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The 1988 college football season would have been a playoff committee's nightmare

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We'd have ended up with an eight-team playoff very quickly after this mess.

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Some years are a giant mess on paper. Funky results or poor connectivity make for head-scratching, or almost incomplete, ratings.

Other years are like 1988, when top teams all play at least one or two top teams, and the ratings make almost complete sense.

According to Est. S&P+, there were two clear teams at the top and five more nearby.

No. 1 Miami lost to Notre Dame by one point on the road. Taking home field into account, any sort of adjustment makes that a virtual tie or a slight win for the Hurricanes, who also whipped No. 4 Florida State to start the season and beat No. 5 Michigan by one on the road in Week 3.

No. 2 Notre Dame indeed beat Miami by a margin of home field advantage and also beat No. 3 USC by 17 on the road, No. 6 Michigan by two at home, and No. 7 West Virginia by 13 in the Fiesta Bowl.

No. 3 USC lost by 17 to No. 2 Notre Dame at home, beat No. 5 UCLA by nine on the road, and lost by eight to No. 6 Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

No. 4 Florida State lacked the connectivity of the others but lost to Miami on the road and made up ground in the ratings by beating No. 8 Auburn by six in the Sugar Bowl and beating No. 9 Clemson by three on the road.

No. 5 UCLA lost by nine at home to No. 3 USC and made up ground with wins over No. 10 Nebraska (41-28 at home) and No. 15 Arkansas (17-3 in the Cotton Bowl). The Bruins' only other loss came against No. 16 Washington State.

No. 6 Michigan lost to No. 1 Miami by one at home and No. 2 Notre Dame by two on the road. They beat No. 3 USC by eight in the Rose Bowl. I would have guessed the Wolverines would have ended up No. 3 here because of those results, but mediocre performances against No. 37 Iowa (a 17-17 tie in Iowa City) and No. 44 Wake Forest (19-9 win at home) dragged them down a couple of decimal points, apparently.

No. 7 WVU didn't beat anybody better than No. 17 Syracuse in an undefeated regular season, but every win was by double digits, and a 13-point Fiesta Bowl loss to No. 1 Notre Dame was simultaneously definitive and competitive enough to warrant a top(ish) spot.

You could grouse about Michigan needing to be above USC or UCLA if you want, I guess, but compared to most years, this is nice and tidy. Sure, the best team didn't win the national title, but that's a product of scheduling (and the lack of a playoff rematch).

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 Miami-FL 11-1 25.7 98.97% 35.1 8 9.4 1
2 Notre Dame 12-0 25.2 98.83% 35.4 7 10.3 3
3 USC 10-2 23.1 98.12% 34.6 9 11.5 4
4 Florida State 11-1 21.9 97.56% 37.7 3 15.9 14
5 UCLA 10-2 20.1 96.52% 34.3 11 14.2 9
6 Michigan 9-2-1 19.4 95.95% 31.7 14 12.3 5
7 West Virginia 11-1 18.3 95.03% 38.4 2 20.1 34
8 Auburn 10-2 16.4 93.06% 26.1 33 9.6 2
9 Clemson 10-2 15.8 92.34% 29.4 21 13.6 7
10 Nebraska 11-2 14.9 91.06% 33.7 13 18.8 26
11 Oklahoma State 10-2 14.5 90.47% 46.0 1 31.5 91
12 Wyoming 11-2 13.8 89.37% 37.4 4 23.6 57
13 Houston 9-3 13.8 89.27% 35.8 6 22.1 46
14 Oklahoma 9-3 13.4 88.68% 27.2 26 13.8 8
15 Arkansas 10-2 13.1 88.20% 29.0 22 15.9 13
16 Washington State 9-3 11.8 85.60% 35.9 5 24.1 59
17 Syracuse 10-2 11.1 84.07% 27.6 24 16.5 18
18 Arizona 7-4 11.0 84.00% 28.1 23 17.1 21
19 Alabama 9-3 10.7 83.26% 26.4 30 15.7 12
20 Michigan State 6-5-1 10.0 81.65% 23.5 47 13.5 6
21 Pittsburgh 6-5 9.1 79.35% 25.2 38 16.1 15
22 LSU 8-4 8.9 78.78% 23.2 48 14.4 10
23 Indiana 8-3-1 8.8 78.69% 30.7 15 21.9 43
24 Stanford 3-6-2 8.7 78.31% 24.9 39 16.3 17
25 Colorado 8-4 8.4 77.51% 25.7 34 17.4 22
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Georgia 9-3 8.2 76.95% 26.2 31 18.0 24
27 Texas A&M 7-5 7.6 75.20% 26.5 28 19.0 28
28 Washington 6-5 7.4 74.87% 25.4 35 17.9 23
29 BYU 9-4 6.6 72.31% 30.3 17 23.8 58
30 Oregon State 4-6-1 6.3 71.59% 27.1 27 20.7 35
31 Southern Miss 10-2 5.9 70.17% 30.7 16 24.8 62
32 Kentucky 5-6 5.8 70.07% 22.4 56 16.6 19
33 Penn State 5-6 5.3 68.30% 22.2 59 16.9 20
34 NC State 8-3-1 5.2 68.15% 21.4 63 16.2 16
35 UTEP 10-3 4.8 66.72% 30.2 18 25.4 68
36 Oregon 6-6 4.3 65.07% 24.1 44 19.8 31
37 Iowa 6-4-3 4.0 64.16% 23.9 45 19.9 32
38 Hawaii 9-3 3.2 61.43% 29.4 20 26.2 70
39 Fresno State 10-2 2.5 59.01% 24.6 41 22.1 45
40 Central Michigan 7-4 2.3 58.10% 21.3 64 19.1 29
41 Western Michigan 9-3 2.1 57.33% 25.3 37 23.2 53
42 Texas Tech 5-6 2.0 57.09% 29.9 19 28.0 80
43 California 5-5-1 1.9 56.93% 23.1 51 21.1 38
44 Wake Forest 6-4-1 1.9 56.63% 24.4 42 22.5 49
45 Ball State 8-3 1.8 56.58% 20.9 66 19.1 30
46 Maryland 5-6 1.4 55.06% 26.4 29 25.0 64
47 Florida 7-5 1.1 54.13% 16.8 90 15.6 11
48 Rutgers 5-6 1.0 53.68% 23.8 46 22.7 50
49 South Carolina 8-4 0.9 53.25% 19.1 75 18.2 25
50 Air Force 5-7 0.1 50.29% 34.1 12 34.0 99
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 Arizona State 6-5 -0.1 49.74% 21.5 62 21.6 41
52 UL-Lafayette 6-5 -0.2 49.32% 23.2 49 23.4 55
53 Ole Miss 5-6 -0.3 48.93% 19.7 72 20.0 33
54 Ohio State 4-6-1 -0.6 47.76% 23.0 54 23.6 56
55 Virginia 7-4 -0.8 47.24% 21.6 61 22.4 48
56 Tennessee 5-6 -0.8 47.16% 22.2 58 23.0 52
57 Utah 6-5 -1.2 45.78% 34.5 10 35.7 101
58 Illinois 6-5-1 -1.2 45.56% 19.7 71 20.9 37
59 Tulsa 4-7 -1.4 44.98% 25.3 36 26.7 76
60 Missouri 3-7-1 -1.9 43.30% 24.7 40 26.6 75
61 East Carolina 3-8 -2.0 42.82% 26.1 32 28.1 82
62 Army 9-3 -2.0 42.71% 22.5 55 24.5 60
63 Texas 4-7 -2.3 41.95% 24.1 43 26.4 73
64 Georgia Tech 3-8 -2.6 40.67% 16.3 92 19.0 27
65 Toledo 6-5 -2.9 39.52% 17.8 85 20.8 36
66 Memphis 6-5 -3.4 38.10% 19.0 76 22.4 47
67 Virginia Tech 3-8 -3.4 38.07% 18.6 80 22.0 44
68 Fullerton State 5-6 -4.2 35.38% 17.6 86 21.8 42
69 Louisville 8-3 -4.4 34.61% 20.5 69 24.9 63
70 Duke 7-3-1 -4.4 34.50% 27.4 25 31.8 93
71 Eastern Michigan 6-3-1 -4.6 33.81% 16.7 91 21.4 40
72 Baylor 6-5 -4.8 33.16% 16.3 93 21.2 39
73 Boston College 3-8 -4.9 32.99% 23.2 50 28.1 81
74 Iowa State 5-6 -5.2 31.89% 18.2 83 23.4 54
75 Kent 5-6 -5.9 29.79% 20.5 68 26.4 72
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 TCU 4-7 -6.2 28.92% 19.3 74 25.4 69
77 Vanderbilt 3-8 -7.0 26.52% 18.3 82 25.2 66
78 Temple 4-7 -7.1 25.98% 20.2 70 27.4 77
79 Navy 3-8 -8.0 23.61% 17.1 88 25.1 65
80 Rice 0-11 -8.3 22.67% 19.5 73 27.8 78
81 San Jose State 4-8 -8.3 22.61% 23.0 53 31.3 90
82 San Diego State 3-8 -8.8 21.31% 22.4 57 31.2 89
83 North Carolina 1-10 -9.3 20.21% 23.1 52 32.3 94
84 Northern Illinois 7-4 -9.5 19.65% 13.4 101 22.9 51
85 Minnesota 2-7-2 -9.5 19.57% 15.2 97 24.8 61
86 Akron 5-6 -10.4 17.44% 16.0 94 26.4 71
87 Louisiana Tech 4-7 -10.5 17.25% 21.0 65 31.5 92
88 Northwestern 2-8-1 -11.6 14.88% 18.9 77 30.4 85
89 Colorado State 1-10 -11.6 14.74% 18.7 78 30.4 84
90 Tulane 5-6 -11.8 14.41% 20.8 67 32.6 96
91 Ohio 4-6-1 -11.9 14.21% 15.9 95 27.8 79
92 Purdue 4-7 -12.1 13.77% 13.3 102 25.4 67
93 Mississippi State 1-10 -12.2 13.59% 16.8 89 29.0 83
94 Wisconsin 1-10 -14.8 9.07% 11.6 105 26.4 74
95 Long Beach State 3-9 -15.2 8.59% 17.3 87 32.5 95
96 Utah State 4-7 -15.2 8.47% 18.6 79 33.9 98
97 Bowling Green 2-8-1 -15.3 8.38% 15.1 98 30.4 86
98 UNLV 4-7 -17.2 6.08% 13.6 100 30.8 88
99 Pacific 2-9 -18.4 4.88% 12.2 103 30.5 87
100 Kansas 1-10 -19.1 4.25% 21.7 60 40.8 105
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 Miami-OH 0-10-1 -19.6 3.85% 14.2 99 33.8 97
102 Cincinnati 3-8 -19.7 3.76% 15.7 96 35.4 100
103 New Mexico 2-10 -20.6 3.16% 18.4 81 39.0 104
104 Kansas State 0-11 -20.7 3.12% 17.9 84 38.5 103
105 New Mexico State 1-10 -26.2 0.90% 11.8 104 38.0 102

Computer rankings: clean. Playoff determination: U-G-L-Y

Great, so after the fact, ranking the teams is a relatively clean exercise. That wouldn't have saved a hypothetical CFP committee from a nightmarish task at the end of the regular season.

Here's the top 8 in the AP poll at the end of the regular season:

1. 11-0 Notre Dame

2. 11-0 WVU

3. 10-1 Miami

4. 10-1 FSU

5. 10-1 USC

6. 11-1 Nebraska

7. 10-1 Auburn

8. 10-1 Arkansas

That's two undefeated independents, a one-loss independent with a 1-point road loss to the No. 1 team, another one-loss independent with only a loss to the No. 3 team, a one-loss Pac-10 champion, a one-loss Big 8 champion, a one-loss SEC champion, and a one-loss SWC champion. That is a complete and utter nightmare. If you had a four-team playoff this year, you would have an eight-teamer in 1989 after dealing with the outrage emitting from the four teams that don't get selected.

The end-of-regular-season Est. S&P+ ratings would be of little help: 1 Miami, 2 USC, 3 ND, 4 FSU, 5 UCLA.

I have to figure ND, WVU, and Miami are in. And my guess is that, even though recency bias isn't supposed to play a role, it probably would. FSU got rocked by Miami in the season opener, while USC got rocked (by less) by ND at the end of the regular season. Sorry, Rodney Peete. FSU's in. 1 ND vs. 4 FSU, 2 WVU vs. 3 Miami

Miami likely wins, and we get a spectacular rematch in the final, one way or another.

Other thoughts:

  • 1988 was the last year before Bill Snyder showed up in Manhattan. The biggest surprise is that there was actually a team worse than KSU that year. And hello, No. 100 Kansas, as well. The Big 8 Bermuda Triangle wasn't in full effect, as Missouri was actually a healthy 60th (just six spots behind a bafflingly mediocre Ohio State), but two outta three ain't bad. Well, actually, it's really bad.
  • Oklahoma State, with Barry Sanders in the backfield, ranking first in offense? Yeah, I can believe that.
  • Things were strangely sensible among the top 17, with every team winning at least nine games. But the craziness sets in at No. 20, with two six-wins teams ... and then 3-6-2 Stanford at 24th. The Cardinal lost to USC by four, to UCLA by 10, to Washington and Washington State by three each, and to Oregon by four. Their three wins came by an average score of 33-8. This was Jack Elway's last year in Palo Alto -- he was fired after these disappointing results. But wow, were those results close to turning around.
  • Your top 10 mid-majors, just out of curiosity: 12 Wyoming, 29 BYU, 31 Southern Miss, 35 UTEP, 38 Hawaii, 39 Fresno State, 40 CMU, 41 WMU, 45 Ball State, 50 Air Force. Pretty good mid-major presence in the top 50, even if there was only one in the top 25.

1987 is up next, with one of the biggest "WTF??" top-5 ratings I can recall.