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)

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.



  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)
  • 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:  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, 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. However, the controversy increased after the final rankings were released and 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.
  • The Vault: Ohio State moved from No. 5 to No. 4 in the final CFP rankings by defeating No. 13 Wisconsin (11-3, 7-1) 59-0 in the Big 10 Championship game. This solidified the idea that conference titles are extremely important when won in a conference championship game (and neither Baylor nor TCU had that luxury).
  • 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).


  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)
  • 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).


  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)
  • 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).


(4) 2017-2018: 

  1. TBD
  2. TBD
  3. TBD
  4. TBD
  • 2017-2018 What to watch for: Points 4 & 5 are most interesting, while 7 & 8 are also going to be fun to watch.
  • (1) Will two teams from the same conference make the CFP this season (for the first time)? SEC: Alabama, Georgia, Auburn; ACC: Miami, Clemson
  • (2) Will Notre Dame make the CFP, thus potentially forcing two power five conferences to be left out of the CFP? Every season prior, four of the five power five conferences were represented in the CFP, but Notre Dame could make it so that only three of the five are represented. (After Notre Dame’s loss to Miami on November 11th, they are unlikely to make the CFP).
  • (3) If you are looking for real chaos and for the fastest way to an expanded eight-team playoff, start rooting for: (1) Alabama, Auburn, and Notre Dame to all make it in to the CFP, as that will leave room for only one representative from the remaining four power conferences – ACC, Big 10, Big 12, and Pac 12), or (2) two SEC teams and two ACC teams to make the CFP, leaving out three of the power five conferences (which is more likely than option number one now that Notre Dame has lost to Miami).
  • (4) 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 a one-loss Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship game; leaving them out of the CFP would be a totally unprecedented move by the CFP committee based on their previous decisions regarding the Big 10.
  • (4a) 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). As of today (Nov. 14) Wisconsin is No. 5, while Ohio State (there likely opponent in the Big 10 Championship game) is sitting at No. 9. Further, if Wisconsin wins out, they will have wins over currently-ranked No. 24 Michigan, No. 23 Northwestern, and No. 9 Ohio State. While their schedule is not “amazing” in terms of SOS, they will have played and defeated several ranked teams, while also having gone undefeated (something no other CFP Big 10 team has done), and that “0” in the loss column could make-up for what they lack in terms of SOS.
  • (5) 2016 All Over Again: 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).
  • (6) If Miami wins out (after defeating then No. 4 Notre Dame), but then losses to Clemson in the ACC Championship game (making both Miami and Clemson 11-1), could the CFP include two SEC schools (Alabama, Georgia, Auburn) and two ACC schools (Miami and Clemson)?
  • (7) Big 12 Trouble Brewing: Oklahoma could win out and potentially be 8-1 in the Big 12 Conference, however, they will then be forced to play a “conference championship game” against the runner-up in the Big 12 standings (I call them the runner-up because unlike a conference with divisions, Oklahoma will not be playing a division champion, but a runner-up, in order to officially claim the conference crown). As of right now, there appears to be two teams which could realistically qualify for runner-up to OU: TCU 5-2 and Oklahoma State 5-2 (however, TCU defeated Oklahoma State in the regular season, so I am assuming there is a tie-breaker that would allow TCU to play OU in the “championship game”). If this is how it plays out, 8-1 OU will be 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 are still left out of the CFP and probably would have gotten in if they had not held a “championship game”).
  • (8) Big 12 Trouble Brewing (Part 2): On the other hand, West Virginia is also currently 5-2 and has yet to play Oklahoma. If TCU, Oklahoma State, and WVU all win out, we will have a four-way-tie for first place in the Big 12 Conference as WVU, OU, TCU, and OSU would all be 7-2. In the regular season, OU defeated TCU, TCU defeated OSU, OSU defeated WVU, and WVU defeated OU.  However, OU also defeated OSU, and TCU defeated WVU. My guess is that the four-way-tie will be broken so that 7-2 OU will face 7-2 TCU in the “championship game.” Regardless of who wins this game, I would think it is not likely that they make the CFP. However, watching the Big 12 play out, and whether they manage to make the CFP, will be an interesting side-show.
  • (9) Shared Losses: At this point in time, it appears that Clemson may be the common denominator on a lot of teams’ schedules. As of right now, Clemson has defeated Auburn, and will play Miami in the ACC Championship game.
  • (10) Precedent: SOS vs. Conference Championship: As of the third CFP rankings, Clemson (9-1) is No. 2 (with their one loss coming against NR Syracuse (4-6)), while Miami (9-0) is undefeated and is No. 3. In other words, the loss has less to do with the rankings of the teams than their current SOS.  What will be interesting is to see what happens after the ACC Championship game and whether or not that causes the teams to trade places. It will tell us a lot in terms of what is more important; SOS or Conference Championship (via a conference championship game).
  • (10a) Precedent: SOS vs. Conference Championship: Oklahoma (9-1) is currently No. 4 in the third set of CFP rankings, and they are ahead of undefeated No. 5 Wisconsin (10-0). In other words, despite the one loss that Oklahoma has to NR Iowa State (6-4), Oklahoma still has a better SOS than Wisconsin in the eyes of the CFP committee. While the Clemson vs. Miami situation (referenced above) will be telling, what will be even more telling is whether Wisconsin is able to jump Oklahoma due to the fact that Wisconsin plays in a Conference Championship game that is composed of division champions (which the Big 12 does not have).
  • (10b) Precedent: SOS vs. Conference Championship: If Auburn wins out and is SEC Champion, will that Conference Championship (via a conference championship game) be enough to overcome two-losses, and jump over teams like Wisconsin and/or Oklahoma?
  • (10c) Precedent: SOS vs. Conference Championship: Some people have said that if Alabama losses to Auburn, and finishes the season 11-1 (and is not the SEC Champion or West Division Champion), that Alabama will not have the SOS to make the CFP. However, while that may be true, Alabama is currently No. 1, while one-loss teams are ranked No. 2 and No. 4, and other undefeated teams (like Alabama) are ranked No. 3 and No. 5. After the third week of 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. Otherwise, if they do not have a strong SOS, why are they No. 1?
  • (11) Precedent: SOS: With 9-1 Clemson ranked ahead of 9-1 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).


  • 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.

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