A few seasons ago, the world of baseball analysis was swept up by an increasingly popular way to analyze player performance. Used by some as a key stat to determine season ending award winners and player contract values, Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, shows the extent of a player’s contribution to their team. Some people love this sabermetric; others still aren’t buying into it. Similarly, a new stat has become a key component involved in selecting the four participants in the new College Football Playoff.
As a whole, sports fans love stats, and we love finding ways to analyze which player is better than other players, and which team is better than the other teams. If you’ve been keeping up with the college football playoff talk, especially on the ESPN networks, you may have noticed a new phrase being thrown around by analysts and reporters — game control.
We finally have a stat for what was once commonly referred to as style points, and like WAR, some people are all-in on game control. Personally, I’m holding on to my chips.
Game control is not just being talked about by ESPN. College Football Playoff selection committee chairman Jeff Long has stated that the committee used game control to justify their decisions in placing certain teams above others.
According to NBCSports.com, game control “[reflects] chance that an average Top 25 team would control games from start to end the way this team did, given the schedule.” Essentially, if a good team “struggles” against a weaker team, not good.
Overall, the implementation of game control makes sense. Nobody would actually take the committee seriously if they still referenced the rather informal and undefined phrase “style points.” Game control now puts a number — a statistic — to the face of what is in essence still the same thing. What goes into formula, however, isn’t quite clear. And nevertheless, its practice is still questionable.
As an avid reader of Phil Steele, I have no problem with computers and stats. They are a great way to help provide additional differentiation between teams by more than just the “eye test.”
But, game control? I’m not buying it.
Under the old national championship game selection formula, the Bowl Championship Series ranking, style points, or margin of victory, was a debatable form of legitimately measuring a teams worth. So game control really isn’t anything new, per se. However, according to ESPN’s definition, it certainly seems to be a more intricate measurement, and as such it is being talked about seriously.
The biggest team affected by game control to this point is Florida State. Last years national champion, FSU is again the only power-five conference team left undefeated. At 10-0, they have more wins than anybody, and less losses (none). However, on Tuesday Long stated that due to the number of come-from-behind victories FSU has, they decided to jump Alabama and Oregon ahead of them to Nos. 1 and 2 respectively.
If game control is that important, let us remember that the best way to control a game is to win. If the clock strikes zero, and your team has less points than the other team, that in itself is a failure to control the game. The Seminoles have yet to commit such a failure.
There are other individual cases we can look at as well. Oregon (No. 2) defeated 3-7 Washington State by seven points, No. 5 TCU had to come from behind last week against 3-7 Kansas to win by four, and No. 10 Georgia squeaked out a three-point victory against 5-5 Tennessee. How these performances affected their ranking I can’t be sure, but what we should really be asking is who did they lose to.
All three of these teams have lost, and so has No. 1 Alabama. So why is Alabama higher ranked than FSU?
Well, we can look at strength of schedule. Schedule strength is probably the best indicator of how credible a team’s résumé is. Playing in the SEC West division, it’s hard to argue with the strength of Alabama’s schedule, but they currently have only one win over a top 25 team. Florida State has two.
Head-to-head matchups are also important. Florida State and Alabama have one common opponent, Florida, whom FSU has yet to play.
As the committee does, we can also look at game control. Florida State has come from behind to win five games. Alabama allowed Ole Miss to come from behind and lost that game. Florida State has had five games decided by 10 points or less, and won them all. Alabama has had five games decided by 10 points or less, and lost one.
Based off of these three factors, the difference between the two teams is fairly negligible. When we take into account a fourth one –wins and losses — one team clearly has the edge, FSU.
The eye test is the fifth determining factor involved in rankings, and there is no statistical formula attached to it. While Phil Steele and ESPN do have their own forward looking statistics which determine who should win a head-to-head matchup, the “eye test” in its general implementation relies on each individuals personal opinion.
It helps to have way to determine which teams are most deserving of higher rankings. In some respects, it’s easy to say which team you think is the best, as opposed to which is the most deserving. Before last year’s national championship game, based on the eye test many experts stated that Alabama was the best team in the nation, and deserved to be playing for the national title. Alabama then went on to lose to a perceived inferior Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Florida State came from behind against Auburn to win the national championship.
Yet, while game control may be a definitive statistic we can use to identify how well each team plays in-game, its implementation is still arbitrary. At the end of the day, winning is all that matters. Let’s not forget that.