So, you want to make it to the College Football Playoff? Here’s how.
Before we get into this, though, we know what you’re probably thinking: “Why do I need a guide to the College Football Playoff? Shouldn’t I just win every game by a boatload of points?”
Well sure, that’s one way to do it. But it’s not the only way. Statistically speaking.
We dug into the data from the four-year history of the College Football Playoff to unearth some crucial commonalities among the 16 participants. We’ve compiled the findings in this handy guide we’re calling Six Steps to the College Football Playoff.
You can thank us in Santa Clara on Jan. 7 when you’re the last team standing:
1. Be Alabama
Alabama is the only team to have made the College Football Playoff in each of the four years of the playoff’s existence. Being the Crimson Tide is about as close to getting a guaranteed ticket to the CFP as you can get. In 2014, Alabama lost to eventual champion Ohio State in the semifinals. In 2015, the Tide beat Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, then Clemson for the national title. In 2016, their 14-0 record came to an untimely death in a rematch in the title game that Clemson won 35-31. And in 2017, Alabama overcame a 13-0 halftime deficit to beat Georgia 26-23 in overtime. That’s a 2-for-4 record in the CFP — the best in college football.
2. Lose once, but definitely not twice
“Hold on,” you might be saying, “Wouldn’t it be smarter to not lose once?” Sure, sure. You could do that. But the brief history of the CFP shows us that 13 of the 16 participants — and all four of the champions — have finished the regular season with one loss. Of the three teams that entered the CFP at 13-0 (2014 Florida State, 2015 Clemson, and 2016 Alabama), none won the title.
Another route to the CFP, historically, is to drop a game to an unranked opponent. Nine of the 16 teams have done so. Two of them even won the Playoff.
In 2014, Ohio State lost its second game of the year at home to Virginia Tech, and the Buckeyes ended up winning the title. Clemson pulled off the same feat in 2017, losing to Pittsburgh in its 10th game of the regular season, but still capturing the championship.
In the CFP, it’s clearly been better to go in with a loss than to go in undefeated. Heck, you may even consider losing to an underdog. It builds character, you know?
3. Stay in the Top 25, get in the Top 5
Though both of these can sometimes be debated, in theory, the CFP teams are the top four teams in college football, and, in theory, The Associated Press Top 25 are the top 25 teams in college football. So, if you want to be considered for one of the top four spots as a CFP team, you need to find your way into the top four spots of the AP Top 25. The numbers back this up.
While the 16 previous CFP teams have started the season ranked anywhere from No. 1 (2014 Florida State, 2016 Alabama, and 2018 Alabama) to No. 19 (2015 Oklahoma), they each made it into the Top 5 of the AP poll at some point in the season. All but 2014 Ohio State and 2015 Oklahoma went the extra step and snuck into the top four. What’s more, none of the 16 ever dropped out of the Top 25 during the season.
4. Win your conference championship game (or be Ohio State/Alabama)
For the most part, this rule is pretty straightforward. As of last year, finally, all major conferences have a championship game. Win that.
We’ve had three minor exceptions. In 2016, Ohio State didn’t play in its conference championship game. Penn State — which gave the Buckeyes their lone loss — went to the Big Ten title game and won. But the Nittany Lions didn’t follow Rule 2 — they lost twice on the year. So they didn’t make the CFP. OSU did.
The same happened with Alabama last year. The Crimson Tide lost to Auburn in the final game of the season, giving the Tigers the tiebreaker in the conference. But Auburn lost three games in the regular season, and Ohio State — which won the Big Ten championship — had two losses, so Alabama got the CFP invite. See Rules 1 and 2.
The third exception is one that is no longer an option. In 2015, the Big 12 didn’t have a championship game (the game wasn’t held from 2010-2016). So 11-1 Oklahoma, which went 5-0 against ranked teams and won its games by an average of 25 points, snuck into the CFP semifinal game in the Orange Bowl (where the Sooners lost to Clemson). As of 2017, all Power 5 conferences have a championship game. No excuses anymore.
5. Score a boatload of points
During the College Football Playoff era, the average points per game among all FBS teams is 29.2. The average points per game for the 12 CFP teams in that span is 39.8. Mathematically, that’s a boatload. Oregon in 2014 had the boatloadiest average with 46.3 PPG during the regular season, while 2015 Michigan State trails the parade with a paltry 32.1, which still ranked 46th out of 128.
Here’s the stat line for each of the 16 teams:
|YEAR||TEAM||CFP SEED||REGULAR SEASON RECORD||PRESEASON AP RANK||LOWEST AP RANK||HIGHEST AP RANK||RECORD VS. TOP 25||PPG||OPPG||MARGIN|
(*runner up; **national champion)
6. Speaking of scoring points… win by a lot
If you follow Rule 5, this shouldn’t be a problem. The 16 College Football Playoff teams won by an average of 22.1 points per game. That’s what we in the business like to call, “a lot.” The most merciless was 2016 Ohio State, which beat its foes by an average of 29.7 points per game during the regular season. 2015 Michigan State again brings up the rear, winning by an average of just 11.6 points a game. Only two teams (2015 Michigan State and 2014 Florida State) won their games by fewer than two touchdowns on average.
So there you have it. Six steps to getting your team into the College Football Playoff. Nothing’s guaranteed, remember. But follow this plan and you’ll have a shot.