Did you know that eight of the nine national champions crowned thus far in the College Football Playoff era have played an eight-game conference schedule? And what if I told you that the sole exception was Alabama during the COVID-compromised 2020 season that had SEC clubs playing nine or ten (as was the case for the Tide) league games.
This fact makes it look like the SEC’s decision to continue to play an eight-game league slate (which is also what the ACC plans to do) – while the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 play nine conference games – is a ploy to maintain a competitive advantage in earning national championships.
At least that’s what I thought, that is until I took a deeper dive into the data.
While it’s one thing to discuss how many league games are played, the more apples-to-apples comparison is how many Power clubs each team faces during the regular season.
To illustrate, in last season’s CFP, No. 1 seed Georgia played eight league games while the No. 2 seed, Michigan, played nine. So, minus any argument about an SEC slate being inherently more difficult than a Big Ten schedule, the Wolverines had a tougher path to the playoff bracket – correct?
Well, no because where Michigan’s non-conference schedule consisted of Colorado State, Hawaii, and UConn, Georgia played (11) Oregon, FCS Samford, Kent State, and Georgia Tech. So, where the Wolverines played only nine Power 5 opponents in 2022, the Bulldogs – by virtue of adding two P5 foes in non-conference play – played ten.
Following that logic, what if I told you that of the nine CFP national champions crowned thus far, that only four played nine power opponents during the regular season while five played ten?
The minority – CFP national champs who only faced nine P5 clubs – consists of: (1). Ohio State in 2014-15 (the Buckeyes played eight league games – the Big Ten didn’t move to a nine-game format until 2016 – plus Virginia Tech), (2). Alabama in 2015-16 (the Tide played eight SEC opponents plus Wisconsin), (3). Alabama in 2017-18 (the Tide played eight league games plus Florida State), and (4). LSU in 2019-20 (the Tigers played eight SEC games plus Texas).
As for the majority – those champions who won it all after playing ten regular season P5 opponents – it is made up of (1). Clemson in 2016-17 (the Tigers played eight ACC foes plus Auburn and South Carolina), (2). Clemson in 2018-19 (the Tigers played eight league games plus Texas A&M and South Carolina), (3). Alabama in 2020-21 (due to the pandemic, the Tide played all ten of its regular season games vs. SEC clubs), (4). Georgia in 2021-22 (the Bulldogs played eight league games plus Clemson and Georgia Tech), and (5). Georgia in 2022-23 (the Bulldogs played eight SEC opponents plus Oregon and Georgia Tech).
While winning a championship is obviously the ultimate goal in a season, there’s a huge step before the title game – you have to get into the playoff bracket first. So really, the discussion of which scheduling model is the most advantageous should be applied to which teams have been selected to the bracket since it was first introduced in 2014.
Of the 36 teams who’ve made the bracket thus far: 19 (or 52 percent) played an eight-game conference schedule while 14 (or 38 percent) played a nine-game league slate. The three CFP teams that don’t fit into either of those categories are: (1). Notre Dame in 2018-19, which played as an independent and therefore didn’t have a conference schedule, (2). Alabama in 2020, which we’ve mentioned played a ten-game SEC slate due to COVID, and (3). Ohio State in 2020 which played the entirety of its regular season schedule vs. five Big Ten clubs, also due to the pandemic.
Leaving all other variables out of the equation, it amounts to a 14 percent advantage in CFP bracket selection for teams playing an eight-game league slate vs. those playing a nine-game conference schedule.
But, as we illustrated above, gauging schedule difficulty solely on the number of league games played is flawed because it leaves the non-conference portion of the schedule out. Adding that component back in, of the 36 clubs that have managed to get invited to the CFP dance, only 13 (or 36 percent) played nine Power 5 opponents during the regular season while a whopping 20 (or 55 percent) played ten.
The three exceptions in this case are: (1). Florida State in 2014-15 (the Seminoles played eight ACC opponents plus Oklahoma State, Notre Dame, and Florida, making them the only club to make the CFP bracket after playing 11 regular season games vs. P5 teams), (2). Ohio State in 2020-21 (as we’ve already highlighted, the Buckeyes played only five regular season games in 2020, all vs. Big Ten foes, due to the pandemic), and (3). Cincinnati in 2021-22 (the Bearcats only played two P5 clubs, Indiana, and Notre Dame).
By factoring in non-conference play, the more apples-to-apples approach, teams that played ten Power 5 opponents during the regular season have a 19 percent better chance of making the Playoff than do clubs that played only nine.
The bottom line is, playing an eight-game conference schedule does not give teams an inherent competitive advantage over those who face a nine-game league slate in earning a bid to the CFP bracket, the only avenue to a championship. Instead, the clubs who have played the most Power opponents during the regular season have better odds of competing for a national title.
Perhaps it’s a reflection on the CFP committee’s attempt to live by its promise to select those contenders with the “toughest schedules” or maybe it’s that the most battle-tested clubs rise to the top because they didn’t play a fluffed-up schedule.
Either way, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart may have been spot on when he said that the 8-9 debate was the “most overrated conversation there ever was.”
Historical data courtesy of Sports Reference/College Football.