College Football Playoff History (and Precedent)

Travis Normand
Originally Posted on November 7, 2017;
Updated on November 13, 2017;
Updated on November 14, 2017 (Post rankings);
Updated on November 26, 2017; and
Updated on December 3, 2017 (Post final rankings).

This post has not yet been edited, however due to the information it contains, I have to post it now in order to make sure it is relevant and timely. I will update as necessary.

This post reviews what has happened in prior CFP decisions, tries to digest those decisions into some kind of logical explanation, and then considers possible scenarios for the upcoming CFP. While I don’t believe the CFP committee wants there to be a “precedent” which would dictate how a particular CFP decision should go, it is fascinating to watch the decision making process as it plays out. Also, whether they like it or not, if the committee takes a particular course of action over and over, or makes the same type of decision based on the same criteria, they are effectively setting some kind of precedent. It may not be precedent that they are required to follow, but reversing course and making decisions that are completely contrary to their own prior decisions (with no logical explanation) will have potential negative effects on the CFP.

Note on rankings used throughout this post: every rank mentioned is, or should be, the CFP rank at the time the game mentioned was played. In some instances that may be the team’s final rank of the season, and in others it may be the rank at the time the game was played. Further, remember that the CFP committee’s final ranking is compiled before the bowl games and CFP, and they do not re-rank teams after the bowl season / CFP.

Notes on the CFP Committee’s Ranking and Selection Process

CFP Selection Protocol: The following factors are the protocol which the committee is supposed to use in order to separate, or rank teams, that they consider to be similar (however, the committee does not define what they consider to be “similar,” and we are left wondering whether a team with one-loss can ever be considered similar to a team with two-losses, or three?). There is no order or weight to which any given committee member must give to these five factors, and they can consider them in any manner. Further, if team “A” is considered to be unequivocally better than team “B” (or any other team), then the protocol or factors below do not come into play, and they can be wholly ignored, as they are not needed to separate team “A” from other teams. You can see the official protocol on their website at CollegeFootballPlayoff.com:

  1. Championships Won;
  2. Strength of Schedule (no specific metric used);
  3. Head-to-head Competition (if it occurred / if applicable);
  4. Comparative Outcomes of Common Opponents (without incenting margin of victory); and
  5. Other relevant factors (mentioned by ESPN, but not expressly found on the CFP committee’s protocol sheet).

Without going too far into what is written on the committee’s selection protocol sheet, the following are a few items of interest that I have taken from that sheet:

  • Select the “best” team: “For purposes of any four team playoff, the process will inevitably need to select the four best teams from among several with legitimate claims to participate.” – Early in the protocol sheet the committee sets out that it is looking for the “best” teams (however, they do not necessarily define “best”).
  • Best vs. Deserving: Later in the protocol sheet, while alluding to the selection process, the protocol sheet states: “Nuanced mathematical formulas ignore some teams who ‘deserve’ to be selected.” – Again, the committee does not define what it means to “deserve to be selected.” Do the best teams deserve it?
  • Other considerations by the committee: The selection protocol sheet states that “Criteria to be provided to the committee must be aligned with the ideals of honoring regular season success while at the same time providing enough flexibility and discretion to select a non-champion or independent under circumstances where that particular non-champion or independent is unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.” It also states that “We believe that a committee of experts properly instructed (based on beliefs that the regular season is unique and must be preserved; and that championships won on the field and strength of schedule are important values that must be incorporated into the selection process) …”
  • Finally, some guidelines expected to be adopted might include but are not limited to: “Strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and championships won must be specifically applies as tie-breakers between teams that look similar.”

PRECEDENT

(1) 2014-2015: FIRST COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF

  1. Alabama (SEC Champion) (12-2 Overall, 7-1 Conference, 12-1 Pre-CFP)
  2. Oregon* (Pac 12 Champion) (13-2 Overall, 8-1 Conference, 12-1 Pre-CFP)
  3. Florida State (ACC Champion) (13-1 Overall, 8-0 Conference, 13-0 Pre-CFP)
  4. Ohio State (Big 10 Champion) (14-1 Overall, 8-0 Conference, 12-1 Pre-CFP)
  5. Baylor (Big 12 Co-Champion) (11-2 Overall, 8-1 Conference, 11-1 Pre-CFP)
  6. TCU (Big 12 Co-Champion) (12-1 Overall, 8-1 Conference, 11-1 Pre-CFP)
  • 2014-2015 Notes:
  • Power Five Conference Champ Left Out: Baylor (11-1, 8-1) & TCU (11-1, 8-1) Big 12 Conference Co-Champions.
  • Controversy involving Baylor and TCU (and Ohio State’s loss to Virginia Tech): No. 9 TCU (12-1, 8-1, 11-1 Pre-Bowl) had lost at No. 5 Baylor (11-2, 8-1, 11-1 Pre-Cotton Bowl) during the regular season (by a score of 58-61). Further, the day before the final CFP rankings were released, No. 3 TCU defeated NR Iowa State by a score of 55-3 (expecting such a win to be good enough to maintain their spot in the top four). One week after Baylor defeated TCU, No. 4 Baylor lost at NR WVU by a score of 27-41 (a loss that presumably kept Baylor ranked behind TCU for almost the rest of the season). Then, the day before the final CFP rankings were released, No. 6 Baylor defeated No. 9 Kansas State (at home) by a score of 38-27 (a win that they were hoping would propel them into the top 4 and ahead of TCU, who they defeated earlier in the season). One would think that these final wins by Baylor and TCU would at least allow them hold their current positions ahead other teams, leaving only the issue of whether head-to-head would come into play as to whether TCU or Baylor should be among the top 4 teams and thus included in the CFP. Therefore, the controversy that existed before the final rankings were released was that Baylor and TCU were both 11-1 overall and 8-1 in the Big 12, however, despite Baylor having defeated TCU in the regular season, TCU was still ranked in the Top 4 and Baylor was not. The controversy increased after the final rankings were released when despite a victory in their last game, TCU fell from No. 3 to No. 6 (and out of the Top 4), while Baylor moved from No. 6 to No. 5 (thus jumping TCU due to their head-to-head win), and yet both were left out of the CFP as Ohio State moved from No. 5 to No. 4 after defeating No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big 10 Championship game. Most people assumed that there was no way Ohio State would be able to jump into the top 4 even though they were the Big 10 Conference Champion because that would require them to jump both Baylor and TCU, Big 12 Co-Champions, both of which had similar or better records (like TCU who also had only one loss, like Ohio State, but TCU’s loss was to Baylor while Ohio State’s was to Virginia Tech). In other words, most people assumed that Ohio State’s 21-35 home loss to Virginia Tech (7-6, 3-5) should have been sufficient to keep them out of the CFP, and allow for Baylor or TCU to take the No. 4 spot (with the only discussion being whether it should be Baylor or TCU). So what did we learn here? We learned that head-to-head considerations will be taken into account in the final rankings.
  • Ohio State: As you will read in other sections for this 2014-2015 year, many people did not believe Ohio State should have been in the CFP. However, those critics were silenced when Ohio State won the CFP. When Ohio State made the 2016-2017 CFP, again under interesting circumstances, those critics began again as it felt like the committee made unprecedented moves in order to get the Buckeyes into the CFP. These critics got even louder in 2017-2018 (before the final rankings were released) when the committee was trying to decide between Alabama and Ohio State as the fourth team in the CFP. Many felt like that if Ohio State got in, it would be a third move by the committee to do whatever it took to get Ohio State in. However, the committee opted for Alabama, a decision you can read about below under the section for 2017-2018.
  • The Vault: Ohio State moved from No. 5 to No. 4 in the final CFP rankings by defeating No. 13 Wisconsin (11-3 overall, 7-1 conference, 10-2 Pre-Big 10 Championship game) 59-0 in the Big 10 Championship game. This solidified the idea that conference titles must be extremely important when won in a conference championship game (and neither Baylor nor TCU had that luxury). While the 59-0 win over Wisconsin was a decisive victory and made for a compelling argument in favor of Ohio State, most people thought (as stated above) that Ohio State’s home loss earlier in the season to Virginia Tech was enough to keep them out. It would have been interesting to see if Ohio State would have still been included in the CFP if the margin of victory over Wisconsin had been smaller. So what did we learn here? That a big win in a conference championship game could potentially erase a bad-loss from earlier in the season, and that conference championships are: (1) important, (2) won’t be considered until they are actually won, and (3) that it is better to blow-out your opponent if you are on the bubble of making the CFP.  
  • Looking Ahead: See the 2017-2018 season for a follow up scenario to what happened in 2014-2015. In 2017, Ohio State was left out of the CFP despite winning their conference title game in favor of Alabama who did not play in a conference championship game. Further, in 2017, Ohio State barely defeated undefeated and fourth ranked Wisconsin 21-27. In other words, while there are some differences between the scenarios, this almost answers the question from 2014, and says that in 2014 had Ohio State not blown-out Wisconsin 59-0, they would have possibly been left out of the CFP in favor of Baylor or TCU (who did not play in a conference championship game, like 2017 Alabama). On the other hand, there is at least one major difference in these two seasons that is unaccounted for: 2014 Ohio State had one-loss, while 2017 Ohio State had two-losses, and we cannot tell at this time how this would have factored into the decision.
  • Questions we were left with were: (1) did the lack of a conference title game hurt TCU and/or Baylor, while it helped Ohio State?, and (2) why did the head-to-head between TCU and Baylor suddenly matter when it had not in all the previous CFP rankings?
  • Impressions: Conference championships (via a conference championship game) is considered more important than a regular conference title (i.e. Big 12, no title game). Also, head-to-head is not important to the committee until the final rankings are released, however, at that point in time, head-to-head will be trumped by a conference champion who won a conference championship game.
  • Strength of Schedule: While the conference championship was the focal point of the argument between Ohio State and TCU/Baylor; the underpinning of the argument was that Ohio State also had a harder/tougher strength of schedule.
  • FCS Teams: FSU played the Citadel, Oregon played South Dakota, Alabama played Western Carolina, Baylor played Northwestern State, and TCU played Samford. The only team that did not play an FCS school was Ohio State.
  • The Aftermath: No. 5 Baylor then lost the Cotton Bowl to No. 8 Michigan State (Big 10 East Division Champion) 42-41; while No. 6 TCU defeated No. 9 Ole Miss 42-3 in the Peach Bowl. Some pointed to these games as proof that Baylor should have been left out while maybe TCU should have gotten in. However, most of this discussion was dropped when Ohio State, who took the No. 4 spot, when on to win the fist CFP National Championship, and arguably proving that Ohio State was the proper choice for the fourth spot.
  • Who did they lose to?: Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech (7-6, 3-5), Oregon lost to Arizona (10-4, 7-2), and Alabama lost to Ole Miss (9-4, 5-3).
  • Is the CFP harming the regular season?: A lot of people argued that the CFP was harming the regular season due to the fact that the committee had TCU ranked ahead of Baylor during all of the rankings except the final one. It was clear to some that the TCU vs. Baylor ranking was simply corrected in the final rankings, to reflect the regular season head-to-head victory, once the CFP committee had decided to leave them both out of the CFP. While this, in and of itself, may not cause any harm to the regular season, it will, as you will see in the near future, cause the Big 12 Conference to create a Big 12 Championship game despite already playing a round-robin schedule (a decision that is purely based purely off of the CFP yet makes no sense for the conference itself).

(2) 2015-2016: SECOND COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF

  1. Clemson* (ACC Champion) (14-1 Overall, 8-0 Conference, 13-0 Pre-CFP)
  2. Alabama (SEC Champion) (14-1 Overall, 7-1 Conference, 12-1 Pre-CFP)
  3. Michigan State (Big 10 Champion) (12-2 Overall, 7-1 Conference, 12-1 Pre-CFP)
  4. Oklahoma# (Big 12 Champion) (11-2 Overall, 8-1 Conference, 11-1 Pre-CFP)
  5. Iowa (Big 10 West Division Champion) (12-2 Overall, 8-1 Conference – Loss Championship game, 12-1 Pre-CFP),
  6. Stanford (Pac 12 Champion/Rose Bowl Champion) (12-2 Overall, 8-1 Conference, (11-2 Pre-CFP) – Early loss at Northwestern was argument for keeping them out of CFP.
  • 2015-2016 Notes:
  • Power Five Conference Champ Left Out: Stanford (12-2, 8-1, 11-2 Pre-Rose Bowl). Allegedly the loss to Northwestern in first game of season is what kept them out, as they loss to Oregon as well and had two regular season losses. To date, no team had made the CFP with more than one loss.
  • The Aftermath: No. 6 Stanford played No. 5 Iowa (Big 10 West Division Champion) in the Rose Bowl and won 45-16 (arguably confirming the idea that Stanford should have been allowed into the No. 4 spot instead of Oklahoma, as Oklahoma was crushed by Clemson 37-17). This Rose Bowl loss also confirmed that Iowa was rightfully removed from the No. 4 spot after their loss to Michigan State in the Big 10 Championship game, even though the loss to Michigan State was Iowa’s first loss of the season.
  • Conference Championship vs. More Losses: While Stanford was a Conference Champion, and won their title via a conference championship game, they were left out of the CFP in lieu of the Big 12 Champion (Oklahoma). The prior season told us that winning a conference championship via a championship game would be considered more valuable than a conference title won without a championship game, however, that “rule” would have applied (possibly) to Stanford/Oklahoma, however, Stanford had two-losses while Oklahoma had only one. However, one could argue (and Stanford proponents did) that Stanford had made up for this extra loss by playing one more game (a conference title game) than Oklahoma did (just like last season when Ohio State played one more game, in the conference championship, than TCU or Baylor did). This argument did not carry the day for Stanford and thus playing an extra game in the form of a conference championship did not help vault them into the CFP above Oklahoma due primarily to the fact that Stanford had two losses instead of one. Again, this is somewhat confusing as last season it was the extra conference championship game that allowed Ohio State to pass over both Baylor and TCU in order to land in the CFP at No. 4.  However, the impression we were left with was that while all three were conference champions, and all three had only one loss on the season, Ohio State pulled ahead due to picking up an extra win via its conference title game and moving to 12-1. In other words, all three had one loss, but Ohio State had 12 wins, while Baylor and TCU had only 11. (Further, Ohio State won its Big 10 championship game over a good Wisconsin team in very convincing fashion). The rule we thought that could be taken from this season was that if two teams had the same number of losses (one or less), but one team had an extra win via a conference title game, that extra win would be the deciding factor for who gets into the CFP. However, the extra win in a conference title game would not be enough if the other team had fewer losses.
  • The Vault: Michigan State moved from No. 5 to No. 3 in the final CFP rankings, jumping over Iowa (who fell from No. 4 to No. 5) and Oklahoma (who fell from No. 3 to No. 4). Michigan State was vaulted two spots partly due to their win over No. 4 Iowa (12-2, 8-0) in the Big 10 Championship game, by a score of 16-13. They presumably jumped over Oklahoma as well, due to the fact that Oklahoma didn’t play anyone on that same weekend due to the lack of Big 12 Championship game. This again solidified the idea that conference titles are extremely important when won in a conference championship game.
  • Strength of Schedule: Again, the underpinning of this argument of number of losses versus conference championship games is the idea that strength of schedule is fairly important.
  • FCS Teams: Clemson played Wofford (5-6, 3-4) and Alabama played Charleston Southern (10-3, 6-0). However, Michigan State, Oklahoma, and Stanford did not play any FCS teams.
  • Who did they lose to?: Alabama’s one loss was to Ole Miss (10-3, 6-2), Oklahoma’s one loss was to the University of Texas (5-7, 4-5), and Michigan State’s one loss was to Nebraska (6-7, 3-5).

(3) 2016-2017: THIRD COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF

  1. Alabama* (SEC Champion) (14-1 Overall, 8-0 Conference, 13-0 Pre-CFP)
  2. Clemson (ACC Champion) (14-1 Overall, 7-1 Conference, 12-1 Pre-CFP)
  3. Ohio State& (Big 10 East Division Co-Champion) (11-2 Overall, 8-1 Conference, 11-1 Pre-CFP)
  4. Washington (Pac 12 Champion) (12-2 Overall, 8-1 Conference, 12-1 Pre-CFP)
  5. Penn State (Big 10 Champion) (11-3 Overall, 8-1 Conference, 11-2 Pre-CFP)
  6. Michigan (10-3 Overall, 7-2 Conference, 10-2 Pre-CFP)
  • 2016-2017 Notes:
  • Non-Conference Champion: Ohio State is the first non-conference champion to make CFP. Penn State (11-3 Overall, 8-1 Conference, 11-2 Pre-Rose Bowl) was the Big 10 Champion (and Big 10 East Division Co-Champion, due to having defeated Ohio State during the regular season).
  • Power Five Conference Champ Left Out: Big 10 Champion Penn State (11-3, 8-1, 11-2) and Big 12 Champion Oklahoma (11-2, 9-0, 10-2). Oklahoma was No. 7 in the final CFP rankings, and defeated No. 14 Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.
  • The Vault: There was no vault this season, as No. 1 through No. 4 were the same four teams when the final CFP rankings were released. The only difference is that when the final rankings were released, the teams had been slightly reshuffled (as No. 2 Ohio State fell to No. 3, and No. 3 Clemson moved up to No. 2). Clemson’s move was arguably due to their 42-35 win over No. 23 Virginia Tech (10-4, 6-2) in the ACC Championship game, while Ohio State did not play that weekend (as they were not in the Big 10 Championship game). However, the move that everyone was curious about was whether No. 5 Michigan (10-3, 7-2, defeated Penn State in regular season, but lost to Ohio State), No. 6 Wisconsin (11-3, 7-2, Big 10 West Division Champion, lost to Penn State in Conference Championship game, and lost to both Michigan and Ohio State in regular season), or No. 7 Penn State (Big 10 Conference Champions, but lost to Michigan yet defeated Ohio State in regular season) would jump into the No. 4 spot (thus pushing Washington out of the top four). This potential vault, and the lack their of, caused the following analysis regarding SOS vs. Conference Championships, etc.
  • Strength of Schedule vs. Conference Championship: Up until this season, everyone was under the impression that (1) conference championships and (2) strength of schedule were extremely important considerations for which teams would be selected for the CFP. However, the decision to take Washington over Penn State called this method of thinking into question. While the first CFP told us that conference titles were more important than anything else, this season told us something different. Not only did Ohio State get into the CFP without winning a conference title of any kind, but Washington got into the CFP over Penn State. Penn State was a two-loss conference champion while Washington was a one-loss champion (both teams won their title via a championship game). However, Penn State’s two losses were against unranked Pitt (8-5, 5-3) and No. 6 Michigan (10-3, 7-2), and thus the thought was that the extra-loss kept Penn State out. However, Washington had played a weaker schedule than Penn State (which included a win over an FCS team), and thus the CFP committee effectively said that they would “punish” Penn State for playing a harder schedule and reward Washington for having played an FCS team.
  • Strength of Schedule: While the first two seasons told us that SOS was fairly important to the determination of who got into the CFP, this season almost completely removed that rule. Some have argued that the Washington vs. Penn State discussion is no different than the Stanford vs. Oklahoma debate from the previous year. However, there are major differences between the two in that Oklahoma did not have as many wins as Stanford due to the fact that Oklahoma did not play a conference title game (while both Washington and Penn State played in conference title games). Another difference is that the decision this season was not between Washington and Penn State, as much as it was Washington and Ohio State (a non-conference champion).  In other words, you had a non-conference champion (Ohio State) with one-loss getting into the CFP, as well as a 12-1 conference champion (Washington), both over a Conference Champion who had defeated the non-conference champion (Ohio State) and had a stronger SOS than Washington. However, what won the day was the second loss that Penn State had due to their more difficult SOS (compared to Washington). However, at this point, one thing is clear, two-losses will keep you out of the CFP regardless of SOS or Conference Championship.
  • Washington and Penn State’s shared loss: Washington’s regular season loss was to USC, who also defeated Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
  • The Aftermath: While Penn State did lose a close game to USC in the Rose Bowl, Washington was crushed by Alabama in its first CPF game, 24-7.
  • FCS Teams: Washington played Portland State (3-8, 2-6), Clemson played South Carolina State (5-6, 5-3), and Alabama played Chattanooga (9-4, 6-2). Ohio State, Penn State, and Oklahoma did not play an FCS team, and Ohio State defeated Oklahoma during the regular season (the win over Big 12 Champion Oklahoma was very helpful in getting Ohio State into the CFP; showing that it might be better to beat a conference champion than be one). However, at this point, it doesn’t appear to hurt anyone to play an FCS team.
  • Who did they lose to?: Washington lost to USC (10-3, 7-2), Ohio State lost to Penn State (11-3, 8-1), Clemson lost to Pitt (8-5, 5-3), and Penn State lost to Pitt (8-5, 5-3) and Michigan (10-3, 7-2).
  • Is the CFP harming the regular season?: The argument was that leaving Penn State out of the CFP, despite Penn State having defeated Ohio State in their regular season match-up, was proof that the CFP was rendering such regular season victories as meaningless. Also, the fact that Penn State was the conference champion and Ohio State was not, also fueled this argument and bolstered the concern that the CFP had officially made conference championships meaningless (despite past conference championships being what propelled certain teams into the CFP).
  • Looking Back: As you read above, this year was the first time a non-conference champion (Ohio State) was selected over the conference champion (Penn State) (who Ohio State had lost to during the regular season). In other words, the selection protocol of using championships and head-to-head competition to separate similar teams (all of which were in Penn State’s favor) were ignored due to the fact that: (1) PSU had two-losses and Ohio State had one, (2) the committee didn’t see these teams as “similar,” and/or (3) the fact that the committee felt as if Ohio State was unequivocally better than Penn State despite the fact that Penn State had defeated Ohio State during the regular season. The last time there was a major head-to-head decision in the rankings was 2014-2015, when head-to-head was the determining factor between TCU’s and Baylor’s final ranking (however, both of those teams had 11-1 records).

(4) 2017-2018: FOURTH COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF

  1. Clemson (ACC Champion) ( ___ Overall, 7-1 Conf. & 8-1 with CCG, 12-1 Pre-CFP)
  2. Oklahoma (Big 12 Champion) ( ___ Overall, 8-1 Conf. & 9-1 with CCG, 12-1 Pre-CFP)
  3. Georgia (SEC Champion) ( ___ Overall, 7-1 Conf. & 8-1 with CCG, 12-1 Pre-CFP)
  4. Alabama& (SEC West Div Co-Champ) ( ___ Overall, 7-1 Conf., 11-1 Pre-CFP)
  5. Ohio State (Big 10 Champion) ( ___ Overall, 8-1 Conf. & 9-1 with CCG, 11-2 Pre-CFP)
  6. Wisconsin (Big 10 West Div. Champ) ( ___ Overall, 9-0 Conf. & 9-1 w/CCG, 12-1 Pre-CFP)
  • Power Five Conference Champ Left Out: 
  • Controversy:
  • Ohio State: As you will read in other sections for this 2014-2015 year, many people did not believe Ohio State should have been in the CFP. However, those critics were silenced when Ohio State won the CFP. When Ohio State made the 2016-2017 CFP, again under interesting circumstances, those critics began again as it felt like the committee made unprecedented moves in order to get the Buckeyes into the CFP. These critics got even louder in 2017-2018 (before the final rankings were released) when the committee was trying to decide between Alabama and Ohio State as the fourth team in the CFP. Many felt like that if Ohio State got in, it would be a third move by the committee to do whatever it took to get Ohio State in. However, the committee opted for Alabama, a decision you can read about below under the section for 2017-2018.
  • The Vault: None.
  • Looking Ahead / Back: 
  • 2016 Ohio State vs. Penn State 
  • Questions we were left with were:
  • Impressions:
  • Strength of Schedule:
  • FCS Teams:
  • The Aftermath:
  • Who did they lose to?: 
  • What ranked teams did they play / SOS?: 
  • Alabama’s SOS – Mercer, FSU, and Ohio State vs UNLV
  • Simple answer to this controversy: No reason to include OSU bc OU (who is in CFP) already beat them!
  • Is the CFP harming the regular season?:
  • 2017-2018 What to watch for
  • (1a) Will two teams from the same conference make the CFP this season (for the first time)? SEC: Alabama, Georgia, Auburn.
  • (2) Will a two-loss team make the CFP this season for the first time? Its looking more like a real possibility with Auburn and Ohio State.
  • (3) On Wisconsin: Will Wisconsin finish the season undefeated as Big 10 Champions, and become the first undefeated power five conference champion to be left out of the CFP? It is looking less likely that they will be left out, but they are not guaranteed to make it yet. Remember, in 2014, Ohio State’s win over Wisconsin in the Big 10 Championship game is what helped Ohio State vault into the number 4 spot. Then, in 2015, Michigan State also moved up in the CFP rankings by defeating Iowa in the Big 10 Championship game. However, in 2016, Penn State defeated Wisconsin in the Big 10 Championship game but still did not make the CFP (partly due to PSU having two losses, while 2014 Ohio State and 2015 Michigan State both only had one loss during the season). However, if UNDEFEATED Wisconsin is able to turn the tables and defeat Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship game; leaving Wisconsin out of the CFP would be a totally unprecedented move by the CFP committee based on their previous decisions regarding the Big 10.
  • (4) Note on Wisconsin: With the release of the third CFP rankings, it appears as if Wisconsin has positioned itself to vault into the top 4 with a win in the Big 10 Conference championship game (of course this also assumes that Wisconsin will win out and stay undefeated). Oddly enough, the talking heads have been saying that Ohio State’s win over NR Michigan has helped Ohio State position itself to possibly make the CFP. However, last week, no one said a word when Wisconsin defeated Michigan (which at the time was ranked No. 24). Why does a win over a ranked Michigan team do nothing for an undefeated Wisconsin team, but a win over an unranked Michigan team helps a two-loss Ohio State? Wisconsin getting in will have to hope that a conference championship and a “0” in the loss column is enough to overcome what they lack in terms of SOS. I would be shocked if it didn’t (as in the past, a lot of movement in the rankings happens in the final rankings, after teams have won or lost their conference championship).
  • (5) 2016 All Over Again: (1) If Auburn wins out and makes the CFP (with two losses) as the SEC Champion (over one-loss Alabama, who would be left out of the CFP), we would have a result that is exactly opposite of last season when Ohio State made the CFP and Penn State (two-loss Big 10 Champion) did not. ‬The only explanation for this would be 2017 Auburn’s SOS vs. 2016 Penn State’s SOS. Arguably, Auburn has a better SOS as their two losses were to Clemson and LSU, while Penn State lost to Pitt and Michigan in 2016 (however, Clemson also lost to Pitt in 2016).  (2) Further, with so many talking about how Ohio State may make the CFP in 2017 if they can beat Wisconsin in the conference championship game, you will see a lot of eye-brows start to raise. After all, Ohio State would be a two-loss conference champion, which is exactly what Penn State was last year when they were left out of the CFP.
  • (6) Big 12 Trouble Brewing: Oklahoma has won out and is 8-1 in the Big 12 Conference, however, they are now forced to play a “conference championship game” against Big 12 runner-up TCU (7-2 in conference). I call TCU the runner-up because unlike a conference with divisions, Oklahoma is not playing a division champion, but a runner-up, in order to officially claim the conference crown (not to mention the fact that the Big 12 plays a round-robin schedule, and OU has already defeated TCU this season, thus playing them again doesn’t make any sense). Anyway, 8-1 OU is now forced to play, and defeat, 7-2 TCU AGAIN in order to advance to the CFP. If TCU pulls the upset, OU and TCU will both be 8-2, and TCU will be the Conference Champion; however, TCU will most likely NOT make the CFP (despite the Big 12 having brought back their conference title game in direct response to what happened in 2014-2015; only now they will still be left out of the CFP and OU probably would have gotten in if not for the “championship game”).
  • (7) Shared Losses: At this point in time, it appears that Clemson may be the common denominator on several teams’ schedules. As of right now, Clemson has defeated Auburn, and will play Miami in the ACC Championship game.
  • (8) SOS vs. Conference Championship: Despite it being a complete reversal of last year’s decision by the committee to keep a two-loss conference champion (Penn State) out of the CFP, and put a one-loss non-conference champion that lost to said two-loss conference champion (Ohio State) into the CFP; a decision to put Auburn into the CFP (with two-losses, IF they win the SEC) will require Auburn to be a conference champion AND will include consideration of their SOS. However, as I mention below, last season everyone argued that leaving Penn State out in favor of Ohio State was proof that the CFP was destroying the importance of the regular season schedule as it arguably rendered the Penn State defeat of Ohio State, and Penn State’s conference championship, as meaningless.
  • (9) Precedent: SOS vs. Conference Championship: Some people have said that now that Alabama has lost to Auburn, and will finish the season 11-1 (and is not the SEC Champion or West Division Champion), that Alabama does not have the SOS to make the CFP. However, while Alabama may not have the strongest SOS, Alabama was No. 1 in the rankings (before their loss to Auburn), while other one-loss teams were ranked No. 3 and No. 4, and other undefeated teams (like Alabama, at the time) were ranked No. 2 and No. 5. In the current CFP rankings there are no conference championships being considered, which tells me that at this point in the process one of the major ranking considerations MUST be SOS; and that therefore (according to the committee) Alabama must have a strong SOS (and Wisconsin must have a weaker one, as they are ranked No. 5 despite being undefeated). Otherwise, if Alabama does not have a strong SOS, why are they No. 1 and Wisconsin is No. 5, as they are both undefeated(?). Having said that, it will be interesting to see if Alabama (with one loss) gets in over an undefeated Big 10 Conference Champion Wisconsin. If Alabama does get in, it will be based purely on a SOS and/or “eye-ball” test criteria, and the Conference Championship of Wisconsin will be considered inferior to this.
  • (10) Precedent: SOS: With 10-1 Clemson ranked ahead of 10-1 Oklahoma, it is clear that the CFP committee’s formula for SOS is based more on a team’s wins than their losses. After all, right now Clemson’s loss to Syracuse doesn’t look as nice as Oklahoma’s loss to Iowa State. In other words, the committee must not be nearly as concerned with who a team loses to, but is more concerned with who a team defeats; and Clemson has a nice resume in that regard (several teams with above .500 records who were ranked when they played Clemson). The teams that Oklahoma has defeated are nice, but not quite as impressive as Clemson’s opponents, or at least, that is how the CFP committee is viewing it (if they are not viewing it this way, then I don’t understand how Clemson is so far ahead of OU). Click here to read Kirby Hocutt’s answers regarding Clemson and Oklahoma as this is great insight into the mind of the CFP committee (however, as we have seen before, just because they vote/think this way now, doesn’t mean they will vote this way in the final rankings).
  • (11) Is the CFP harming the regular season?:  If Auburn and Georgia both make the CFP, they might face each other for the third time this season. You might also have a rematch between Auburn and Clemson, or Auburn and Alabama (if Alabama makes it in). Also, what about the fact that Miami lost to NR Pitt (5-7) on Nov. 24, 2017? Will that keep Miami out of the CFP? Pitt (8-5) beat Clemson last season and Clemson still made the CFP, so why shouldn’t Miami? Plus, Clemson lost this year to a 4-8 Syracuse, and they are still in the top 4, so why not Miami? On the other hand, if Miami does make it in, aren’t we saying the Nov. 24 game between Miami and Pitt didn’t really count? Fortunately for the CFP committee, the ACC Championship game will bail them out and they will not have to make this decision, as they will simply exclude the loser of that game (Clemson or Miami) from the CFP (in other words, we probably won’t get an answer to this question).
  • (12) What the Committee will consider and how they view SOS: (1) The committee doesn’t like blow-out losses (which makes the Iowa 55-24 defeat of Ohio State interesting, especially considering that the CFP committee used big losses as a reason to keep Penn State out of the CFP last year; yet the committee would have to ignore their own logic this season in order to include Ohio State). The committee also considers: (1) teams that have earned the most wins against opponents ranked in the committee’s (current) top 25, and (2) wins against teams with records above .500. The SOS metric used by the committee is a moving target as each committee member has their own opinions regarding SOS, and SOS is one of the tiebreakers the committee must consider when ranking comparable teams (along with championships won, head-to-head results, and outcomes against common opponents (without promoting margin of victory)). The committee members are free to use statistics outside of those provided by SportSource Analytics (the data company the CFP has a contract with) — as long as they understand where they come from and how they’re compiled. In fact, the committee is given 128 different “team sheets” in their playoff binder, each filled with data from SportSource Analytics on offense, defense, special teams and SOS. The SOS is broken down into 10 different opponent categories, such as opponents’ opponents’ records, including opponents’ losses to FCS teams. The sheet also tells them the number of wins against “Current CFP Top 25” teams, and a team’s record against Power 5 opponents, as well as Group of 5 opponents. For more on the CFP committee’s selection protocol, see their “Selection Protocol” sheet HERE!
  • (13) An argument for the first two-loss team to be included (Auburn): Before this season, no team (in the CFP era) had defeated the No. 1 ranked team TWICE before the CFP. However, this season (2017) Auburn defeated No. 1 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama. Further, Auburn also played Clemson in their second game of the season and lost 14-6. Clemson looks to be a CFP team if they can win the ACC Championship, and this will go a long way to showing the strength of Auburn’s schedule.
  • (14) Third Weekly Rankings: No team that has lost a game after the release of the third weekly CFP rankings has ever made the CFP. Can Miami or Alabama be the first team to break this streak?
  • (15) SOS, Really?  Is SOS really that important to the CFP committee? Before the fourth weekly rankings were released, Clemson crushed an FCS team (the Citadel) and Miami struggled with NR Virginia. However, undefeated Wisconsin beat No. 24 Michigan and stayed at No. 5 (and did not jump over a one-loss Oklahoma who spent their weekend beating a 1-9 Kansas team). My only guess here is that the CFP committee sees value in playing UVA, the Citadel, and Kansas, but does not see much value in Michigan.
  • (16) Leaving out the only Undefeated Power 5 Conference Champion: Never has an undefeated Power 5 Conference Champion been left out of the CFP. However, if Wisconsin wins out and doesn’t make the CFP, while four other teams make it in with one or two losses, it will have to be because of SOS, right?

Legend:

  • CFP = College Football Playoff.
  • SOS = Strength of Schedule
  • Bold = CFP National Champion.
  • *  = Runner-up / Lost National Championship Game.
  • # = Conference Champion, but not via a Conference Championship Game.
  • & = Non-Conference Champion.

General Notes for all years:

  • There has never been two teams from the same conference to make the CFP in the same year.
  • Alabama is the only school to make all three of the CFP.
  • There has not been a team with more than one loss make the CFP (every team in the CFP has had one or zero losses).
  • Every season there has been at least one undefeated team in the CFP, but no undefeated team has won the CFP.
  • A No. 1 or No. 3 seeded team has never won the CFP.
  • The No. 2 seeded team has won the CFP two times.
  • The No. 4 seeded team has won the CFP one time (the first one).
  • A Non-Conference Champion has never won the CFP (all winners of the CFP have been Conference Champions via a Conference Championship game).
  • There has not yet been a school from the “Group of Five” in the CFP (all CFP teams have been Power Five conference schools).
  • There has never been an undefeated Power Five conference champion left out of the CFP (all undefeated Power Five champions have made the CFP). 2017’s Wisconsin Badgers may be the first to break this trend.
  • Two Conferences have still never won it….?

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