The six keys to winning the CFB Playoff National Championship

By Amy Daughters -

Monday night marks the fifth time in history that the CFB Playoff scheme ultimately decides which team gets crowned the national champion.

If nothing else, year five means we have four years of numbers to look back on. And while statistics certainly don’t tell the whole story of what happened on the field, they also never lie.

Comparing the in-game resumes of each of the eight teams that participated in the first four title contests highlight the statistical DNA shared by the winners.

While some of the results may seem obvious, surprisingly absent are big hitters like turnovers, passing attempts vs. rushing attempts, first downs, and sacks allowed.

It’s the blueprint to winning the CFB Playoff  National Championship game.

Commit Fewer Penalties

Penalties are one of only two major statistical categories where 100 percent of the past four champions performed better than their opponent.

It’s something that’s not true of the other major “mistake” indicator – turnover margin. In fact, only two of the last four champions won the turnover battle in the title game. Alabama went +1 in both of its CFB Playoff title runs in 2015 and 2017 while Ohio State went -3 in its 2014 win and Clemson went -2 when it won it all in 2016.

Penalty yards, on the other hand, are a 100 percent shared indicator of success.

2014:    Ohio State 30 total yards of penalties vs. Oregon’s 76

2015:    Alabama 21 yards vs. Clemson 27 yards

2016:    Clemson 35 yards vs. Alabama 82 yards

2017:    Alabama 41 yards vs. Georgia 65 yards

In 2018, (1) Alabama is ranked No. 63 in the FBS in penalty yards per game (52.6) while (2) Clemson is at No. 40 (47.3).

Complete a Higher Percentage of your Passes

The only major offensive statistical category that each of the past four champions have shared success in is pass completion percentage. Where only 50% of the four winners completed the most first downs and 50% earned the most rushing yards, 100% completed more passes than their opponent in the title game.

2014:    Ohio State 69% vs. Oregon 65%

2015:    Alabama 64% vs. Clemson 63.8%

2016:    Clemson 64% vs. Alabama 42%

2017:    Alabama 53% vs. Georgia 50%

This season, (1) Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has completed 69.5 percent of his passes (No. 5 nationally) vs. (2) Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s 65.6% (No. 19).

Have a 100-yard Rusher

Intriguingly, there have only been two 100-plus yard rushers in the brief history of the CFB Playoff National Championship game, and both played for the winning team.

In 2014, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott hung up a record 246 yards and four scores on Oregon in the Buckeye’s 42-20 victory. In 2015, Alabama’s Derrick Henry scampered for 158 yards and three touchdowns in the Tide’s 45-50 win over Clemson.

The closest any back has come to the 100-yard mark since was Bo Scarbrough who rushed for 93 yards in Alabama’s 35-31 loss to Clemson in 2016 and Sony Michel who was just two-yards shy with 98 in Georgia’s 26-23 overtime loss to the Tide last season.

This season (1) Alabama has had three 100-yard rushers – Damien Harris twice (111 yards at Arkansas and 107 at LSU) and Najee Harris once (135 vs. Arkansas State). As for (2) Clemson, it’s hit the mark on 12 occasions – eight turned in by Travis Etienne (162, 122, 203, 167, 153, 150, 156 and 109), two by Lyn-J Dixon (163 and 116) and one apiece by Adam Choice (128) and Tavien Feaster (101).

Convert More Third Downs

Each of the past four champions apart from last year’s Alabama team has won the battle of third-down conversions in the title game.

2014:    Ohio State 53% vs. Oregon 17%

2015:    Alabama 50% vs. Clemson 43%

2016:    Clemson 39% vs. Alabama 13%

2017:    Alabama 21% vs. Georgia 42%

(1) Alabama is currently ranked No. 2 in the FBS in third down conversion percentage (53.95%) while (2) Clemson is No. 25 (44.39%).

Take More Chances

In total, the past four champions have tried for a 4th down conversion on five occasions in the title game vs. three times for the losing team. Only one eventual winner (Alabama in 2015) failed to attempt a 4th down conversion in the championship game. The Tide are also the only non-winner to ever successfully convert a 4th down in the title game.

As far as conversion rates, combined the champs are 4/5 (80%) on fourth down while the runners-up are 1/3 (33%).

2014:    Ohio State 3/3 vs. Oregon 0/2

2015:    Alabama 0/0 vs. Clemson 0/0

2016:    Clemson 0/1 vs. Alabama 1/1

2017:    Alabama 1/1 vs. Georgia 0/0

(1) Alabama has gone for it on 4th down 9 times this season (the fewest of any team in the nation) and successfully converted 44% of the time (No. 105 in the FBS). Compare that with (2) Clemson who has made 18 such attempts (No. 83) and converted 55.6% (No. 51).

Win the Time of Possession Battle

As was the case in third-down conversions, Alabama’s 2017 team is the only CFB Playoff Champion who did not have the ball for the biggest portion of the title game. This was true even though Georgia (who finished 2017 ranked No. 9 in the FBS in rushing yards a game – averaging 258.4) rushed for a very un-Bulldog like 133 yards.

2014:    Ohio State 37:29 vs. Oregon 22:31

2015:    Alabama 29:52 vs. Clemson 29:11

2016:    Clemson 34:44 vs. Alabama 25:16

2017:    Alabama 26:17 vs. Georgia 33:43

Alabama comes into the title game ranked No. 55 nationally in average time of possession (30:14) vs. Clemson’s No. 96 rank (28:46).

Statistics courtesy of

Comments (4)

Actually the formula is as followed:
1. Either be a team who plays an easy schedule and is an item of favoritism for the committee each week.
2. Don’t win your championship because that doesn’t appear to be a factor when it comes to final four.