College Football Playoff:
10 Fun Facts In Year 10
Of The Four-Team Format

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network
Nov. 1, 2023

With the release of the College Football Playoff committee’s initial Top 25 for the 2023 season, now seems like a good time for a quick review of various themes and trends that have unfolded during the first nine years of this four-team, bracket-style playoff approach to determining the sport’s national champion each year.

Quick reminder: Starting next season, there will be a 12-team playoff format, so the observations and “rules of thumb” below soon will become antiquated.

Nevertheless, they offer an intriguing backdrop to the drama that will unfold over these next five weeks, as a dozen-plus candidates gradually are whittled down to the gridiron version of the Final Four.

Through the first nine years of the current College Football Playoff format …

1-Just three conferences earned 27 of the 36 CFP bids (75 percent): the Southeastern Conference (11), the Atlantic Coast Conference (eight) and the Big Ten (eight).

Clearly, even as the financial gap between the SEC and Big Ten and every other conference has continued to grow, that hasn’t prevented the ACC from keeping up with their wealthier colleagues in this very important category.

Reminder: During the unusual COVID season of 2020, long-time gridiron independent Notre Dame played football as a member of the ACC, even appearing in the ACC championship game against Clemson before both teams were selected for the CFP. Thus, the Irish’s 2020 appearance is counted as an ACC bid, whereas their 2018 appearance is counted as an independent bid.

Beyond the SEC, ACC and Big Ten, the other nine CFP bids went to the Big 12 (five), Pac-12 (two), American Athletic Conference (one) and Notre Dame (one as an independent). The AAC’s bid was 13-0 Cincinnati in 2021, before the Bearcats left for the Big 12.

2-Just five schools are responsible for 25 of the 36 CFP bids (69 percent): Alabama (seven), Clemson (six), Ohio State (five), Oklahoma (four) and Georgia (three).

Clemson holds the longest CFP streak in history, with six. The Tigers missed the first bracket in 2014, then made six in a row, then missed the last two and obviously (at 4-4 this season) will miss again this year.

Alabama made the first five CFP brackets but missed for the first time in 2019, then made it again in 2020 and 2021, then missed again in 2022. This year’s Crimson Tide (7-1 and #8 in the initial committee rankings) likely will make the CFP again this year only if they finish as a 12-1 SEC champion.

3-Only four head coaches have reached the CFP in at least half their opportunities: Alabama’s Nick Saban, Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Southern Cal’s Lincoln Riley.

Saban, the Crimson Tide’s head coach since 2007, has reached the CFP seven times in nine opportunities (78 percent). His only misses came in 2019, when he finished 11-2 with a #8 national ranking, and in 2022, when he finished 11-2 with a #5 national ranking.

Day, who succeeded Urban Meyer at Ohio State during the 2018 season, has reached the CFP three times in his four full campaigns (75 percent) as the Buckeyes’ head coach. His only miss came in 2021, when he finished 11-2 with a #6 national ranking.

Swinney, the Tigers’ head coach since midway through the 2008 season, has reached the CFP six times in nine chances (67 percent). That success rate will drop to 60 percent with Clemson’s inevitable miss this year.

Riley, now in his second season at Southern Cal, has reached the CFP three times in six opportunities (50 percent) as a head coach. Prior to joining the Trojans, he led Oklahoma to three CFP trips in his five seasons with the Sooners.

4-The SEC has captured six of the nine championships in this modern format and is the only league never to miss the CFP.

While the track records of the ACC (two titles, only two misses) and the Big Ten (one title, only two misses) also are impressive, relatively speaking, the SEC clearly has ruled this roost.

In fact, as reflected above, the SEC has averaged more than one CFP bid per season. Its 11 bids in the first nine years of the four-team bracket included two trips with multiple representatives, as both Alabama and Georgia advanced to the Final Four in 2017 and 2021.

The SEC’s six national titles during this stretch have been captured by Alabama (2015, 2017, 2020), Georgia (2021, 2022) and LSU (2019).

5-Of the seven schools that have made just a single trip to the CFP, only LSU won the national championship.

Cincinnati (2021), Florida State (2014), LSU (2019), Michigan State (2015), Oregon (2014), TCU (2022) and Washington (2016) each has made a single trip to the CFP.

Among those seven semifinalists, only LSU, Oregon and TCU advanced to the national championship game, and only the Tigers took home the trophy. The Ducks were routed by Ohio State (42-20) and the Horned Frogs were annihilated by Georgia (65-7) in their national title tilts.

6-Teams’ seedings have not been a good predictor of success in the CFP.

Although three #1 seeds have captured the national championship, two other teams won it all as #4 seeds.

Here’s the complete list of CFP champions, in chronological order, with their seeds and final records: #4 Ohio St (14-1 in 2014), #2 Alabama (14-1 in 2015), #2 Clemson (14-1 in 2016), #4 Alabama (13-1 in 2017), #2 Clemson (15-0 in 2018), #1 LSU (15-0 in 2019), #1 Alabama (13-0 in 2020), #3 Georgia (14-1 in 2021) and #1 Georgia (15-0 in 2022).

7-No two-loss team has ever been invited to the CFP.

Even those two-loss teams that captured a Power Five conference championship (specified as a heavily weighted, important criterion by the committee) have missed the cut every single time.

These examples include 11-2 ACC champion Clemson last season, 11-2 Big 12 champion Baylor in 2021, 11-2 Pac-12 champion Oregon in 2019, 11-2 Big Ten champion Ohio State in 2017, 11-2 Pac-12 champion Southern Cal in 2017, etc.

Historically speaking, that’s very bad news for even the highest-ranked two-loss teams of this week’s committee rankings, led by #14 LSU (6-2) and #15 Notre Dame (7-2).

8-Only three conference championship game losers ever have made the CFP.

The first of these examples came in the strange COVID year of 2020, when Notre Dame (#2 in the national rankings) lost to #3 Clemson in the ACC title game. The Irish and the Tigers both lost in the CFP semifinals.

The second instance came in 2021, when #1 Georgia lost to #3 Alabama in the SEC title game. After both teams won their CFP semifinal matchups, the Bulldogs got the ultimate revenge on the Crimson Tide, taking the national title game 33-18.

The third example came last season, when 12-0 TCU lost to 9-3 Kansas State in the Big 12 title game. The Horned Frogs received a CFP bid, beat Michigan 51-45 in the semifinals, then got blasted by Georgia in the national championship game.

9-Among “Group of Five” teams, only one has ever made the CFP, and nobody else has even come close.

As mentioned above, Cincinnati made the CFP in 2021, while still a member of the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats were 13-0 after winning the AAC title game. As a #4 CFP seed, they lost 27-6 to #1 Alabama in the semifinals.

All other Group of Five teams, even those who were undefeated on the CFP committee’s selection day, have failed to receive a Final Four invitation.

Even the “closest calls” among Group of Five teams over the years, while also from the AAC, weren’t very close at all. Undefeated UCF teams were left out in 2017 (12-0/ranked #12) and in 2018 (12-0/ranked #8), as was an undefeated Cincinnati after the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign (9-0/ranked #8).

10-Of the 36 teams that ultimately made the CFP in previous years, 33 (all but three!) were ranked among the top seven of the CFP rankings at this stage of the season.

Every season is different, and there have been occasional exceptions, but history obviously suggests that these seven teams are best-positioned for a bid to this year’s CFP (from Tuesday’s committee rankings): #1 Ohio State (8-0), #2 Georgia (8-0), #3 Michigan (8-0), #4 Florida State (8-0), #5 Washington (8-0), #6 Oregon (7-1) and #7 Texas (7-1).

At the same time, of course, there are a few teams that have proven that if you keep winning, and you get some help with an unexpected number of losses among the teams above you, your CFP dream still could come true.

The three teams that came from pretty far down the CFP rankings in previous years to earn a bid to the Final Four were 2015 Oklahoma (ranked #15 at this stage of the season), 2014 Ohio State (#14) and 2019 Oklahoma (#9). The 2014 Buckeyes went on to win the national championship.