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Tramel: Will college football's unbeaten status hold with Big Ten, Pac-12 joining the fray?

College football always had a rhythm to its season. The pretenders of September give way to the contenders of October, then November is a race to the finish line, which now includes conference championship games in December.

And that rhythm always has included the timeless attribute of being unbeaten. Think of the phrases that have resulted from that rhythm.

Battle of unbeatens. Unbeaten and untied, in those glorious old days when seven-overtime games were not possible. Knocked from the ranks of the unbeatens.

Unbeaten was a status, an exclusive club. College football pollsters rewarded unbeatens. Brigham Young, then from the Western Athletic Conference, won the 1984 national title by going unbeaten. More egregiously, Georgia Tech won the 1991 coaches poll with an 11-0-1, over a 10-1-1 Colorado team that was one of the highest-achieving teams in history.

We’ve always loved our unbeatens.

And in this crazy pandemic year of 2020, with minimal games against cupcakes, the unbeaten ranks have dwindled fast.

After just five weeks, Alabama is the only unbeaten in the Southeastern Conference. Oklahoma State is the only unbeaten in the Big 12. Clemson and Notre Dame are the only unbeatens in the ACC (yes, Notre Dame in the ACC; told you it was crazy).

The mid-majors, limited by how many Power 5 teams can schedule them (only the Big 12 and ACC, and then a maximum of one), have done better at staying unbeaten.

Cincinnati and SMU from the American. Coastal Carolina from the Sun Belt. Florida Atlantic from Conference USA (though it helps to have played just one game). Brigham Young and Liberty from the independents.

Except technically, the unbeaten ranks are more robust than ever before. Here it is October 20, and the unbeaten ranks also include 14 teams from the Big Ten, 12 teams from the Pac-12, 12 teams from the Mid-American and 12 teams from the Mountain West.

The Big Ten and Mountain West start play this week, the Pac-12 the next week and the MAC in early November.

That’s 50 extra unbeatens about to join the race, in a sport in which the right side of the win-loss record always has carried more weight than the left side.

Sure, while the conference-games-only nature of 2020 scheduling means that each of those leagues’ unbeaten clubs will be cut in half in their first week, it also means each league likely will have an unbeaten, two or three last for several weeks.

And the finished product of reduced schedules (barring cancellations, nine total games for each Big Ten team and seven for each Pac-12) means the champion of those conferences have a better chance at a spotless record than champions from the Big 12, SEC or ACC.

So the new pollsters -- the College Football Playoff committee -- will be faced with a dilemma. Will they adjust their thinking on the exalted status of unbeatens?

Will a 7-0 Oregon best a 10-1 Oklahoma State? Will a 9-0 Ohio State be ranked above an 11-1 Notre Dame?

The answer is, probably yes, and if so, it won’t be because of precise analysis of schedules or film study. It will be because of a century-old fascination with defeats. Fewer defeats always have trumped more wins. That right side of the record is more prized more than the left side.

And 2017 gives us insight into the committee’s thinking.

In 2017, the committee met and put Alabama in the four-team playoff. Which was only common sense. The Tide had a great team and eventually won the national title. But that same committee ranked Southern Cal eighth its final meeting.

Alabama was 11-1 and did not win its SEC division. USC was 11-2 and won the Pac-12. 

Alabama beat three teams outside the Power 5 -- Fresno State, Colorado State and Mercer, so in games that really defined a team’s strength, Bama was 8-1. USC played just one team outside the Power 5 (Western Michigan); its other non-conference games were Texas and Notre Dame. USC played nine conference games to Bama’s eight, plus the Trojans had the extra game with the Pac-12 Championship.

USC played 12 real games. Alabama played nine. Bama was given the edge, because it had the “1” under the loss column and USC had “2.”

And it’s not so much that the committee picked Alabama over USC. It’s that the committee had USC No. 8, below even Wisconsin, which played 10 games against Power 5 opponents and went 9-1 in those games.

But give that 2017 committee a little credit. It voted much more out of the box than most years. That year, it voted two-loss Ohio State ahead of one-loss Wisconsin (at 5-6) and three-loss Auburn ahead of two-loss USC, Penn State and Miami (at 7-8-9-10).

In 2019, the only disorder in losses was Wisconsin over Florida and Penn State (at 8-9-10).

In 2018, the only disorder in losses was Georgia over Ohio State (at 5-6).

In 2015, the only disorder in losses was Stanford over Ohio State (at 6-7).

In 2014, the only disorder in losses was Alabama and Oregon over Florida State (at 1-2-3).

That 2014 year, the first for the College Football Playoff, gave hope that maybe the new process wouldn’t be married to the preciousness of unbeaten status. The belief that defeats mattered more than victories, and getting to the end of the race with as few defeats possible trumped all.

But subsequent years have shown that losses matter more than victories. And now we get to 2020, when the committee might have to vote against a century of tradition and its own history to put more-deserving teams in the playoff.

Here are my rankings, based not on what I think they will do. What they’ve done. Who they played, where they played and how they did.

1. Alabama 4-0: Easiest choice of ever doing rankings. Bama would be No. 1 with either its victory over Texas A&M or Georgia. Both? It’s a landslide.

2. Clemson 5-0: The Tigers are much closer to the pack than to Alabama in accomplishment.

3. Texas A&M 3-1: Only four SEC teams have fewer than two losses. A&M beat one of them, Florida.

4. Brigham Young 5-0: The Cougars have pinned the only defeats on Troy and Houston. Navy is 3-0 in the American but lost to BYU. Louisiana Tech is 2-1 in Conference USA but lost to BYU.

5. Notre Dame 4-0: Florida State showed some life last week, lifting the Fighting Irish’s stock.

6. Georgia 3-1: It’s difficult to rank teams this early, so the Bulldogs get some credit for wins over Auburn and Tennessee. But neither victory means as much as it did.

7. Oklahoma State 3-0: I know, I’m going against my own argument, putting the Cowboys ahead of Iowa State and Kansas State. But if only ISU and KSU hadn’t lost to Sun Belt teams.

8. Coastal Carolina 4-0: The Chanticleers won at Louisiana-Lafayette, so I’m riding with them for awhile. I was big on the Ragin’ Cajuns.

9. Cincinnati 3-0: The win over Army is keeping the Bearcats in the top 10.

10. Louisiana-Lafayette 3-1: Told you I was big on the Cajuns.

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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›