B1G debate: Are Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State properly ranked?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Are Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State properly ranked by the College Football Playoff committee?
RYAN: A lot of sportswriters lost their minds on Tuesday night when the new College Football Playoff rankings were revealed. How could Michigan be ranked ahead of Michigan State when the Spartans won the head-to-head meeting just 2 weeks ago and both have 1 loss?
College Football Playoff Rankings after Week 10📊 pic.twitter.com/xvmKtQMvJD
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 10, 2021
Here’s a hot take for you: I don’t hate these rankings. I don’t know if I would’ve ranked Michigan State below Michigan quite yet (I think the CFP committee may have been a week early), but I’m glad it happened, so we get to debate the merits of it.
I don’t think the Spartans have to automatically be above the Wolverines for eternity if they both have 1 loss, just because they won the head-to-head. We can look a little deeper. But let’s start with that game. Can you definitively say that Michigan State is better than Michigan? I know the Spartans wound up winning the game, and props to them for that; it was an incredibly resilient performance.
But let’s be honest. Michigan State, with its homefield advantage, led for 8:01 of game time; Michigan led for 46:12 of game time. Oh, and did I mention that the Big Ten admitted that Michigan was robbed of a touchdown that ultimately decided the game? Seriously, how was that call overturned?
Another review decision goes Michigan State's way.
Do you think Thorne was down before the fumble? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/CB8DIKebaP
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 30, 2021
Michigan State caught every break on this day, and you know what, good for them. That’s how it goes sometimes. But do you really think Michigan State is the better team? I don’t. If these teams played 10 times this year, I think Michigan wins 7 of them.
And because these teams play in the same division, we have so many data points to use when evaluating these teams, and that’s helpful. Because as I mentioned, the outcome of the head-to-head matchup was flukey, at best. We’re going to get 3 more data points to use the last 3 weeks of the season as each of these teams play Ohio State, Penn State and Maryland. As of right now, they each have played Rutgers, Indiana and Northwestern. The game that sticks out to me is Indiana. The Spartans held on for dear life against the last-place Hoosiers, needing a pick-6 to win 20-15. Michigan slept-walked through a 3-TD win over the Hoosiers last week. Michigan State and Michigan both got late turnovers to beat Nebraska, though Michigan did that one on the road in a hostile environment, while Michigan Stat was at home. I’ll generously call that one a wash.
Michigan State has had an incredible season, and I mean no disrespect here, but they’ve clearly been hanging by a thread all year. Not to go all Dan Mullen on you, but do you know how many times Michigan State has outgained its opponent? Just 4 of 9 games. Michigan has out-gained its opponent in 8 of 9 games. Michigan State’s average margin of victory is 11.3 points; Michigan’s average margin of victory is 20.2 points.
Michigan State feels a little like Iowa in the sense that, is this really a sustainable formula? It has allowed 550 yards of offense in 3 of the last 5 weeks, and finally, that bubble burst in a 40-29 loss at Purdue. That was a convincing loss in which Michigan State clearly was the inferior team.
So when you take all of this into consideration, I can see why the committee just feels Michigan is better, so I’m not outraged by this in the same way that many in the college football media are. Should Michigan State be ranked ahead of Michigan? Maybe. I’m not sure. I’m sure that Michigan State is not a better team than Michigan, and I think that will become clear over the next 3 weeks. So maybe the CFP committee was a little early on this one, but I don’t think they’re wrong.
CONNOR: Totally get what you’re saying. Bold to pick now of all times to side with Dan Mullen’s logic, but I get what you’re saying. Michigan State doesn’t have style points. I’ll do you one better there. Among those top-10 teams in the Playoff poll, Michigan State has the worst scoring differential against Power 5 teams at 8.1. It’s a resilient bunch, for sure.
But there are multiple problems with putting Michigan ahead of Michigan State. Let’s start with the obvious here. It’s totally inconsistent.
Oregon got the head-to-head advantage against Ohio State. Outside of that win, the Ducks’ résumé falls short of Ohio State’s. The Buckeyes have more wins against Power 5 teams with a winning record (3-2) and it has the average Power 5 scoring differential advantage (22.3 to 9.3). We know that the head-to-head is the reason why Oregon is ahead of Ohio State. That should be the case. And while I think the selection committee doesn’t care about the quality of the loss as some like to believe, Ohio State has the advantage on Oregon there, too.
So then why is there this double standard for Michigan and Michigan State? Because Michigan looked more convincing against a 2-win Indiana team than Michigan State did? Who cares? In a year like this in which Playoff contenders are playing down to competition left and right, I don’t think that’s something the selection committee should be too hung up on. What should matter is how contenders stack up against top-10 competition. The goal is not to put a team in the Playoff that gets smacked in the semifinal.
Michigan State played that game and won it. Fortunate breaks or not, the Spartans won the head-to-head just 2 weeks ago. Is holding a lead on the road not important? Is making an adjustment to prevent a star player from taking over and scoring 5 touchdowns something that should be valued? In my opinion, those are things we should value. It’d be different if we were talking about an undefeated team vs. a 1-loss team. That’s not the case.
And if we really want to dig into how “complete” Michigan looks, consider this. The Wolverines have an average margin of victory against Power 5 competition of 13.7 points. It isn’t like they won every game by 4 touchdowns. And also, where are the quality wins? Like Michigan State, Michigan only has 1 win against a Power 5 team with a winning record (at Wisconsin). That’s as many as Cincinnati has.
That’s why I cannot get on board with that ranking. I’ll continue to be one of those people freaking out about not acknowledging a game that happened 2 weeks ago.
As for Ohio State … well, I’ll let you start with that. I wouldn’t have the Buckeyes at No. 4 — I’ll get to more of that in a bit — but I can at least appreciate the consistency from week-to-week with how the selection committee valued them. What about you?
RYAN: It’s funny, because I actually have the opposite opinion of Oregon and Ohio State because it’s a different situation. Unlike Michigan and Michigan State, the rankings with 1-loss Oregon and 1-loss Ohio State absolutely have to hold. Ohio State should not be able to jump Oregon. That’s because the circumstances are very different. It’s way too simplistic to just chalk it up to head-to-head and say that the same standard applies.
Oregon convincingly beat Ohio State. The Buckeyes never led in that game. And the game was in Columbus! Case closed. There is no other way to compare those teams other than the head-to-head battle. I don’t care if Ohio State has supposedly gotten better since then, that game has to mean something. There was nothing flukey about that result. Oregon didn’t get any lucky breaks to win; it proved at that point in time, it was the far superior team. Michigan State didn’t do that, not even close. That’s the difference.
Who’s to say that Ohio State, at that point in the season, wouldn’t also have lost to Stanford? The thing about Ohio State and Oregon is that since they play in different conferences, there is no other way to compare them other than when they actually played. So, all things being equal (meaning both teams finish with 1 loss), Oregon winning convincingly at Ohio State has to matter. It must. If Oregon has another slip-up, then by all means, move Ohio State ahead. But until that happens, Oregon needs to be rewarded for doing what no team had done since 2017 (a span of 23 games) — win in Columbus.
With Michigan and Michigan State, there is so much more to go by than one wild game that could have went either way, was dominated for 3 1/2 quarters by one team and when one team had the homefield advantage. They have 8 common opponents. The one different B1G game they played was Michigan went to No. 18 Wisconsin and won by 21; Michigan State went to No. 19 Purdue and lost by 11.
It’s so hard to use head-to-head as the sole criteria this late in the season. For example, if Alabama loses another close game to either Georgia or Auburn, should Texas A&M jump the Tide? Penn State has wins over No. 17 Auburn and No. 18 Wisconsin. Should it be locked ahead of those teams no matter what? They are all 6-3.
CONNOR: Yes, A&M should jump Alabama if it loses to Georgia. I realize that’s not the biggest question here, but if we want to talk about controlling a football game, the Aggies did exactly that against Alabama.
(Side note: Dustin Schutte and I actually have a bet. He thinks the selection committee is going to put a 2-loss Alabama team in the Playoff, whereas I do not. If he loses, he has to change his Twitter profile pic to something Bulls-related for a week, and if I win, I have to make mine Pacers-related.)
I’m not saying that Oregon followed the same path to victory as Michigan State. Yes, you can argue about the lack of common opponents between Oregon and Ohio State, and why the head-to-head carries more weight there than it does with Michigan State and Michigan. But the whole point of ranking teams is trying to figure out which one is better than the other. Call me a purist but shouldn’t the final head-to-head result be the ultimate tiebreaker, regardless of how much time a team spent leading in a game?
I can poke holes in the mutual opponents thing with Michigan and Michigan State, too. Michigan State won more convincingly against Rutgers and did so on the road. If you’re gonna bring up the Indiana games those teams played, you have to then bring that one up, too, right? Rutgers lost by 18 at home to Michigan State, but in Ann Arbor, Greg Schiano’s team was driving in Michigan territory for a potential game-tying score with 5 minutes left, and Michigan needed to get another stop just to avoid overtime.
Also, if you say that Oregon needed to be rewarded for doing something that hadn’t happened to Ohio State since 2017, why doesn’t Michigan State get credit for scoring more rushing touchdowns (5) than Michigan had allowed in its first 7 games of the season? If it sounds like I’m getting into the weeds too much, it’s because I am. Some things are worth doing that for, others aren’t. Head-to-head has to break the tie if we’re talking about Power 5 teams who have the same record.
I’ve been banging the drum that Ohio State isn’t worthy of a top-4 ranking. Not at this stage. The Buckeyes don’t have a single win against the current Playoff Top 25. Yes, I agree that Penn State got a bit of a raw deal because it has the head-to-head with Auburn, and both teams now have 3 losses. But if your best win was a 9-point home win against a team who is still not even in the Playoff rankings, that’s a pretty weak résumé.
Notre Dame has just as many wins against Power 5 teams as Ohio State (3), yet the 1-loss Irish are barely in the top 10. Running away from Wisconsin at Soldier Field was more impressive than anything the Buckeyes have done so far. And meanwhile, everyone wants to blast Cincinnati for playing down to the wire against Tulsa when it wasn’t long ago when Ohio State was in a 1-score game with less than 4 minutes left against Tulsa. At least Cincinnati’s best win — by double digits at 1-loss Notre Dame — continues to hold up.
That’s the problem I have with the Buckeyes’ ranking. Gary Barta mentioned Maryland as a positive for Ohio State’s résumé. As in, the Maryland team that sits at 2-4 in conference play. If the selection committee is going to keep Oklahoma out of the top 4 for its lack of quality wins — I have no problem with that — then why is a 1-loss Ohio State team given a pass for having no real chance of winning its lone game against an elite foe? Both have their toughest competition at the end of the season, yet the Buckeyes continue to get the benefit of the doubt for playing the softer part of the division.
If it were me, I’d have Ohio State at No. 6 behind Cincinnati and Oklahoma. I’ll let you get the last word in on that.
RYAN: I don’t have a problem with Ohio State at No. 6 right now behind Cincinnati and Oklahoma. The Buckeyes are going to close the season with 3 ranked opponents and will have amply opportunity to play their way in. Same as Oklahoma. I don’t really have much sympathy for Cincinnati after some really close games against Navy (2-7), Tulane (1-8) and Tulsa (3-6).
That’s the thing I love and hate about these rankings — they are meaningless right now and the race will play itself out on the field, so it’s pointless to get overly worked up about them. But they sure are fun to talk about!