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Margin matters in new playoff

    In college football, it's not just about whether you win or lose. It's about the final score, too — and how much of a bump a comfortable margin of victory gives a team in the eyes of playoff judges.
    Call them style points. And there's no way to know precisely how much they count.
    Unbeaten Florida State found that out when it slipped behind Oregon (9-1) to third in the College Football Playoff rankings this week. One of the reasons cited by selection committee chairman and Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long was the Seminoles' close wins against Clemson and Notre Dame compared to the Ducks' comfortable margins against Michigan State, UCLA and Utah.
    There is only so much a coach can do to control margin of victory or defeat. Florida State's Jimbo Fisher said he won't go out of his way to tack on an extra touchdown or two if the Seminoles have that opportunity over the last three weeks of the season.
    "I'm not going to change the integrity of the way I do things," he said. "I'm hoping to hold the integrity of the game higher than everybody else. If people on the committee can't see that, then that's it. If it's for us to score to win the game or keep control of it, then we'll do that."
    Much like the Bowl Championship Series did, the College Football Playoff tries to give a nod to sportsmanship by downplaying margin of victory and not rewarding teams for running up the score. The College Football Playoff selection committee protocol makes only one mention of margin of victory.
    The BCS removed margin of victory from the computer rankings used in its standings, though poll voters were free to take it into account. And in the later years of the BCS, poll votes had far more influence on which teams played for the national title than computers.
    The playoff uses a 12-member selection committee to determine the four teams that will play for the national title. And they are keeping an eye on margin of victory.
    Long said the committee believed the difference between Oregon and Florida State was very slight.
    "But you look at Florida State, they have two top 25 wins, both at home, both very close, an overtime victory versus Clemson and a right down to the wire victory against Notre Dame. Yes, those factors went in, and that gave us comparing those two, it gave us a very slight edge to Oregon for the No. 2 spot," Long said.
    The other much-debated placement in this week's rankings was TCU at No. 4 and Baylor at No. 7. The Bears beat the Horned Frogs last month in Waco, Texas, but remain behind their Big 12 rivals even after an impressive road victory against Oklahoma. Baylor beat the Sooners 48-14 in Norman, Oklahoma. Earlier this season, TCU beat Oklahoma 37-33 in Fort Worth, Texas.
    "Certainly scores of games are a factor, and we do look at those, and ... we do not reward teams' excessive scoring, but we certainly have to take into effect the scores of the game," Long said.
    "We combined it with everything else we had, again, body of work, strength of schedule, all those things, and still feel like TCU is better quality at this point in time in the season."
    Much like the selection committee protocol tries to downplay margin of victory while the members themselves still pay attention to it, coaches tend to downplay their interest in the rankings while still paying attention to them.
    Arizona State coach Todd Graham noted that his team, now sixth in the playoff rankings, beat Notre Dame more decisively than Florida State did. The Sun Devils grabbed a big lead, saw it dwindle, then spurted to a 55-31 victory against the Irish. The Seminoles beat Notre Dame 31-27 after a late penalty wiped out an Irish touchdown.
    "I think they should take into account that," Graham said about the Irish. "We still had a dominating victory over them."
    As the coach of team with a 25-game winning streak that has done nothing but drop in various rankings since the start of the season, Fisher sees it differently.
    "I thought," he said, "the name of the game was to keep winning."