College Football Playoff Outlook: Look for Teams That Play Top Opponents, Especially on Road

College Football Playoff Outlook: Look for Teams That Play Top Opponents, Especially on Road


College Football Playoff Outlook: Look for Teams That Play Top Opponents, Especially on Road


The College Football season is about to begin–yeah, yeah, there were a handful of games involving non-Power 5 programs last week. The teams likely to be on top at the end of the season are part of an oligarchy, and it’s very unlikely that any of the playoff participants will emerge from outside the Top 25. But identifying which of those power programs will emerge can be tough.

You’ve seen the rankings, but I thought I would go through the recent playoff teams to see what they looked like in terms of ranking and schedule heading into those seasons. Here are some observations (note: this is based on regular season schedules and does not include any potential championship game).

  • All 16 of the CFB Playoff teams started the year ranked in the Top 20. Seven were ranked in the Top 4, five more were ranked 5-8, and four were ranked between 9 and 19;
  • 15 of the 16 teams played at least one team in their regular season schedule who was ranked in the Top 12 in the preseason. The only exception was undefeated Florida State in 2014, with a highest-ranked preseason opponent at 16 (and they were seeded at #3 in the playoffs despite being undefeated);
  • Nearly half (7 of 16) of the playoff participants played at least one preseason Top 5 opponent on the road, while two others played a Top 5 team at home;
  • In total, the playoff teams played 16 games against Preseason Top 12 opponents on the road and 11 at home;
  • Only four of the 16 playoff participants did not play a Preseason Top 12 Team on the road, and two of those were undefeated teams (Clemson 2015 and Florida State 2014).

So let’s talk about this year’s teams and some of these facts. The preseason Top 8 do not play each other during the regular season, which is a crazy anomaly. #9 Auburn is the first team that plays others in the Top 8. That means plenty of opportunities for others just outside the Top 8 to build resumés.

The Big Ten is positioned to potentially get two teams in the playoff if general preseason expectations match up to the regular season, and I would be stunned if the Big Ten Champ was excluded this year, with 5 of the Top 15 teams coming from the conference. Michigan is positioned to be a relative outsider who can make noise and put together an impressive resume, the kind that could get them in even with two losses if things fell right. Wisconsin won’t be left out if they have only one loss again, and Ohio StateMichigan, and Penn State will also have an almost impermeable case with one loss.

Clemson and Miami are both ranked Top 8. They don’t play each other in the regular season. Based on history, they have to go undefeated to get in, and Clemson has an easier schedule than every single CFB Playoff entrant to date. Clemson’s highest ranked, and only ranked opponent entering the season, is #19 Florida State. They’ll have to dominate and never have a hiccup. Miami plays three ranked opponents but the highest is also FSU.

Alabama has the success, and the schedule to roll into the SEC Championship Game, and only plays #25 LSU on the road among ranked opponents, while they get Auburn and Mississippi State at home. The top of Georgia’s schedule is similar with home games against Auburn and at LSU. I’d be stunned if both can reach the playoff again in 2018 and the SEC Championship Game could be an elimination affair.

Auburn‘s schedule is ridiculous and like Michigan they could get in with two losses if things break right. They play three preseason top 6 teams on the road in Washington (neutral), Alabama, and Georgia.

Oklahoma plays three ranked opponents from the Big 12, but all are on the road. If they get through that with just one loss, they will get in to a playoff.

Washington plays the big non-conference neutral site game against Auburn, which will give them the boost they need if they can win that one. That plus the Pac-12 schedule should be enough to get them in if they can finish with one loss.

Notre Dame doesn’t play any teams entering the year in the Top 10, but does play five opponents in the Top 20, which should have them in the mix if they can go 10-2, and a strong candidate at 11-1.