams by their resume and not by how good they are, we are all going to care about whether that shot goes on in or not.

"Wait a second!" cries the Michigan fan reading this piece. "We have three wins over Top 10 teams! Our resume is still worthy of Top 4!"

While this argument isn't necessarily false, it's a poor one. Despite how common we hear television commentators (and Selection Committee Chair Kirby Hocutt) talk about metrics like "Top 10 wins" or "Record vs the Top 25", these are lousy metrics for four big reasons:

1) They are wholly arbitrary. Why care about Top 10 wins when we could care about Top 15? Top 25? Top 35? Fans are always going to set the line somewhere convenient for their team.
2) They necessarily only look at a fraction of a team's resume. Why only look at three games when we can look at all twelve?
3) The correlation between where teams are ranked in the Playoff Rankings and how good they are is a bit tenuous.
4) They do not take home/road into account.

As far as Michigan goes this season, #4 is a major factor. All three of their "Top Ten wins" came at home. Take their win over Penn State, for example, According to the Sagarin ratings, a home game against Penn State (AP #8) is equivalent to a road game against North Carolina (AP not receiving votes). Somehow that "Top 10 win" seems a wee bit less impressive when it sounds like a win over 8-4 North Carolina.

Say what you will about ESPN's FPI, but it's a decent rating system, and ESPN is nice enough to put out a "strength of record" metric. It asks a simple question: What are the odds that an average Top 25 team would equal or better your record against your schedule? Here is where that stands at the moment:

In other words, an average Top 25 team would have a 4% chance of going 11-1 or 12-0 against Ohio State's schedule, but a 96% chance of going 10-2 or worse. Clearly, if you look at resumes, Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson are our three playoffs locks (assuming Clemson avoids an ACC title game loss), with Wisconsin, Washington, and Colorado fighting it out for the fourth spot. Michigan is way back at 8th, and there's no realistic scenario where they can get back to the Top Four.

Sure, we can choose to rank teams by how good they are rather than by how impressive their wins and losses are, but if we do that then we would never have a reason to watch a game like Michigan/Ohio State yesterday. And I enjoyed caring about who won that game.

If you want to give the national title to the best team, just give it to Alabama right now. But if we're going to do a proper playoff system, where the four most deserving teams get in, then we have to leave out at least one of the four "best" teams. We have to leave out Michigan.


Locke said...

Michigan won one game outside the state of Michigan - Rutgers. They had 8 home game. Michigan and Ohio State both had 5 home, 4 road conference games. Wisconsin had 4 conference home games, 5 on the road.

That said, I honestly think Michigan might well be a better team than Ohio State. Both beat Wisconsin. And yet, I think Wisconsin with their schedule, two close losses to Michigan and OSU (in OT), if they win the CCG and don't get in, the system is broken.

I think this speaks volumes: Having beaten Michigan, Ohio State was pulling for Penn State to beat Michigan State - because they didn't want to win their division and play in the CCG when they assumed they were already in the playoff. Why risk playing another tough game and losing. That's just messed up.

Jeff said...

Yep, I agree with all of that. If the Wisconsin/Penn State winner gets left out for Michigan, every Power 5 conference should cancel their title game the next game.

Lance said...

I find it really hard to believe Michigan is one of the 4 best teams in the country when finished 2-2 on the road.

Most of the Vegas money was on Michigan to win it all this year - not so much due to their roster talent, but more so because of their extremely easy schedule. UM played 4 true road games and only left the state 3 times. Their two road victories came against arguably the worst Power 5 team in the country (2-10 Rutgers) and 3-9 Michigan State. When forced to play remotely competitive teams on the road, Michigan was bested twice. Truly elite teams don't get away with not winning a single tough game on the road.

It's nice to say we should get the 4 "best" teams, but at some point your performance has to matter. Michigan could have easily won those two road games and been 12-0, but guess what? They didn't. Can't reward perception over reality.