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The games that shaped the playoff, and what an eight-team field would look like

There was a moment during halftime of Saturday’s Big Ten title game, with Wisconsin leading Ohio State by two touchdowns, where the college football public began coming to a jarring revelation: If Wisconsin were to hold on for the upset, the most impactful game in 2019’s College Football Playoff race might have been an Illinois win.

A 12-2, Big Ten-winning Wisconsin probably wouldn’t have gotten into the playoff, but a 13-1 Badgers team, without a tight upset loss to Lovie Smith’s Illini, almost certainly would have.

Alas, it was moot. Ohio State hit the accelerator in the third quarter and rolled to a 34-21 win. Still, it got me thinking … what were the most impactful moments of this year’s race?

How we got here

It is sometimes useful to step back and assess what we just saw. Using ESPN Stats & Information’s Allstate Playoff Predictor tool (which itself is fueled by FPI), here are the moments, or collections of moments, that changed the CFP calculus the most in 2019:

Weeks 1-2: Michigan fails to look the part. Remember way back in August, when we were talking about Michigan’s new-look offense and how rival Ohio State had a new QB and new head coach and might be primed for a step backward? Remember how we were talking ourselves into the Wolverines having a really good CFP shot?

That didn’t last long. Even before losing to Wisconsin in Week 3, the Wolverines saw their CFP odds drop from 41% in the preseason to just 3% after closer-than-expected wins over Middle Tennessee State and Army. In that same period, Ohio State’s early brilliance raised the Buckeyes’ odds from 6% in the preseason to 19% two weeks in.

Weeks 3-5: Ohio State very, very much looks the part. Despite lacking in marquee matchups until late in the year, the Buckeyes clearly asserted themselves. After beating Cincinnati, Indiana, Miami (Ohio) and Nebraska by a combined 217-22 in consecutive weeks, their odds had surged to 72% by the end of Week 5.

Week 7: South Carolina 20, Georgia 17. The year’s first truly unforeseen and impactful result took place in Athens, Georgia. The Bulldogs’ Jake Fromm threw just five interceptions all season, but three of them took place via Israel Mukuamu‘s hands. The Gamecocks sophomore took one back for a score, and Will Muschamp’s team dropped UGA’s CFP odds from 46% to 11%.

Week 8: Illinois 24, Wisconsin 23. A week before a marquee showdown against Ohio State, the Badgers forgot how to score. Eight scoring opportunities produced just 23 points, and Illinois stunned the heavily favored Badgers with a last-second field goal. Wisconsin’s CFP odds dropped from 33% to 3%.

Week 9: Kansas State 48, Oklahoma 41. Three weeks, three big upsets. Granted, OU was able to recover and still make the CFP, but when the Sooners’ huge comeback fell short — they trailed 48-23 two minutes into the fourth quarter but came within a controversial onside kick attempt of having the ball with a chance to tie — their CFP odds fell from 49% to 11%.

Week 11: LSU 46, Alabama 41 and Minnesota 31, Penn State 26. LSU rode a late second-quarter surge to a 20-point lead, gave away most of it, and held on in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This came after basically the same thing happened in Minneapolis — favored Penn State couldn’t make up an early deficit to unbeaten Minnesota. In terms of net effects, this was maybe the most impactful weekend of the season. LSU’s odds jumped from 57% to 87%, while Bama’s fell from 71% to 40%. PSU’s, meanwhile, fell from 52% to 11%, and Minnesota briefly got on the board with 4% odds.

Week 13: Arizona State 31, Oregon 28. Forget Illinois-Wisconsin — this was the most surprisingly important game of the CFP race. A 12-1 Oregon, with a Pac-12 title game romp over Utah, maybe draws the fourth seed instead of Oklahoma. Instead, Oregon’s odds dropped from 28% to 0.5% as a result of this upset. Damn it, Herm.

Week 14: Auburn 48, Alabama 45. One of the most statistically unlikely results of the season — my postgame win expectancy measure said that, with the stats this game produced, Alabama wins it 94% of the time — officially ended Bama’s five-year streak of CFP appearances. The biggest beneficiary of the Tide’s odds dropping from 46% to 0.6%: Oklahoma. The Sooners’ odds rose from 12% to 37% thanks to a Bedlam win and the events on the Plains.

Championship Week: Oregon 37, Utah 15 and Oklahoma 30, Baylor 23. Utah was ranked ahead of OU heading into the weekend, but while Oregon’s win didn’t help the already-eliminated Ducks, it gave the Sooners the boost they needed. Once they survived Baylor in overtime, anyway.

Two ways to look at this year’s College Football Playoff race

1. Since three teams (LSU, Ohio State, Clemson) stood head and shoulders above the rest of the field, this was maybe the best case we’ve seen for not wanting to expand the four-team College Football Playoff. Why do you need eight or 16 or whatever when there was such a gulf between three teams and the rest?

2. Since three teams stood head and shoulders above the rest of the field, this was maybe the best case we’ve seen for expanding it. After all, four teams were granted a shot at a title, not three, and with a larger field, the battle for a fourth semifinal spot could have featured an incredible matchup or two.

There’s a “journey vs. destination” aspect to which side you take here. On one hand, if the goal of the CFP is to simply determine a fairer national champion with the least possible disruption to the rest of the sport, then the current system works fine. We still get our bowls, more than two teams have a shot at the title, and the Every Game Matters thing still rings mostly true.

On the other hand, if the goal is to provide added interest and fun while also giving us an undisputed (well, only semi-disputed) champ and keeping bowls involved, expanding the CFP still makes a lot of sense.

Think about the FCS playoffs: If the goal was simply to produce a worthy champ, you really need only a two-team playoff: North Dakota State vs. James Madison. Entering the quarterfinals, my FCS SP+ ratings say the two of them have a combined 74% chance of winning the title, while the six other teams are splitting 26% between them.

Still, the journey is going to include, at worst, a couple of outstanding quarterfinal matchups — Austin Peay at Montana State and Montana at Weber State could both be dynamite. The Big Sky has three excellent, deserving teams, and APSU, not even three years removed from a 29-game losing streak, could reach a semifinal. An incredible story!

Even if we end up with an NDSU-JMU final, the journey is going to be lots of fun. FBS is different because of the bowls, but is it that different?

I’m not going to waste your time proposing a 24-team, FCS-style bracket. But let’s take a moment to see what the most commonly proposed playoff expansion option would have produced in 2019.

What an eight-team playoff would look like

An eight-team bracket that includes five conference champs, a Group of 5 representative, two at-large bids and quarterfinals in home stadiums (where the environment would be spectacular, the weather a little chilly) has been brought up plenty of times in recent years. It’s by far my favorite option, especially if we finally get around to figuring out how to more fairly compensate athletes.

(Compensation is a topic for another column, but the players will obviously be taking on more physical risk, and that should be taken into account before expansion can occur.)

An eight-teamer also wouldn’t automatically have to dilute the pool of available bowl teams: There could easily be an option for teams losing in the quarterfinals to get dumped into the bowl pool if they wanted to. The New Year’s Six bowls — which would take place at least two weeks after the quarterfinals so everyone gets rest — could feature two semifinals, two consolation rounds with four quarterfinal losers and two games pitting the teams ranked 9-12. Again, as long as players are rewarded for the extra risk, this sounds fantastic to me.

Here’s what an eight-team approach would have produced this year:

17 Memphis at 1 LSU
5 Georgia at 4 Oklahoma
6 Oregon at 3 Clemson
7 Baylor at 2 Ohio State

Memphis gets a marquee chance at a scoreboard explosion against a team not too far down the road, and while we maybe end up with the same semifinals as before — three of these four games would have spreads in the double digits because of the power of the top three — we also maybe get a rematch of the incredible 2018 Oklahoma-Georgia Rose Bowl.

Putting the topic of physical risk to the side for the moment, maybe the most effective argument for not expanding to eight is that we’d all immediately start yelling for 12 or 16 teams if we got our way. And to be sure, that would introduce a lot of potential rematches, load even more games onto the slate and further dilute the impact of the regular season.

I don’t have an effective counterargument to this. Bracket creep always kicks in. I’m shocked that the NCAA basketball tournament hasn’t expanded to 96 by now, to be honest.

Here’s the reason I’m willing to take on that risk, though: fairness.

The simple inclusion of a Group of 5 team in an eight-team field would mean that every FBS team could actually begin the season dreaming of a shot at the national title. That has never, ever existed in college football. Goodness knows it doesn’t exist now.

Since we’re already out here in Imagination Land thinking of fake brackets, let’s linger a bit.

I don’t want to go too far in denigrating Oklahoma — the Sooners are 12-1, won a strong Big 12 conference and rank sixth in SP+. But compared with the top three dominant teams, an OU squad that hasn’t actually looked dominant since mid-October is clearly a step down.

Close your eyes, then, and imagine what the debate and outcry might have been if UCF’s 2017 season had played out this fall or, maybe, if UCF’s regular-season unbeaten streak had continued through 2019. (It almost did — the Knights lost three games this year, but by a total of seven points.)

In a year in which the fourth spot in the CFP lacked a surefire, knockout candidate, would that have led to more traction for a possible UCF campaign?

Of course not. UCF won 25 games in a row in 2017 and 2018 and finished 2017 by beating an Auburn team that had defeated both national title game competitors. The Knights only ever got as high as eighth, behind two two-loss, Power 5 non-champions, in the CFP rankings. For that matter, Memphis just went 12-1, won the toughest conference that the Group of 5 has ever produced, and ranks 17th.

(Seriously, the average AAC team has a 1.7 rating in SP+, just 1.5 points behind the ACC. Memphis’ SP+ SOS ranking is 92nd, just a single spot behind Clemson’s. And Memphis ranks 17th.)

Even this year, a 13-0 UCF would have almost certainly been behind not only Oklahoma, but also Georgia and Oregon at the least. A Group of 5 conference champion is never going to get an honest shot at the CFP. I’d love to be proved wrong, but it just isn’t going to happen. An eight-team playoff with full representation might give us the same semifinals we’re already looking at, but it would also offer a level of fairness that this sport has never been all that interested in providing. That should matter.

What makes Mike Norvell interesting

Speaking of Memphis … on Sunday, Florida State announced it was hiring the Tigers’ Mike Norvell to replace the fired Willie Taggart.

Granted, his name isn’t Bob Stoops, so a portion of the FSU fan base will remain unimpressed. But Norvell was excellent in west Tennessee, producing top-50 squads in each of his first three years, then surging this fall, going 12-1 and ranking 13th in SP+. Over the past 15 years, Memphis’ plus-19.3 SP+ rating ranks below only the 2008-11 Boise State teams, 2009-10 TCU, 2006 BYU and (if they count) 2013 Louisville among Group of 5 schools.

I’m not here to make a declarative “He’s going to win big!” statement — coaches with better résumés have failed and plenty with worse résumés have succeeded. But I’m fascinated by what he can do with the skill talent he’ll have access to in Tallahassee, Florida.

No offensive system has better blurred the lines between running backs and receivers than Norvell’s. Over the past three seasons, he fielded players with these unique stat lines:

Darrell Henderson (2017-19) rushed 431 times and caught 63 passes over three seasons. Combined, he gained 4,303 yards and scored 44 TDs.

• Tony Pollard (2016-18) rushed 139 times and caught 104 passes in three years. Combined, he gained 2,233 yards and scored 18 TDs.

Kenneth Gainwell has not only rushed 226 times for 1,516 yards in his brief career, but he also has caught 50 passes for 584 yards. He frequently motions out of the backfield and runs real routes against overmatched linebackers.

Antonio Gibson this season has rushed 32 times for 636 yards and eight scores and caught 31 passes for 363 yards and four more TDs. He also returned a kick for a TD against SMU.

Combine these unique weapons with more standard position players like running back Patrick Taylor Jr., receiver Damonte Coxie and tight end Joey Magnifico, and you had an outright boatload of diversity and matchup nightmares. And you know Norvell’s FSU teams won’t lack for speed and diversity in the skill corps. This is going to be fun to watch.

Live the small-school life

The 10 FBS conference championship games certainly had their dramatic moments, but the results themselves were basically by the book. There were five rematches of regular-season games, and the winners of the respective first battles went 5-0. Among the other five games, only Miami-Central Michigan was decided by fewer than 22 points. Eight of 10 favorites won.

Still, as I always say, the most beautiful thing about college football is that there is always a wonder to behold if you’re willing to dig a little bit for it. And the small-school playoffs provided us with some utterly ridiculous moments Saturday.

While you were watching the end of the confusing Baylor-Oklahoma game, you could have had your laptop open, watching any of the following …

NAIA semifinals: Morningside 21, Grand View 16. Defending champ Morningside led 21-16 with under 30 seconds left when GVC’s Anthony Turner caught a 35-yard pass to the Morningside 15 … and fumbled. Morningside’s Deion Clayborne recovered, and the Mustangs advanced.

FCS second round: Northern Iowa 13, South Dakota State 10. SDSU bolted to a 10-0 lead in its first two possessions. But the Jackrabbits turned the ball over three times in the second quarter and missed a third-quarter field goal. A Matthew Cook field goal with 2:10 left gave UNI the upset win.

Division II quarterfinals: West Florida 43, Lenoir-Rhyne 38. Fresh off an upset of defending champ Valdosta State, UWF found itself up 40-24 one play into the fourth quarter. But L-R struck twice to make it 40-38, and UWF had to hold on for dear life, first benefiting from a mishandled punt snap, then picking off a pass at its 6 with 1:03 left.

Division II quarterfinals: Slippery Rock 65, Notre Dame (Ohio) 59. This was an absolute riot. Two of the best offenses in Division II combined for six TDs in the first nine minutes, then only slightly slowed down. The Rock led by 21 with 16 minutes left, but the defense had to make a late fourth-down stop to survive.

Division III quarterfinals: Saint John’s (Minnesota) 34, Wheaton (Illinois) 33. Saturday’s masterpiece. In the fourth quarter alone …

1. SJU broke a 21-21 tie on a 54-yard touchdown pass, but the extra point was blocked.

2. Wheaton responded with a touchdown of its own … and failed on its own conversion attempt. 27-27.

3. After SJU scored once more to go up 34-27, Wheaton drove 67 yards in 14 plays and scored with nine seconds left on a 1-yard run … by center Jake Hibben. He then spiked the ball, and of course he did. He’s a lineman and just scored a touchdown in the biggest game of his life.

4. Hibben’s spike earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, so Wheaton had to attempt a 35-yard PAT. It missed, but there were offsetting penalties, so Wheaton got a second attempt. It went wide right.

5. All the while, A TRAIN WAS ROLLING DOWN THE TRACKS NEXT TO THE STADIUM.

This was small-school surreality in all its glory.

ESPN will be streaming all FCS quarterfinals and Division II/Division III semifinals online this weekend. If you aren’t giving this world a taste, you’re missing out.

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