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How the CFP rankings actually work: 14 steps to making the Playoff

The committee’s rankings release every Tuesday in the latter half of the season, leading to the big ones in December. Here’s what to know along the way.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

The College Football Playoff works pretty simply.

Here’s the short version of how to get in:

  • Face a bunch of Power 5 teams, losing no more than one game along the way, and hope there aren’t many other teams that can claim the same.
  • Try to win a Power 5 conference.
  • Try to look impressive to a committee of mostly athletic directors.

How do you do that last part? Win by a lot, I guess. They haven’t really specified.

And what do you do if you can’t face a bunch of Power 5 teams? Um, next slide.

Here’s the long version, piece by piece.

1. Winning a Power 5 conference without losing more than once will almost always get you in.

The only three exceptions through five years: 2014’s Big 12 co-champs, Baylor and TCU, who were trumped by Ohio State playing the tougher schedule and winning more big games, and 2018’s Ohio State, which lost by 29 to a 6-6 Purdue.

2015 Ohio State, 2015 Iowa, and 2017 Wisconsin missed as P5 one-loss teams, but they didn’t win their conferences.

2. Avoiding losses is usually more important than winning a conference.

  • 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.
  • The committee ranked 2017 Big Ten champ Ohio State behind an Alabama that didn’t win a division. Don’t lose two games.

(Yeah, Ohio State’s a weird case every single year. The other constant: Bama’s always in.)

3. Losing to a bad team is usually preferable to losing twice.

Remember when 2014 Ohio State lost to a mediocre Virginia Tech? In the first year of the Playoff, lots of media members assumed that would be eliminating. While no one was looking, VT finished 6-6, which meant the loss wasn’t that bad. Ohio State won the Playoff.

And turns out that was nothing — almost everybody has at least one bad game. 2015 Playoff teams Michigan State and Oklahoma lost to 5-7 teams, and 2017 Clemson lost to a 4-8 Syracuse, albeit with injury excuses. (Tip: when you lose, try to have injury excuses. The committee spokesperson sometimes makes vague references to considering them.)

2018 Ohio State is an exception (as is school tradition), finishing a spot behind a two-loss Georgia that nearly beat #1 Alabama the day prior.

4. A two-loss Power 5 champ will make it some day, but it’s not advised.

2015 Stanford, 2016 Oklahoma, 2016 Penn State, 2017 Ohio State, and 2017 USC won power conferences, lost two games, and needed help that never came. 2017’s two-loss Auburn even controlled its destiny, but came just short.

OU 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.

5. Strength of schedule matters ... sort of.

The committee talks about SOS in a weird way, which isn’t really any weirder than any other way to do it. They don’t just Google “strength of schedule rankings” and then read the first thing the internet spits out. Based on five years, here are the benchmarks:

  • Reach Selection Sunday with one or fewer losses (100% of Playoff teams have done this).
  • Beat at least three teams in the committee’s Selection Sunday top 25 (90%, excluding 2017 Alabama and 2018 Clemson, which means facing a bland schedule is better than losing two games — if you’re Bama or Clemson, at least).
  • Win at least six games, preferably more, against FBS teams that have .500-plus records on Selection Sunday (100%).
  • Win a Power 5 conference (85%). The exceptions were independent Notre Dame and/or teams that outranked two-loss champs.

It’d be pretty hard to win a power conference without beating a ranked team or two and another handful of bowl teams. So unless we have a crowded field, schedule talk is about slotting, not qualification. The average #1 seed has gone roughly 4-0 or 5-1 against top-25 teams, while the average bubble team has gone more like 3-1 or 2-1.

If you want a schedule math thing that correlates pretty well to committee rankings, I recommend the transparent CPI or ESPN’s more advanced Strength of Record.

6. All the text in this post so far? Surprise: the committee says it only technically uses this stuff when deciding between two teams it thinks are of the same quality.

There isn’t a single explicit qualifier or disqualifier.

You can rank behind a team to whom you’ve lost. You can rank ahead of a team with a better schedule. You can rank behind a team that lost to a team you beat. You can rank ahead of a team that won your conference.

The committee ranks teams however it wants, then rarely explains any of it. The few explanations they will come in one 90-second blip per week on ESPN, then get made fun of. Game control! Body clocks! Balance! Injury mulligans! There’s roughly one widely mocked term per year.

7. For Notre Dame, almost all of this advice stays the same, no matter how mad that makes people.

The Irish can’t get the mystical bonus points associated with winning a conference title — they also apparently can’t get penalized for not winning one — but typically play two or three final top-25 teams and three or four other bowl teams in a given year, along with zero FCS teams, meaning at least as many FBS opponents as anybody besides, like, Hawaii. Notre Dame’s schedule strength is almost always fine or great.

(The advanced Notre Dame hater actually roots for the Irish to make big bowls, because we all know what happens at that point.)

8. The non-powers have yet to get all that close, but there are supposedly paths we’ve yet to discover.

If you’re a non-power, you’re not explicitly banned. But playing a bunch of top-25 teams is hard for a non-power to arrange, so you ought to light everybody up, I guess?

Nobody’s come close to making it. 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. 2017 UCF didn’t happen to play any noteworthy powers. 2018 UCF was a little bit weaker than its snubbed predecessor, though it did rank better in the CFP.

9. The committee doesn’t care where your opponent used to be ranked, and it doesn’t care when your loss happened.

This is the smartest thing the committee does.

Everything starts from scratch each week, which confuses a lot of fans who are used to media polls that just slide each team up or down based on the most recent result. (The AP Poll does not appear to sway the committee.)

  • Teams don’t get credit for games they’ve yet to play (as 2014 TCU learned when Baylor jumped ahead after beating Kansas State, thus cutting into TCU’s schedule advantage).
  • It’s not better to lose early than late, and that popular assumption was bullshit even during the polls era. 2017 Alabama lost its last game before Selection Sunday, then made it in. 2016 Washington lost on November 12 and fell only to #6 — essentially #5, since Michigan-Ohio State had yet to happen — and made it in.
  • Teams do not automatically move up or down based only on their Ws and Ls. If a bunch of teams you’ve already played had a good Week 13, that makes your whole schedule look stronger and thus might make you move up for Week 14.

10. 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. And in all four years, a team that started in the teens either pulled the reverse or came really close.

11. The reward for being #1 isn’t much.

The #1 seed gets the closer of that year’s rotation-determined locations. For example, a Pac-12 #1 seed would host at the Rose, Cotton, or Fiesta rather than the Sugar, Orange, or Peach.

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

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

In 2015, Clemson-Oklahoma was a rematch of a bowl from the year prior, something bowl suits would prefer to avoid. But CFP rankings matter more than bowl suits.

13. 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 top ACC and highest remainder among the Big Ten/SEC/Notre Dame.

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

Unlike other bowls, NY6 games have little say in what they get, so ignore people who tell you a NY6 bowl wouldn’t want a particular matchup. The committee does try to avoid one bowl getting the non-power team too frequently, though.

14. There will be arguing throughout.

These will include claims that:

  • The committee is biased in favor of one conference or another. (Not much clear evidence for this, if you compare rankings to unbiased computer ratings like the Massey Composite.)
  • The rankings favor famous teams with massive fan bases over superior teams with smaller brands. (This doesn’t square with the committee ranking Clemson over Alabama, Clemson over Oklahoma, Oregon over Florida State, Washington over Penn State/Michigan, or anyone over Ohio State ever — along with how much the committee tends to overrate mediocre Northwestern teams.)
  • The committee’s strength of schedule metrics are somehow both simplistic and confusing. (A fair complaint!)
  • The committee appears to have barred half of FBS from the Playoff. (Basically, yeah.)
  • The committee’s verbal explanations of team quality are scant, vague, confusing, and inconsistent. (Probably the fairest complaint.)
  • The rankings fluctuate way too wildly. (A strength! But the committee should explain it in a written format each week. The polls don’t account for shifting context beyond just what each individual team did in iso, so the committee’s fiddling can look really random.)
  • I’M MAD ABOUT THE COMMITTEE’S ESPN/NCAA/BILDERBERG/SOROS/ANTIFA/ANTI-SKYWALKER BIAS. (The NCAA has nothing to do with the Playoff. I cannot comment on the others.)
  • This is all just building toward an eight-team Playoff. (Yeah, probably.)

Got all that?

See? Told you it works pretty simply.