Every Tuesday as the College Football Playoff rankings are released, one virtually unprecedented decision has stood out: where Oregon has been placed.
The Ducks sit at No. 3 in the current rankings, an honor bestowed upon them seemingly for a win over Ohio State, and one that presumably puts them in strong position to reach the playoff should they win out. But Oregon’s rank is a departure from the committee’s norms.
Though the playoff protocol dictates the committee select the four “best” teams in college football, in reality what it has done in the past is select teams based on a mixture of “best” and “most deserving” or, for our purposes today, via measures of team quality and accomplishment. The Ducks fit neither bill.
In terms of accomplishment, the Ducks rank eighth in strength of record. Given Oregon’s schedule, there is a 49% chance an average top-25 team would be at least 9-1, which is the Ducks’ record. By comparison, that same average top-25 team would have a 33% chance to be 9-1 against Alabama’s schedule or a 40% chance against Oklahoma State’s schedule. And while Oregon’s schedule has certainly been more difficult than Cincinnati’s, it would be harder to go 10-0 against the Bearcats’ slate (36% chance) than 9-1 against the Ducks’ schedule. That’s the beauty of SOR: It allows us to directly compare teams with different records on the same scale. The metric’s other strength is that it can look at an entire schedule rather than simply a best win or worst loss. Oregon beat Ohio State and is rewarded for that in SOR, but all games count toward accomplishment.
Looking at team quality, the résumé only gets worse for the Ducks. They rank 18th in FPI rank, the second-worst FPI-ranked team to ever earn a top-four spot from the committee in any CFP rankings release. In 2015 Iowa was placed by the committee in the top four a couple of times while being ranked by the FPI in the mid-20s — but that Iowa team was also undefeated at the time. Should Oregon maintain its FPI rank and still get in the playoff, it would be the worst team ever to reach the CFP, per the FPI. The current record holder is 2015 Michigan State, which ranked 14th.
Why doesn’t the FPI like the Ducks? Mostly, they just haven’t been as efficient on a play-by-play level as other teams after factoring in quality of opponent. The Ducks rank 17th in offensive efficiency and 30th in defensive efficiency while totaling a No. 14 rank in total efficiency across all three phases of the game. They rank 20th in points margin per game at +12.7 with one-score wins over Fresno State, Cal and UCLA in the books.
The FPI is also not alone in its skepticism of Oregon: The Ducks are currently 3-point underdogs at 23rd-ranked Utah this weekend at Caesars Sportsbook (the FPI makes it Utah by 4).
All of this is why the Allstate Playoff Predictor has been, for lack of a better word, confused by Oregon — or at least its ranking. It gives the Ducks just a 7% chance to reach the playoff, which is remarkable given the team’s No. 3 rank.
A good bit of that number is a bearish projection: It gives Oregon just a 14% chance to end up a 12-1 Pac-12 champion. But even in the event Oregon does pull that off, the model still gives the Ducks only a 45% chance to reach the CFP, in large part due to a projected strength of record rank of 3.3.
That 45% chance to reach the CFP if Oregon wins out might well be low, even though the model does incorporate current committee ranks. But if it is low, that’s because the Predictor is based mostly on past committee behavior — and past committee behavior suggests the Ducks shouldn’t be as close to the playoff as they appear to be.