College Football Playoff: “Firsts,” “Nevers,” & “Not Yets”

by Travis Normand
December 9, 2020

I am posting these here in order make them easier to ‘track,’ and to see if any of these change this season.

As of the 2020 college football season, and before the 2020-2021 playoff, the following are still true:

(1) A 2-loss team has never made the college football playoff (and so far, being a Power-5 Conference Champion has not been sufficient to overcome the 2-loss barrier, see 2016 Penn State … at least when there is another team from the same conference with only 1-loss);

(2) The team ranked third in the initial playoff rankings has never made the playoff (in 2020, the initial third-place team was Clemson);

(3) The Big 10 & PAC-12 were the first two conferences to not make the playoff in consecutive years (they were both left out in 2017 & 2018); however, while the Big 10 broke that streak in 2019 (when Ohio State was included). On the other hand, the PAC-12 was excluded again in 2019, missing three (3) in a row, and as it currently stands, it appears as if the PAC-12 might be excluded from the playoff again this season (2020), making it four (4) in a row (a record that might stand for a while);

(4) The Big 10 was the first conference to have a non-conference champion make the playoff (2016: Ohio State was picked over Conference Champion Penn State);

(5) The Big 10 was the first conference to have a non-conference champion make it into the playoff at the expense of its conference champion (2016: Ohio State was picked over Penn State; PSU defeated Ohio State during the regular season and then beat Wisconsin in the CCG; however, Penn State had 2-losses overall, which despite being conference champions, kept them out of the playoff);

(6) The SEC is the only conference so far to have two (2) teams from their conference make the playoff in the same season (2017: Conference Champion Georgia & Alabama); reversing the trend that the Big 10 set the season before (the difference being that Georgia did not play Alabama during the season or conference championship game, and neither team had more than 1-loss);

(7) The 2019 LSU Tigers were the first number one seed to win the playoff;

(8) The 2018 Clemson Tigers were the first undefeated team to win the playoff (2019 LSU was the second; making the playoff champion undefeated in back-to-back seasons – 2018 & 2019);

(9) Alabama is the only team to make every one of the first five (5) playoffs from 2014 to 2018; missing out for the first time in 2019;

(10) In the first five (5) playoffs from 2014 to 2018, only Alabama and Clemson were the number one seeds; LSU became the third team to be a number one seed in 2019 (and as previously stated, was the first time to win the playoff as a number one seed); and

(11) There has never been a playoff featuring teams that had already played during the regular season and thus there has never been a re-match, or even the possibility of a re-match, in the playoff; however, in 2020 there is a lot of possibility for this to happen: (i) No. 5 Texas A&M has already played No. 1 Alabama; (ii) No. 6 Florida is currently set to play No. 1 Alabama in the conference championship game; (iii) No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 Clemson have already played this season and are currently set to play a second time in the ACC Championship game (Notre Dame won the first game and if Clemson wins the ACC Championship, both could make the playoff and potentially face-off for a third time this season).

(12) The SEC Champion has never been left out of the playoff.

(13) No. 4 Georgia has been knocked out of the playoffs due to losing the SEC conference championship game on two occasions (back-to-back years, 2018 & 2019, No. 4 Georgia lost to No. 1 Alabama in SEC CCG; however, in both occasions it was Georgia’s second loss of the season).

[The following number 14 is a long one, and only concerns the second-to-last rankings vs. the final rankings]

(14) Of the six (6) previous playoffs, the 5th ranked team (in the second-to-last rankings) has made the top four (4) (in the final rankings), four out of six times. In other words, the 5th ranked team jumped into the top four in 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018 (but did not in 2016 and 2019).

Years in which the 5th place team moved into the top 4:

  • 2014: No. 5 Ohio State (11-1) beat No. 11 Wisconsin (10-2) in the Big 10 championship game by a score of 59-0 to move from No. 5 to No.4. Further, the committee moved No. 3 TCU out of the top 4 to make way for Ohio State (and apparently resolved the TCU vs. Baylor question).
  • 2015: No. 5 Michigan State (11-1) beat No. 4 Iowa (12-1) in the Big 10 championship game by a score of 16-13 to move from No. 5 to No.4.
  • 2017: No. 5 Alabama (11-1) was ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in every playoff ranking until the second-to-last ranking in which they were ranked 5th. Their 5th place ranking came due to a loss at No. 6 Auburn in their final regular season game by a score of 14-26. Heading into championship weekend, the four teams ranked ahead of Alabama were: (1) Clemson (11-1); (2) Auburn (10-2); (3) Oklahoma (11-1); and (4) Wisconsin (12-0). Further, directly behind Alabama was: (6) Georgia (11-1); (7) Miami (10-1); and (8) Ohio State (10-2).
  • (2017 Cont.) On championship weekend: (i) No. 1 Clemson defeated No. 7 Miami in the ACC championship and solidified their place in the top 4; (ii) No. 3 Oklahoma defeated No. 11 TCU in the Big 12 championship and solidified their place in the top 4; (iii) No. 6 Georgia beat No. 2 Auburn in the SEC championship game, knocking Auburn out of the top 4 and moving Georgia in; (iv) No. 8 Ohio State beat No. 4 Wisconsin in the Big 10 championship game, knocking Wisconsin out of the top 4 (but only moving Ohio State up to 5th place. The removal of Wisconsin made it so that Alabama could move back into the top 4 from their No. 5 spot despite not playing in a conference championship game.
  • 2018: No. 5 Oklahoma (11-1) beat the No. 14 Longhorns (9-3) in the Big 12 championship game by a score of 39-27 to move from No. 5 to No. 4. This was the second time the Sooners and Longhorns had played in the 2018 season, with the Longhorns winning the first game and the Sooners winning the second. Further, No. 4 Georgia (11-1) lost the SEC championship game to Alabama, and at 11-2, Georgia was moved out of the No. 5 spot, making room for Oklahoma.

Years in which the 5th place team did NOT make the top 4

  • 2016: No. 5 Michigan (10-2) did not make the Big 10 conference championship game and thus sat idle between the time the second-to-last rankings were released (where the Wolverines were 5th) and the final rankings (where they were 6th). Seeing that they were a 2-loss team, and did not play on championship weekend, there was little chance they would jump into the top 4. (Note, this was the season in which there was a debate as to who should get into the playoff between (i) non-conference champion Ohio State with 1-loss, to Penn State; or (ii) conference champion Penn State with 2-losses, but a win over Ohio State. Ohio State won the argument, demonstrating that wins and losses were more important than conference championships and head-to-head.)
  • 2019: No. 5 Utah (11-1) lost the Pac-12 championship game to No. 13 Oregon (10-2) by a score of 37-15. Had Utah defeated Oregon, they would have moved into the top 4 as No. 4 Georgia (11-1) lost the SEC championship game to No. 2 LSU (12-0), thus knocking Georgia out of the top 4 and making room for a team to move up. However, due to Utah’s loss to Oregon, No. 6 Oklahoma (11-1) moved from 6th to 4th when they defeated No. 7 Baylor (11-1) in the Big 12 championship game by a score of 30-23 (in OT). This was the second meeting between Baylor and OU during the 2019 season, with Oklahoma winning both games.

As you can see, the 5th place team has moved into the top 4 in four of the six previous years of the playoff; and in the two years that the 5th place team did not move up (2016 and 2019); there was no change among the top 4 in 2016, and the 6th place team moved into the top 4 in 2019. In other words, there is only one season (2016) in which the top 4 did not change at all in between the second-to-last, and final rankings.

Another interesting way to look at this would be as follows:

In the four years that the 5th place team moved into the top 4 of the final rankings, three of those years this was done by the 5th place team winning their conference championship game (as 2017 Alabama did not play in their conference championship game but still made the top 4). In those three conference championship games, two of those were played against opponents ranked lower than the 5th place team, and only once was it against a team ranked higher (in the top 4) (2014 Ohio State and 2018 Oklahoma both played lower ranked teams in their conference championship games; while 2015 Michigan State played number 4; and again, 2017 Alabama was idle).

Also, in the two years that the 5th place team did NOT move up into the top 4, one was due to a team being idle (2016 Michigan) and the other was due to a team losing their conference championship game to a lower ranked team (2019 Utah). However, in 2019, the 6th place team did make it into the top 4 when they won their conference championship game over a lower ranked team.

In summary, a review of the first six years shows that there have been five times in which the 5th (or 6th – 2019) place team has moved into the top 4. Of these five times, four of them were due to the team in 5th or 6th place having won their conference championship, while only one was a non-conference champion that sat idle without playing in their conference championship game (2017 Alabama).

For the Texas Aggies reading this in 2020:

I am afraid that the Aggies are most analogous to the 2016 Michigan Wolverines. Remember, Michigan was No. 5 and sat idle that last weekend before the final rankings (as they did not make their conference championship game).

However, in 2014, 2015, and 2018, the 5th place team did make the top 4, but did so due to playing in and winning their conference championship game. Further, 2019 is analogous to 2014, 2015, and 2018, as No. 5 Utah would have made the top 4 had they not lost their conference championship game, while No. 6 Oklahoma did make the top 4 (due to playing in and winning their conference championship game). The only No. 5 team to ever make the top 4 after sitting idle in their final week was 2017 Alabama (who had 1-loss and spent several weeks at No. 1 and No. 2).

Therefore, I think the Aggies are most analogous with 2016 Michigan … with one small exception; and that is the fact that the Aggies are not idle this weekend. While the Aggies may not be playing in their conference championship game, they are playing Tennessee. Hopefully, the Aggies can put on a good enough showing against Tennessee in order to earn some more points with the committee; as while they are most analogous to the 2016 Wolverines’ situation, the 2020 Texas Aggies are really in an in-between situation (as their final game is not a conference championship game, but they are not sitting idle either).

[Note: If playing Tennessee this week does not make the 2020 Texas Aggies analogous to the 2016 Michigan Wolverines; and the Aggies are also not analogous to teams that played in a CCG; then my fear is that the only other analogy would be that the 2020 Texas Aggies are similar to the 2014 TCU Horned Frogs (who played a NR Iowa State team in the final week and fell out of the top 4 in favor of an Ohio State team that played in its CCG). Having said that, the biggest difference between 2020 A&M and 2014 TCU, is that 2014 TCU was already in the top 4.]

[Because this post is not edited very well; and because it is mostly my notes regarding past playoffs; I am providing the following table for clarity]

SeasonTeamMove into top 4?Last week before
final rankings
Loss by Top 4 Team?
2014No. 5 Ohio StateYesBeat 11 Wisconsin
in CCG (59-0)
No; 3 TCU beat NR Iowa State (55-3) and fell to 6th
2015No. 5 Michigan StateYesBeat 4 Iowa
in CCG (16-13)
Yes; 4 Iowa lost to Mich. St.
2016No. 5 MichiganNoIdleNo; top 4 remained the same
2017No. 5 AlabamaYesIdleYes; 2 Auburn & 4 Wisconsin both lost CCGs
2018No. 5 OklahomaYesBeat 9 Longhorns
in CCG (39-27)
Yes; 4 Georgia lost CCG to 1 Alabama
2019No. 5 Utah / No. 6 OklahomaNo / YesLost to 13 Oregon in CCG
(Utah would have moved
into top 4 if they won
this game) / Beat 7 Baylor in CCG (30-23; OT)
Yes; 4 Georgia lost CCG to 1 LSU

2 thoughts on “College Football Playoff: “Firsts,” “Nevers,” & “Not Yets”

  1. Pingback: Following the COVID-Football Pandemic-Playoff (2020) | OnePointSafety

  2. Pingback: College Football Playoff History (and Precedent) | OnePointSafety

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