College Football Playoff Primer

With the release of the penultimate College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings on Tuesday, we are starting to see how the “New Year’s Six” (NY6) bowls – as well as the National Semifinal – could shake out.

But with conference championships to be played this weekend, there should be some drama yet to play out. As such, we wanted to take a look at the current Top 12 to see how results this weekend could impact their place when the final rankings are announced next week.

It Pays to be the Champion…

As a reminder, the champions of the “Power 5” conferences[1] automatically qualify for a NY6 bowl game. A spot in the NY6 is also guaranteed to the highest-ranked champion from the “Group of Five” conferences[2] (American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt).

The top four teams in the final CFP rankings are slotted into the national semifinal bowls – this year, they are the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl – in 1 v 4 and 2 v 3 matchups.

The remaining six spots in the NY6 bowls are chosen from the final season rankings, and have typically included only teams in the top 12 (hence the focus of this article).

…Or a Crappy Team from a “Good” Conference

In the history of the College Football Playoff (since 2014-15 season), there have been five teams selected from outside the top 12, though none were ranked lower than 20th:

  • #20 Boise State (2014-15)
  • #18 Houston (2015-16)
  • #16 Oklahoma State (2015-16)
  • #15 Western Michigan (2016-17
  • #14 Auburn (2016-17)

Three of the schools were automatic qualifiers as “Group of Five” champions: Boise State, Houston, and Western Michigan. Oklahoma State qualified as the champion of the Big 12, while Auburn was simply the second-highest ranked team from the SEC that season, and the selection committee LOVES the SEC. These low-ranked teams have had mixed success in NY6 – a record of 2-3 – which will probably impact the selections this year, though low-ranked potential champions from the “Power Five” this year might see a couple of teams below 12 in a NY6 bowl.

Finally, in years that they do not host a national semifinal, three of the NY6 have conference tie-ins to determine their participants, and will take the conference champion unless that team qualified for a national semifinal game. The Rose Bowl has traditionally been a matchup between the champions of the Big Ten and Pac-12, while the Sugar Bowl hosts the champs of the SEC and Big 12. The Orange Bowl has a tie-in as well with the ACC, but they are a semifinal game this season.[3]

These Teams are Competing for the Playoff

  1. Alabama Crimson Tide 12-0 (9-0 SEC)

The Crimson Tide will face off against #4 Georgia in the SEC Championship game on Saturday. Alabama probably remains in the Top 4 even in the event of a loss, though a loss and wins by the other top teams that play this weekend could bump them down to the fifth spot (or lower). They are the defending national champion, however, and if they are even close to sniffing the top four (especially after a close loss), you can bet the committee will find a way to let them in play for a chance to repeat.

  1. Clemson Tigers 12-0 (8-0 ACC)

Of the current Top 6, Clemson probably has the easiest path to assuring their spot in the Top 4. They play unranked Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship game and haven’t played a game that ended within two scores since the end of September. But if Pittsburgh can shock the nation with an upset, Clemson is probably toast unless something crazy happens elsewhere among the other top teams.

  1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish 12-0 (independent)

The Irish have played in a NY6 bowl before, but never in the national semifinal. But unlike some of the others on this list, they don’t have one more game to burnish their image in the eyes of the selection committee. If all the favored teams in the top six win – Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Ohio State – Notre Dame would probably be on the outside looking in, according to FiveThirtyEight. They have to hope for at least one of the other undefeated teams to lose to assure a place in the top four.

  1. Georgia Bulldogs 11-1 (7-1 SEC)

Of the championship game underdogs, Georgia has the best chance at an upset. A loss to Alabama still probably results in a trip to the Sugar Bowl, however, so not all would be loss. But they will need to win to make it into the playoff, or hope for utter chaos elsewhere, like losses by Clemson, #5 Oklahoma, and #6 Ohio State.

  1. Oklahoma Sooners 11-1 (7-1 Big 12)

The easiest path for Oklahoma – as it is with all the teams in the Top 6 – is to win its game against #11 Texas. A win alone would probably be enough to keep them ahead of Ohio State and the loser of the SEC Championship, and they play a brand of football that would be exciting for the national semifinal.

  1. Ohio State Buckeyes 11-1 (8-1 Big Ten)

The Buckeyes are heavily favored against #21 Northwestern and would be competitive for a playoff spot should all the other favored teams win. They are probably hoping for a Georgia win so the committee has to think about selecting a team that lost its conference championship over one that won, but I remain convinced that Alabama is in regardless.

These Teams Probably Can’t Make the Playoff…

  1. Michigan Wolverines 10-2 (8-1 Big Ten)

The Wolverines are an extreme long shot to make the playoff – FiveThirtyEight puts them at less than 1% – but they probably want the Buckeyes to make it into the playoff so they can at least head off to the Rose Bowl. If they make it to Pasadena, they’ll have the pleasure of facing either #11 Washington or #17 Utah, depending on who wins the Pac-12 Championship.

  1. Central Florida Knights 11-0 (8-0 American)

Even with a victory in the American Athletic Championship game, and chaos above them in the rankings, I doubt the Knights make it through to the playoff. They lost their star quarterback to injury, which severely limits their ability to be competitive in a playoff scenario. A loss to Memphis would also result in them sliding out of the top 12 altogether, giving the “Group of Five” champion spot to the winner of the Mountain West – either #22 Boise State or #25 Fresno State – who would be 11-2 after winning the MWC Championship.

  1. Florida Gators 9-3 (5-3 SEC)

The Gators finished third in the SEC East, and are currently in line for placement in a NY6 bowl game, potentially the third team from the SEC to make it. The SEC is good, but are they really that good?

  1. LSU Tigers 9-3 (5-3 SEC)

The Tigers finished third in the SEC West, and would also make it to a NY6 bowl game if the rankings are the final determinant factor. Blech. Are we really going to see FOUR SEC teams in the NY6 bowl games?!?!

  1. Washington Huskies 9-3 (7-2 Pac-12)

Should Washington win the Pac-12, they’ll probably leap over the idle teams from the SEC and potentially UCF, and will be rewarded with a trip to the Rose Bowl for a game against Michigan. It might also elevate #13 Washington State into the top 12 and a NY6 placement. If #17 Utah wins, however, the Pac-12 could only qualify one team to a NY6 bowl game, with the Utes heading to the Rose Bowl instead.

  1. Penn State Nittany Lions 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)

No more games for Penn State either, so I imagine that a 10-win Wazzu team would surpass them if everything ends up chalk after Saturday, but the committee had their chance to elevate Washington State this week and didn’t.


We’re going to write separately about some the Conference Championships that matter before the games kick off this weekend, so be sure to keep an eye on this space for a look at all the games that matter.

Next week, once everything is decided, we’ll be back with a look at the bowl season and some of the oddities and strangeness that sometimes happens when people play college football games in baseball stadiums and on Caribbean Islands.

Until next time…


[1] Also includes Notre Dame, who belongs to the ACC for all other sports but football. They have a scheduling agreement to play five ACC schools every season, and a separate agreement with the College Football Playoff to qualify as a “Power Five” school.
[2] Non-Notre Dame football independents (for 2018 – Army, BYU, Liberty, New Mexico State, and Massachusetts) could technically qualify for the “Group of Five” spot but none has done so in the five years of the College Football Playoff.
[3] Though they could end up with Clemson in Miami regardless.

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