Expanding the Playoff: Rooting for Chaos – 2015 Edition


It’s been 7 years since the inception of the College Football Playoff featuring the top 4 FBS teams in the country and to the delight of every fan of a non-Blue Blood program, it seems that this may finally be the year for an expansion vote to pass.

Growing up in New England, the Patriots have always been the football team to watch when it came to the pros, but the college game in the area has been lacking to say the least.

I first got interested in college football during the 2006-2007 season, I remember being sick and missing a couple weeks of school right around the start of the college football bowl season. Having no allegiance to any teams in-state, I watched bowl game after bowl game, enjoying the close games and even the blowouts, but it was the 2007 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl game that stole the show and gave me a team that I still follow to this day.

The Fiesta Bowl had everything you want in a football game: an underdog, a future NFL hall of famer in Adrian Peterson, trick plays and a storybook ending.

Down 7 with 18 seconds left to go in the game on a 4th and 18, Boise State successfully executed the hook and lateral to tie up the game and force overtime against the Oklahoma Sooners.

After the Sooners ripped off a touchdown by Adrian Peterson to start overtime, Boise State answered back with a touchdown of their own, but instead of kicking the extra point and forcing a second overtime, Boise State head coach Chris Peterson did the unthinkable and decided to go for 2.

With a Trips right formation, Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky dropped back to pass, pump faked a wide receiver screen pass, and handed off the ball with his back hand to running back Ian Johnson, who ran in for the score and one of the most exciting wins in college football history.

And to cap it all off Johnson got to a knee and proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend for everyone to see.

I finally found my team.

The Kellen Moore era started the next season, and it was a blast to watch as Boise State went 50-3 in his time as the starting quarterback, playing with NFL talent in players on the offense with Doug Martin, Titus Young and Austin Pettis. With Kellen Moore at quarterback, Chris Petersen at head coach, and the blue turf, I would’ve taken Boise State over any one in a division 1 match-up. In 2009, Boise State had an undefeated season, becoming the second team in history to go 14-0, however with the way the BCS was set up at the time, Boise State unfortunately missed the championship in lieu of Alabama and Texas, both undefeated powerhouses that belonged to tougher conferences.

When the College Football Playoff was introduced in 2014, I was ecstatic at the thought of finally being able to see Boise State on the big stage, able to prove they could play anyone. Although Moore had graduated and Petersen left for Washington, Boise State still had a ton of talent and a great new coach in Bryan Harsin, who served as offensive coordinator under Petersen. Over the course of the Harsin era, they had 4 seasons with 3 or fewer losses, and 2 seasons with only 2 losses. But despite their success, even with an additional 2 playoff seeds, it just wasn’t meant to be as the CFP heavily favored colleges belonging to the Power 5 college football conferences, which includes the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. In the Petersen and Harsin eras, Boise State has been a member of the Group of 5, which includes the AAC, Conference-USA, MAC, Sun Belt, and Mountain West.

The College Football Playoff has been a massive success for the popularity of football compared to its predecessor in the BCS, as there’s more football being played to decide who the better team is, compared to the on-paper arguments behind closed doors of who had more “quality-losses”, inevitably leading to snubs of very talented, deserving teams.

Recent talks have been leaning towards the idea of a 12 team playoff, which would be especially great for finally including Boise State and other Power 5 teams that have had a history of being snubbed. The latest proposal includes automatic bids to the Power 5 conference champions, as well as the highest ranked Group of 5 conference champion. The remaining 6 bids are awarded at-large to the top 6 teams remaining in the CFP rankings. The proposal also includes first round byes to the top 4 highest ranked conference champions, with the first round games being played on campus instead of a neutral site like it is in the current format.

Although nothing has officially passed and talks are paused until January, the idea of a 12 team playoff has inspired me to look into what an expanded playoff might’ve looked like in the previous CFP seasons, starting with the 2014-2015 season.

In the inaugural playoff, the #4 seed Ohio State Buckeyes beat the #2 seed Oregon Ducks 42-20 in the CFP Championship.

Looking at the final CFP rankings going into the playoff, there would be a fair amount of reshuffling of the seeds in a 12 team playoff.

The original 1-4 seeds would remain unchanged, as each of those teams is a Power 5 conference champion, which would trigger an automatic playoff bid. Baylor and TCU were co-champions for the 2014-2015 season since the Big 12 didn’t host a conference championship game through the 2011-2016 seasons due to a lack of membership. Baylor did however beat TCU earlier in the season in a 61-58 shootout, resulting in their higher CFP ranking, so they would have made it in as the final Power 5 automatic bid, and TCU would have made it in as the first at-large bid.

Since the last automatic bid is the highest ranked Group of 5 conference champion, Boise State would have been able to squeak in to the playoffs this time as the 5 seed, being the highest ranked team to play in the first round. Rounding out the rest of the remaining at-large bids are Mississippi State, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Arizona and Kansas State as the 7-12 seeds respectively.

Taking it a step further, I decided to simulate the 12 team playoff match-ups 1,000 times each (shout out Spike’s Deadliest Warrior for the inspiration) in the NCAA Game Sim to get an idea of how the expanded playoff might have played out.

In the first round the higher seeded team won each match-up, which makes sense given the inclusion of home field advantage, something not currently implemented in the 4 team playoff. Boise State vs Arizona actually happened in the non-CFP bowl games that year, with Boise State beating Arizona 38-30 in the Fiesta Bowl, so I decided to use that result instead of simulating the game. Similarly, TCU played Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl that season, beating them 42-3, so I used that result in place of the simulations.

For the second round, the higher seeded teams all won with the exception of Florida State. The Florida State – Boise State simulation was razor thin, FSU won 503 games to Boise State’s 497 games. Having said that, the average score was in favor of Boise State beating Jameis Winston’s Seminoles, 27.7 to 27.1. Had I decided to run 10,000 simulations there may have been a more definitive margin of victory for either team, but it’s very much a toss-up. For the sake of chaos I went off the average score, allowing Boise State to move on to the semifinals.

Since Oregon and Ohio State played in that year’s actual CFP National Championship, I used the result of that game for their semifinal match-up, with Ohio State advancing 42-20 over Oregon. The Alabama – Boise State match-up was decided by a touchdown over the 1,000 simulations I ran, resulting in the Sugar Bowl match-up of the actual CFP that year becoming the CFP National Championship in this 12 team playoff.

So in the end, Ohio State still would’ve won the first CFP National Championship, but we would’ve had a lot more fun along the way.

Heisman Finalists & Success in the NFL

The Heisman Trophy is perhaps the most well known trophy for individual performance in North American sports, awarded annually to the most outstanding player in college football since its inception in 1935.

Much attention is focused on the specific winner and their career in professional football, often underperforming with respect to the expectations set by their exceptional college careers. However, the finalist classes as a whole fail to get the recognition they deserve as a group despite being a collection of the top 10-11 most outstanding college football players each year.

Using the Approximate Value (AV) metric from profootballreference.com, we can quantify how successful a class of Heisman finalists went on to be in the National Football League. The data in this blog post includes all the Heisman finalist classes from 1959, which is the earliest class that has finalists that have recorded AV stats, to 2016, the latest class that doesn’t include any players still in college (McKenzie Milton, a finalist in 2017, is still busy living it up on campus). Each finalist class includes the top 10-11 players in terms of votes received throughout the voting process, and not just the players invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Starting off with the Top 10 Best Heisman Classes by Year, the Heisman finalist class that went on to have the best Average Career AV is the 2003 Heisman class. This finalist class includes the three franchise quarterbacks of the 2004 NFL Draft, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, as well as wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. With four potential NFL hall of famers in one finalist class, it’s no surprise that the class of 2003 tops the list.

Coming in just behind the class of 2003 is the class of 1982, which produced three NFL HOFers in quarterback Dan Marino and John Elway, and running back Eric Dickerson.

The 3rd best class in terms of Average Career AV is the class of 1997, which also included 3 NFL hall of fame players in defensive back Charles Woodson, quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Randy Moss.

On the flip side is the Top 10 Worst Heisman Classes by Year, led by the class of 2012 and Heisman winner/NFL bust Johnny Manziel. Of the ten players in the class, only two are still on a roster today, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and wide receiver Tavon Austin. Although Clowney may still have a solid number of seasons to go, it will do very little in helping bump up the class’s low Average Career AV of 14.7.

In terms of colleges, some schools are Heisman finalist factories, with “Blue Bloods” such as Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, USC and Michigan all producing 20 or more Heisman finalists over the 58 year period of 1959-2016.

Ohio State, USC and Miami(FL) produced the finalists with the highest Career AVs, with the three schools roughly around a sum of 900. This only includes a single instance of a player in a Heisman finalist class; for example 2 time winner and 3 time finalist Archie Griffin only had his Career AV counted once for the Sum of Career AV for Ohio State.

It is also interesting to see the breakdown of Heisman classes by individual player. Although it is pretty agreed upon that Heisman winners tend to underwhelm in the NFL, it is still surprising that of all the Heisman classes over 1959-2016, the Heisman winner went on to have the best Career AV only 6 of 58 seasons, or 10.34% of the time.

Heisman winners also went on to have the worst Career AV in their class just as frequent as they had their best, in only 6 of 58 seasons.

Compared to the Heisman winner, the runner-up only fared marginally better in the Career AV metric, leading their class 7 of 58 seasons, or 12.07% of the time.

It seems that neither the Heisman winner or Heisman runner-up had an advantage for Career AV over the last place finalist, which actually had the best Career AV in its class for 7 of 58 seasons.

Looking at the Heisman winner against the rest of their finalist class, the Heisman winner did tend to do better than their peers in terms of Average AV per Season, as they outperformed their classes 33 seasons and underperformed their classes in the remaining 25 seasons.

This holds up when looking at the generic Heisman winner and generic Heisman finalist. The winner played slightly longer with approximately .75 more seasons played, had a Career AV 8 points higher than the finalist, and also had an Average AV per Season 1.2 points higher than the finalist.

College football success is very hard to translate to the NFL, and the Heisman Trophy Trust recognizes the most outstanding player, not necessarily the most “pro-ready” player. It’s not the most likely to succeed award, which is why there can be such a disconnect between Heisman winners and their less acclaimed colleagues once they both make the NFL. It is important, however, that the other Heisman finalists outside of the winner get the recognition and spotlight they deserve for being one of the top players in college football, as these players often go on to do great things at the next level of competitive football.