College football’s national champion will be crowned this season for the fourth straight season using a four-team playoff model. The College Football Playoff turns four years old this season and will once again be a focal point from the start of the season as teams are hyped as jostling for playoff positioning throughout the fall.
Through three years of observing the College Football Playoff, there are a few takeaways we can take from the evidence provided thus far:
- The weekly rankings in October and November aren’t worth a dime.
- Projecting what the selection committee will do is not a science; it’s a pure guessing game.
- Every season will be different.
- Winning games is good, losing games is bad.
That’s pretty much all you need to know in a nutshell regarding the College Football Playoff, but each season has helped to mold the lessons we should learn about the postseason format. So let’s take a look at each of the first three years of the College Football Playoff and see what we have learned so far as we prepare for the fourth season using the new championship model.
2014: You can recover from early losses, but you must look good
Who was in: Alabama (12-1, SEC champion), Oregon (12-1, Pac-12 champion), Florida State (13-0, ACC champion and defending national champion), Ohio State (12-1, Big Ten champion)
The inaugural season using the College Football Playoff was quite a controversial one. Three of the spots in the first Playoff were easy to make with Alabama as the top-ranked team in the nation, Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and Oregon riding in as the second-ranked team, and Florida State following up their BCS national championship season by running the table to an ACC championship. But the fourth spot in the rankings captured the spotlight and upset fans in the Big 12.
Ohio State had lost an early-season game against Virginia Tech in Columbus, but went on a roll after that to win the Big Ten. If you recall, the Buckeyes’ home loss to the Hokies highlighted a rough day of football for the Big Ten that also saw Nebraska need a miracle from Ameer Abdullah to beat McNeese State, Northwestern lose at home to Northern Illinois, Notre Dame blank Michigan 31-0, Michigan State lose by 19 on the road at Oregon, and Central Michigan rout Purdue on Purdue’s home field.
As a result, pundits were eliminating the Big Ten from the College Football Playoff in Week 2.
The Big Ten is officially eliminated from placing a team in the playoff. It is September 6th.
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) September 7, 2014
A smashing 59-0 victory over No. 11 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship was impossible for the selection committee to ignore, as well as finishing the season with double-digit victories in nine of their last 11 games played. With Ohio State firing on all cylinders, the Buckeyes crept past co-Big 12 champions Baylor and TCU. The Big 12’s “one true champion” motto was mocked as the Bears and Horned Frogs were awarded a share of the conference title, despite Baylor holding a head-to-head victory over TCU.
Baylor and TCU fans were each upset to see the Buckeyes move past their teams in the final playoff rankings used for the playoff seeding, left to wonder why. They assessed blame on the committee and on Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby for not doing enough to give the conference the best chance possible of getting a team in the Playoff. The lack of a conference championship game immediately came to be blamed, as the value of an extra data point was deemed to be the tipping point that went against the Big 12 and favored Ohio State.
There may some truth to that, as the Buckeyes stormed by the Big 12 co-champs following their blowout win in the Big Ten championship game. The counter argument to that is TCU and Baylor were each still playing that same day. And Baylor even managed to beat a top 10 team in Kansas State (winning 38-27). TCU dominated Iowa State, 55-3. Both TCU and Baylor did what they needed to do, but the committee ultimately rode the wave of emotion from Ohio State’s 59-0 victory in the championship game for the Big Ten.
One of the great “what if” questions in 2014 is what would have happened if Oklahoma and/or Texas was in the co-championship equation at the end of the season. Would the Sooners or Longhorns have stood a better chance of staying ahead of Ohio State in the final rankings with a record of 11-1? Did the brand name matter? Baylor and TCU, and plenty of others, certainly feel that was the case. Ohio State is clearly the bigger brand name which casual viewers will be more likely to recognize. The Buckeyes have a richer history, draw more TV viewers, and have a history of traveling much better than either Baylor or TCU.
The College Football Playoff will never admit to it, but the brand name may have played a factor in the end, but Ohio State being the better team at the time is still why they were in and Baylor and TCU were not. The CFB Playoff selection committee was let off the hook when Ohio State went on to win the national championship.
The lesson: In most seasons, you will be given a margin of error. Don’t sweat a loss in September, but don’t let your foot off the gas pedal the rest of the year. (Case in point: Alabama lost a game at home the following September and won the national championship.)
2015: Some years, things just work out
Who was in: Clemson (13-0, ACC champion), Alabama (12-1, SEC champion), Michigan State (12-1, Big Ten champion), Oklahoma (11-1)
Of the College Football Playoff’s three seasons, the 2015 season is the one without any major issues or concerns before the benefit of hindsight. Clemson was the only undefeated team and carried the top rank into the postseason. Alabama had lost once, but still rolled to yet another SEC title. Michigan State won a defensive battle with Iowa in the Big Ten championship to make their case for a Playoff spot. Oklahoma represented the Big 12 with no controversy a year after Baylor and TCU were left out with identical records.
Oklahoma reaching the College Football Playoff was a bit of a sigh of relief for the Big 12 after the previous season, but the inclusion of the Sooners in the four-team playoff proved another lesson to be learned. Every season is going to have a different story to tell. Just because one-loss Big 12 champs were left out one year does not mean a one-loss Big 12 champ is going to be shut out the next.
The Sooners did manage to hang on to the fourth spot in the Playoff field and were quickly turned aside by Clemson in the Orange Bowl. But the Big 12 learned that the extra data point that comes with a Big 12 championship game is not necessarily required as long as you have a team that still stands worthy at the end. The Big 12 did need some help, however, and the Pac-12 provided it with a two-loss conference champion (Stanford).
All things considered, the selection committee had an easy task in front of them in 2015. Clemson was obvious, as was Alabama. Michigan State (11-1) and Iowa (12-0) meeting in the Big Ten championship turned out to essentially be a play-in game with the loser slotted for the Rose Bowl. And Oklahoma sitting at 11-1 with little threat possible from the Pac-12 or anywhere else meant Oklahoma was pretty much locked in at No. 4 at worst.
Some years, the playoff pairings will be easy to put together and 2015 proved it.
The lesson: Win your games and the selection committee will have an easy job.
2016: Conference championships are important, but not required
Who was in: Alabama (13-0, SEC champion), Clemson (12-1, ACC champion), Ohio State (11-1), Washington (12-1, Pac-12 champion)
History was made and the precedent was set. You do not have to win a conference championship in order to be considered for the College Football Playoff. Heck, you may not even have to win your division. But you still have to have a stacked résumé to offer to receive that benefit of the doubt. In 2016, the selections of Alabama, Clemson and Washington were easy to make, but the selection of 11-1 Ohio State ahead of Big Ten champion Penn State raised plenty of questions.
Penn State’s biggest setback was on their own hands. Two losses earlier in the year on the road against Pittsburgh and Michigan put the Nittany Lions in a hole that even a stunning home victory over No. 2 Ohio State and a wild ride to the Big Ten championship could not overcome in the eyes of the selection committee. That’s right. Penn State won the Big Ten and was still passed over for the College Football Playoff for a team they defeated.
Ohio State’s lone loss in the season came in a game in which they statistically dominated from start to finish, but lost in large part due to a special teams gaffe, a blocked field goal returned for a go-ahead touchdown by Penn State. Ohio State managed to stay ahead of their division foes on the strength of a road win against Big 12 champion Oklahoma and a victory over the same Michigan team that had obliterated an undermanned Penn State in Ann Arbor earlier in the year.
At the end of the season, Penn State may have been a hot team with a Big Ten title, but the Buckeyes still had the more impressive résumé that also included a road victory at Wisconsin and a 62-3 win over No. 9 Nebraska. This was a case in which the overall body of work proved to be the main focal point of the selection committee.
The lesson: The only way to overcome the lack of a conference championship is to have a loaded résumé impossible to neglect.
What lessons will we learn in 2017?
A new season means school is back in session for the College Football Playoff. Each of the past three seasons has taught us something new about how the Playoff works — or doesn’t work, depending upon your viewpoint. This season, we will likely learn something new along the way, which is equally exciting, enticing and problematic. This is year four of the College Football Playoff and we are still trying to get a full understanding of how it all works on a week-to-week basis.
There has been a lack of consistency in the Playoff rankings that no amount of live television coverage and on-air interviews with the selection committee chair will be able to explain to a satisfactory level. And that’s OK if you understand and accept one thing; what is said in October and November means nothing in the end.
The selection committee is formed for one primary reason, and that is to select the four best teams at the end of the year. No matter what happens in the weekly rankings and how those rankings are explained, it is important to remember it all means nothing if the rankings start from scratch, as we have been led to believe is the case.
Here are a few things we have yet to see and may or may not see this season;
- Two-loss conference champion in Playoff. (Florida State?)
- Notre Dame reaching playoff, thus leaving TWO power conferences out of the Playoff by default.
- Two teams from same conference reaching Playoff. (Ohio State and Penn State this season?)
- Group of Five team in playoff discussion. (If Colorado State beats Alabama, we’ll talk.)
That is just the tipping point, of course. The point here is there is always room for something new to be witnessed in the College Football Playoff this season. We’ll just have to wait and see if anything new is learned this fall.