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College Football Playoff Rankings Review: Explaining Alabama over Florida

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Alabama's quantity of quality wins slightly outstrips Florida's.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When the first College Football Playoff rankings of 2015 — as determined by the Playoff's 12-person selection committee — were released on Tuesday night, many fans were perplexed by the most glaring oddity of the top 10: One-loss Alabama, which lost to Mississippi, was ranked No. 4, while one-loss Florida, which crushed Mississippi, was No. 10.

That doesn't make sense, right? Florida was clearly better on the field than the only team that vanquished Alabama — and the Gators' only loss is to LSU, a team the committee ranked all the way up at No. 2.

But one of the many interesting things about the Playoff selection committee is that its chairman, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, routinely explains the committee's reasoning. And he actually gave some cogent explanations for Alabama being ranked so high and Florida being slotted so (relatively) low — though at least one of them will infuriate you.

Alabama has "a quality victory more" than Florida

Long repeatedly mentioned that the committee looked at teams' records against "teams with records better than .500" — or, you know, winning teams — in evaluating them. Florida has just two wins over winning teams, Mississippi and Georgia; three other teams on the Gators' schedule (Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee) are right at .500 at this point in time. Alabama has three wins over winning teams (Wisconsin, Texas A&M, and Georgia) and a slightly more impressive win over Tennessee.

Apparently, the quantity of wins over winning teams meant more to the committee this week than quality: While Mississippi and Texas A&M are ranked No. 18 and No. 19, neither Wisconsin nor Georgia appears in the top 25 of the committee's rankings, and given that both Florida and Alabama beat Georgia, it would be difficult to imagine that the Tide's win over Wisconsin is a significant boost to Alabama on its own if wins were all evaluated the same.

Alabama beat a better Georgia team

Except not every win is the same.

Long mentions that ranking the teams "came down to evaluating their resumes: what they've done, who they've beaten, and what they've done in those games." And it's almost inarguable that the Georgia team Alabama beat in early October was a better one in the committee's eyes than the Bulldogs that Florida beat last Saturday; Long practically said as much on Tuesday night.

Alabama met Georgia in Athens, and carried a 28-3 lead into halftime against a Georgia team that had Nick Chubb and was still playing Greyson Lambert at quarterback. Florida played a Chubb-less Georgia in Jacksonville, and the Dawgs turned to third-stringer Faton Bauta at QB in that game. And while Florida topped Georgia by 24, and Alabama by 28, Alabama was never threatened in the second half; Florida had to stave off a drive that could have cut the Gators' lead to 10 points in the fourth quarter.

Georgia using Bauta instead of Lambert shouldn't really be held against Florida, but it's true that Chubb made Georgia much better, and it's not unfair to rate Alabama's win over the Dawgs as a higher-quality victory for that reason.

The committee may be considering Will Grier's absence

One corollary to evaluating Alabama and Florida's wins over Georgia with and without Nick Chubb would be evaluating Florida's play with and without Will Grier. Florida was 6-0 with Grier at quarterback, and has gone just 1-1 since his suspension, but it's possible that the Gators would have the same record even with Grier.

But while Long didn't mention it as an explicit consideration of the committee on Tuesday, it seems reasonable to imagine the dropoff in quality of play from Grier to Treon Harris factoring into their assessment of Florida.

One thing that might help explain whether that really does matter? How the committee treats Baylor next week, once it has a first look at the Bears (currently ranked No. 6) without Heisman contender Seth Russell. If Baylor's offense falters with Jarrett Stidham at the helm, could the committee penalize it for winning less impressively than it previously had? If so, that would back up a theory that the committee doesn't think as much of Florida without Grier.

Alabama and Florida "are actually very close"

Here's the excruciating part of the explanation: Despite the six-spot difference between Alabama and Florida, Long said "those are two teams that we do think are very close."

As David Wunderlich of Team Speed Kills pointed out last week, that's one of the problems with the committee's purely ordinal rankings: The margin between teams can't be anything other than units of ranking.

Under the old BCS formula, perhaps Alabama and Florida would have been separated by a margin so appreciably small that six ordinal places wouldn't seem to be as wide a gulf. In S&P+, for example — as Bill Connelly pointed out in this week's The Numerical — the unit of measurement is adjusted scoring margin, so we can tell in looking at the 2015 S&P+ stats that No. 2 Alabama, at +22.9, is rated as less than a touchdown better than No. 10 Florida, at +17.2.

Would knowing that the difference between Alabama and Florida might be as small as the committee thinking the Crimson Tide are a field goal better than the Gators make the ordinal gap feel better? Possibly.

But the system we have doesn't allow for that — and it would be somewhat ridiculous to ask the members of the selection committee, all of whom have jobs outside of their roles on the committee, to develop a ratings system to go along with their rankings system.

Star-divide

Perhaps the silliest thing about these rankings, though, is how any reaction to them right now is, by definition, premature. There's still a month more of the regular season to go, and many of the teams ahead of Florida will not remain ahead of the Gators should Jim McElwain's team continue winning.

Clemson might well remain undefeated, especially if it gets past Florida State this weekend. But LSU and Alabama can't both win on Saturday, and the loser of that game will obviously lose ground; if Alabama loses, Florida should jump it. Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa are all ahead of Florida, too, but only one of those teams, at most, could emerge from the Big Ten undefeated. The same goes for Baylor and TCU (and Oklahoma State) from the Big 12.

And because there are no undefeated teams in the Pac-12, and Florida winning out would necessarily exclude LSU from the ranks of the unbeaten, no more than three undefeated conference champions could emerge from Power Five conferences in a hypothetical world in which Florida makes a run at the Playoff — and Florida would just need to be No. 4 to be included in the field.

In fact, while these initial rankings do spell trouble for Florida, that's because of Notre Dame, not Alabama. Notre Dame is the only one-loss team ahead of Florida that the Gators couldn't conceivably beat before the College Football Playoff, and the Irish are likely to finish with a marginally better strength of schedule than Florida, with Stanford looming at the end of November to bolster an already superb slate of opponents.

Alabama could finish as the selection committee's No. 1 team at the end of the regular season, but if Florida tops the Tide in an SEC Championship Game, that would render that ranking more or less moot. (Alabama could conceivably end up in the top four and outside the SEC Championship Game, should the Tide hammer LSU and then end up losing out to Mississippi in the SEC West by virtue of a Rebels win over the Tigers, but that's sort of a doomsday scenario that isn't worth worrying too much about right now.)

Notre Dame, on the other hand, can continue positioning itself to stay ahead of Florida, and there's nothing the Gators can do about it.

Overall, despite Notre Dame's lofty ranking, I think these initial rankings are quite promising for the Gators, largely because of where LSU and Alabama sit. Florida should get a shot at either one in the SEC Championship Game, and if the Gators win out, they will have an excellent résumé, perhaps the best (or second-best to Notre Dame) among one-loss teams.

That matters, not how the College Football Playoff committee decided to rank teams on November 3. Chill out and let the season play out before you complain yourself hoarse.