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How College Football Playoff rankings actually work: the short and long versions – SB Nation

The College Football Playoff works pretty simply.

  1. Face a Power 5-quality schedule, losing no more than one game along the way, and hope there aren’t four or more other teams that can claim the same.
  2. What if more than four teams fit? If you’re in a conference, you should win it outright. That’s one of the committee’s stated tiebreakers, along with head-to-head results and performance against common opponents.
  3. Also, when it comes to jumping somebody else, try to make your stats and tape look impressive to a committee of mostly athletic directors and non-coaches. How do you do that? Win by a lot, I guess. They haven’t really specified.

Based on three years, here are the benchmarks (full numbers below):

  • Reach Selection Sunday with one or fewer losses (100 percent of Playoff teams have done this).
  • Beat at least three teams ranked in the committee’s Selection Sunday top 25 (100 percent).
  • Win at least six games against FBS teams that have .500-plus records on Selection Sunday (100 percent).
  • Win a Power 5 conference (92 percent). The exception, a one-loss 2016 Ohio State, had fewer losses (and a tougher schedule) than its conference’s champ and had beaten three teams in the final top eight.

“Outright” seems like a really key word.

2014 Big 12 co-champs Baylor and TCU fit the criteria otherwise. But the more important parts are that Ohio State played the tougher schedule and won more big games.

2015 Ohio State and 2015 Iowa are the only other one-loss Power 5 teams to miss the Playoff, and neither won their conferences. (Yes, Ohio State is a weird case every year. The other constant: Bama’s in.)

If it comes down to it, you’d rather have one loss and no conference title than two losses and a conference title.


NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn StateNCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State

Penn State won the 2016 Big Ten, but had two bad losses

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The committee ranked 2016 Big Ten champ Penn State behind an Ohio State it’d beaten and a Washington with a weak schedule. Don’t lose two games.

Losing to a bad team is preferable to losing twice.

Remember when 2014 Ohio State lost to a mediocre Virginia Tech? In the first year of the Playoff, some media members thought that would be eliminating. VT finished a little better than some feared, at 6-6, which meant the loss wasn’t that bad. Ohio State won it all. (I promise Ohio State isn’t the go-to example for every stipulation.)

And turns out that was nothing. 2015 Playoff teams Michigan State and Oklahoma lost to 5-7 teams along the way.

A two-loss champ will make it some day, but it’s still not advised.


Notre Dame v StanfordNotre Dame v Stanford

A bizarre loss at Northwestern and a close loss to Oregon kept Stanford just outside in 2015

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

2015 Stanford, 2016 Oklahoma, and 2016 Penn State won power conferences, lost two games, and could’ve made it in, but didn’t get the help they would’ve needed. That OU team also ranked behind a two-loss, non-champ Michigan, so throw a team like those Wolverines — dominant wins, quality opponents, and close losses on the road — in here as well.

Two teams from the same conference will make it in some day.

Try to be the team with fewer losses and the team that won the conference, though.

Notre Dame and the non-powers have yet to get all that close, but there are paths.

Notre Dame can’t get the mystical bonus points associated with winning a conference title — it also apparently can’t get penalized for not winning one — but it can play two or three final top-25 teams and three or four other bowl teams in a given year. As you’ll see below, that’s comparable to teams that have made the Playoff.

If you’re a non-power, you’re not explicitly barred from the Playoff. But playing a bunch of top 25 teams is hard for a non-power to arrange, so you ought to light everybody up and go undefeated.

Nobody’s come really close. 2014 Boise State lost too many games. A couple Houston teams would’ve had shots at consideration, if they hadn’t lost. 2016 WMU didn’t beat many good teams.

Strength of schedule matters … sort of.

You can see how it helps determine seeding (these are very basic numbers, but they’re similar to what the committee uses; it doesn’t trust fancy algorithm math):

However, it’d be pretty hard to win a power conference without beating a ranked team or two and another handful of bowl teams. Unless we have a crowded field, schedule talk is about slotting, not about qualification.

If you want a schedule math thing that correlates pretty well to committee rankings, I recommend the transparent CPI and ESPN’s more advanced Strength of Record. For predicted team strength going forward, Bill Connelly’s S&P+.

The committee doesn’t care about where your opponent was ranked at kickoff, and it doesn’t seem to care when your loss happened.


USC v WashingtonUSC v Washington

Washington put that old “better to lose early than late” AP Poll myth to the test in the Playoff era

Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Especially if the ranking we’re referring to is the AP Poll. The AP Poll does not appear to sway the committee.

Everything gets thrown back into a blender each week.

  • Teams don’t get credit for games they’ve yet to play (as TCU learned when Baylor jumped ahead at the end of 2014, after beating Kansas State and thus cutting into TCU’s schedule advantage).
  • It doesn’t appear to matter when you lose (2016 Washington lost on Nov. 12 and fell only to No. 6 — which was essentially No. 5, since Michigan-Ohio State had yet to happen — and then made the Playoff).
  • Teams do not just slide up or down based only on their Ws and Ls. If a bunch of teams you’ve played had a good Week 13, you might move up for Week 14 because of that.

None of these really matter until Selection Sunday.

For example, in the Playoff’s first three years, a non-Bama SEC team started in the initial top four and ended in the teens or worse, while in all three years, a team that started in the teens either pulled the reverse or came really close.

The reward for being No. 1 isn’t much.

The No. 1 seed gets the closer of that year’s rotation-determined locations. For example, a Pac-12 No. 1 seed would host at the Rose, Cotton, or Fiesta rather than the Sugar, Orange, or Peach.

The committee does not appear to rig the semifinals for the sake of matchups or tradition. Only rankings matter.


Rose Bowl - Oregon v Florida StateRose Bowl - Oregon v Florida State

Perhaps 2014 Florida State was just stunned to be in the Rose Bowl, after fans and media assumed the committee would set up semis based on geography?

Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

In 2014, it was widely assumed the committee would mess with the matchups and have Alabama-Florida State in an all-Southern Sugar and have a traditional Big Ten-Pac-12 Rose of Oregon and Ohio State. It didn’t.

Clemson-Oklahoma was a rematch of a bowl from the year prior, something bowl committees would typically avoid.

This means the bowls apparently have no say in semifinal games. Fine with me!

After that, the committee fills out the other four New Year’s Six games.

Three have contracted spots, if they aren’t Playoff games in that year’s rotation. The Rose gets the top-ranked Big Ten and Pac-12 teams, the Sugar gets the Big 12 and SEC, and the Orange gets the ACC and Big Ten/SEC/Notre Dame.

The rest are at-larges, arranged to ensure at least one huge matchup. Somewhere in there, the top-ranked mid-major conference champion must be included.

There will be arguing throughout.

These will include claims that:

  • The committee is biased in favor of one conference or another. (Little evidence for this in the final rankings.)
  • The rankings favor famous teams with massive fan bases over superior teams with smaller brands. (This theory doesn’t seem to square with Clemson over Alabama, Clemson over Oklahoma, Oregon over Florida State/Ohio State, or Washington over Penn State/Michigan.)
  • The committee’s strength of schedule metrics are somehow both simplistic and confusing. (Fair.)
  • The committee’s verbal explanations of actual team quality are scant, vague, confusing, and inconsistent. (Extremely fair.)
  • The rankings fluctuate way too wildly. (A strength, IMO, but the committee should explain it in a written format each week. The polls we’re used to don’t account for shifting context beyond just what each individual team did in iso, so the committee’s fiddling can look really random.)
  • This is all just building toward an eight-team Playoff. (Yeah, probably.)

See? Told you it works pretty simply.

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