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Would TCU Have Given Oregon A Better Game?

The first College Football Playoff game ever played, Thursday’s Rose Bowl between the Oregon Ducks against the Florida State Seminoles, promised to be a classic featuring two Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks. Instead, it was a one-sided romp that saw Oregon outscore Florida State 41-7 in the second half en route to a 39-point victory.

Plenty of observers enjoyed the schadenfreude of seeing Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston lose his first game as a college starter, particularly in light of Winston’s off-field comportment. But the blowout loss also amplified questions about whether Florida State should have been granted a playoff berth in the first place.

Going into the playoff, there wasn’t much debate over the selection committee‘s top two teams, Alabama and Oregon, but there was plenty of controversy surrounding the admittance of Florida State and Ohio State over TCU and Baylor. In addition to the strange leapfrog Florida State and Ohio State made over TCU in the final edition of the committee’s rankings, a number of oddsmakers suggested both jilted Texas schools would be favored at a neutral field over either the Seminoles or Buckeyes.

Some of that second-guessing looks silly after Ohio State beat Alabama in Thursday’s Sugar Bowl, earning a trip to face Oregon in the CFP’s championship game, hours after Baylor blew a 20-point 4th quarter lead against Michigan State to lose the Cotton Bowl. But in conjunction with TCU’s 39-point obliteration of Ole Miss (who placed ninth in the committee’s final rankings) in the Peach Bowl on Wednesday, Florida State’s humiliating loss to Oregon has, predictably, led to calls that TCU should have been in the playoff instead.

Statistically, there’s something to that criticism. Going into the bowls, Florida State ranked tenth in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) rating, which emphasizes per-drive scoring margin and downplays the theory that a team could have a knack for consistently winning close games, rather than just getting lucky. The Seminoles had been 13-0 before their meeting with Oregon, but the Seminoles’ point differential suggested they deserved a record more like 10-3 or even 9-4. The Seminoles’ year of living dangerously finally caught up with them.

By contrast, TCU had ranked fifth in the FPI before the bowls, and currently sits at No. 4 behind Oregon, Alabama (who still rank second despite their loss), and Ohio State. Knowing what we know now, and using the historical distribution of actual point margins for a given prediction (based on an FPI-like Elo variant for seasons since the start of the BCS era), there’s a 98.2 percent probability that TCU’s point differential versus Oregon would have been closer than Florida State’s margin of defeat Thursday, and a 54 percent chance that TCU would cover the point spread if they were made a touchdown underdog against the Ducks.

Then again, based on the pregame FPI ratings, Oregon’s 39-point win in the Rose Bowl also represented the 98th percentile of all possible outcomes for a game against Florida State at a neutral site. If they were to play again today, FPI’s current data says there’s a 96.6 percent probability the Seminoles would put forth a better showing the second time around.

Hindsight is 20/20. So while it’s likely that TCU was, and is, a better team than Florida State, it was difficult at the time to argue for an undefeated Power 5 conference team to be left out of the playoff field, even if their record was out of step with their point differential.

And even now, the gulf between the two teams isn’t as wide as it seems after TCU had a 99th percentile performance in the Peach Bowl and Florida State had a 2nd percentile performance in the Rose Bowl. FPI says TCU would be favored by about 4.5 points on a neutral field, meaning there’d still be roughly a 39 percent chance of a Florida State victory even after accounting for the events of the past few days.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.