What Factors Affect College Football Playoff Rankings?

By Victoria Barnett

October 12, 2016

It’s that time of year! College Football Playoff rankings are being discussed among fans as we anxiously await the release of the first set of the Top 25. In the meantime, let’s get to the meat of these rankings. How are they determined? Why is Team A ranked higher than Team B? Does strength of schedule matter?

These are questions commonly asked before and after the rankings are released, and although the answers are rather vague, we’ll do our best to answer them for you!

Take a look below at the five factors the Selection Committee uses to determine the rankings.  

Conference Championships Won

This is pretty self-explanatory, but in deciding the rankings, the Selection Committee looks at conference championships.

Let’s go back in time to last year. If North Carolina had defeated Clemson in the ACC Championship game, we could’ve seen a shakeup in the rankings. Talk about a plot twist. North Carolina already had a solid record, and a Conference Championship win would have been the cherry on top. Would they have made the playoff? Not necessarily, but it definitely would have had some effect on their final ranking.

Alabama’s win in the SEC title game definitely contributed to their spot in the Top 4. Then you have teams like Oklahoma who won their conference without having a championship game, which made them a shoe-in for the playoff. It will be interesting to see what happens in 2017 when the Big 12 conference championship game returns.

As we saw last year, each team that made the playoff won their conference championship. It’s a significant factor that the committee places a good amount of weight on. If you don’t win your conference championship, you’ll likely be out of luck. Now granted, a conference championship won’t guarantee you a spot either as we saw in 2014 with Big 12 co-champions TCU and Baylor. Then again, they didn’t actually play a championship game, so how much did that affect the rankings? Hard to tell.

Strength of Schedule

Strength of schedule is probably the most controversial factor the Selection Committee uses. There is constant debate among football fans over which teams have the toughest schedules and how that should translate into their ranking. It’s subjective, so unfortunately we will never get a cut and dry answer or formula spelled out for us. Interpretation is left to each individual committee member.

We know win-loss record is important. It’s not the end-all, be-all, but it definitely has some effect on the rankings. But what we have learned is that not all 11-1 and 10-2 teams can be looked at the exact same. All wins are not created equal. The committee is not afraid to put a 10-2 team above an 11-1. They aren’t even afraid to put a one-loss team above an undefeated team. Just look at Iowa last year.

So what do we know? The committee looks at how many wins each team has against FCS opponents, Top 25 teams and teams with records over .500. In other words, who you play matters and also where you play matters. Playing a good team on the road versus playing them at home is completely different.

We saw strength of schedule play out in one way or another last year with Alabama, Oklahoma, Michigan State, Ohio State and North Carolina. At one point, they all had a record of 11-1, but in order to rank them, the committee had to look at who they played, who they defeated and who their one loss came from. They had to attempt to answer the question, “How good are the teams that they’re playing?”

Resume matters. In last year’s case, Alabama arguably had the toughest schedule in the country (via ESPN). The teams they played against were good – Alabama may have had one loss, but what mattered most were their 10 quality FBS wins.

It was apparent that Alabama’s loss to a solid Ole Miss (9-3) didn’t carry as much weight as, let’s say, North Carolina’s one loss to a sub-par South Carolina (3-9). Even with the final rankings released, North Carolina didn’t finish above Florida State and Notre Dame even though they had a better record. If record was everything, they would have ranked higher. They had two wins over FCS opponents, a loss to South Carolina and no wins against teams ranked in the Top 25. Their schedule likely hurt them more than helped them.

We know it’s complicated and also highly debatable. But as we’ve seen, the committee places at least some emphasis on strength of schedule. To what extent we can’t really say, but it’s obvious that some teams could end up paying the price for a weak schedule and gaining the reward for a tough one. If it comes down to a tiebreaker, strength of schedule is likely going to be a deciding factor.

Head-to-Head Competition

Head-to-head competition is very relevant. But it’s not everything.

Go back to 2014 for a second and look at Ole Miss. Although Ole Miss lost to LSU three days before the final rankings were released, the Committee placed more emphasis on their win against Alabama weeks before than they did over their recent loss to LSU.

Then you have situations like this: Baylor beat TCU that October, but fell below TCU in the rankings in every committee ranking until the final one. Why? Because Baylor’s head-to-head win over TCU had not “kicked in” yet since the two had not yet played a comparable schedule. Baylor’s win over Kansas State the weekend before the final rankings is what made them move above TCU.

Confusing, right? We know head-to-head competition is important, but it’s also ambiguous. What we’ve figured out is that the committee reviews the entire season for each week’s rankings. Just because Team A beat Team B the weekend before the rankings are released does not mean Team A would definitely be ahead of Team B in the rankings. You still have to take into account the entire season. Eventually, that head-to-head win will matter – sometimes you just have to wait it out.

Comparative Outcomes of Common Opponents

The Selection Committee also looks at comparative outcomes of common opponents. In other words, let’s say Florida State and Miami both play North Carolina. How did they do against those teams? For a real life example, this season, Florida State lost to North Carolina. Now, if Miami beats North Carolina this Saturday, that could very well be a relevant factor and potentially affect the rankings in a few weeks.

Keep in mind, margin of victory is left out of the equation in those games. The committee is really just trying to evaluate how teams did against similar opponents. It’s more of “who won?” than “by how much did they win?”

Other Relevant Factors

Factors that have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.

This is another rather ambiguous category and one we won’t go into too much detail about – mainly because there isn’t very much to go by. One speculative example would be if a significant player (i.e. the starting quarterback) gets injured. If Team A (without their starting quarterback) loses to Team B, how much will that affect Team A?

Or let’s say Team A beats Team B. Then Team B’s quarterback gets hurt. Then Team C beats Team B. Is Team A’s win a bigger deal than Team C’s win because at the time Team B had their starting quarterback?

Another complicated factor! It’s very difficult to know how the committee might look at these factors to determine their rankings.

Will Your Team Make the College Football Playoff?

We still have several weeks until we know who will make the College Football Playoff, but keep these factors in mind throughout the season as the rankings are released. We never know what is going through the Selection Committee’s mind, which definitely keeps us on our toes and gets us excited to see who lands in those coveted top 4 spots. Remember, the first set of rankings will be released November 1, 2016!   

Before we know it, we’ll see the two best teams in the country go head-to-head in the College Football Playoff National Championship in Tampa! Will we see you there?

Get My College Football Playoff National Championship Tickets