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Dear John Urschel: Here's a CFP Selection Primer for You...and Penn State

by on January 23, 2020 5:15 PM

Dear John:

Congrats on the new gig with the College Football Playoff committee.

I know you've been grinding away at getting your Ph.D. in applied mathematics from M.I.T.

So, you likely haven't had time to run some quick analytics on the historical — and occasional hysterical — trends and information that the CFP has used when picking the teams since the four-team playoff was instituted in 2014.

And since your three-year term on the 13-member committee doesn't begin until April, I took the liberty of doing some top-of-the line research for you in the interim. Maybe you can share it with the ever-rotating baker's dozen of playoff pickers, seven of whom are currently sitting athletic directors.

And maybe with Sandy Barbour and James Franklin, too...though that may be a conflict of interest.

Anyways, I gathered some info and stats on the 24 teams that have been selected to the CFP over the past six college football seasons. Strike that; there are have been 24 selections — 4 slots x 6 years — but only 11 teams or programs have made it. You might not have known that. (BTW, 11 is a prime number; I think you already know that.)

It's the kind of stuff that you could likely conjure up in an hour over a coffee and a bagel at Irving's or The Corner Room, two of your old favorite State College hangouts. After McAllister Building, of course.

With that said, let's jump into the numbers. I'll present them as a set of CFP Rules of the Past, i.e., the demonstrated path to the playoffs. And that's from the past, because we know you are going to apply your mathematics and teach your CFP committee members a new, sounder way to pick college football's most worthy playoff participants.

And afterwards, you can all have pi.

THE CFP RULES (SO FAR)

1. Be Alabama (5 playoffs), Clemson (5) or Oklahoma (4). They've taken up almost 60% of all the slots, even though there are currently 130 schools playing FBS football.

2. If you're not in that trio, then be Ohio State (3). Otherwise, you're a one-and-doner, like these guys: Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Oregon and Washington. LSU, by the way, is the only one of the Oners to win the national title in the six years of the playoffs. Maybe, John, recency bias will open the door for new teams once you're aboard.

3. Don't be in the Pac-12 (two selections) or group of Five (zero). Do be in the SEC (seven), ACC (six), Big Ten (four) or Big 12 (four). Wondering: What league is M.I.T. in, anyway?

4. Win your conference. Twenty of the 24 selections were conference champions. The outliers: Oklahoma (2015), Ohio State (2016; John, you know who won the Buckeyes' conference that year, right?), Alabama (2017) and Notre Dame (2018; the Irish like to always think they in a league of their own; in this instance, they just so happen to be right).

5. Go undefeated. Only nine of the 24 teams entered the CFP playoffs without a loss. However, six of the last eight were undefeated. The nine: Florida State (2014), Clemson (2015, 2018, 2019), Alabama (2016, 2018), Notre Dame (2018), LSU (2019) and Ohio State (2019). It's a trend that is gaining big traction.

6. At most, lose only once. All of the other CFP selections entered the playoffs with just one loss. I can do that math, John: 24 - 9 = 15 teams with one loss.

7. If you must lose, do it against Ole Miss, Texas or Auburn. Of the 15 one-loss teams that made it the CFP, six lost to those three teams — twice each. That's 40%. Pretty high, though I don't know what the statistical mean is. I can tell you losing to Ole Miss twice in a row (which Alabama did 2014 and 2015) and still making the playoffs seems just plain mean to everyone else.

(John: You'll note that Penn State plays Auburn at home in 2021 and away in 2022; you'll be on the committee for both of those games. Just sayin’.)

The other losses that didn't keep single-loss teams from earning CFP invitations came against:  Arizona, Iowa State, Kansas State, Nebraska, Penn State (yes: Ohio State, 2016), Pitt, Syracuse, USC and Virginia Tech.

8. If you must lose, it's kind of a myth that you must lose early. Of the 15 teams that made it to the CFO with one loss, 53.33% made it with the sole loss coming before Week 7. (Showing my work here, John: Weeks 2, 3, 5, 5, 5, 5, 6, 6.)

And 46.67% made it when they lost in Week 7 or later (Weeks 7, 8, 9, 10, 10, 10, 12).

9. If you lose, try to do it by a touchdown or less. Of the 15 team that made the playoffs with a loss, 10 lost by a touchdown or less. The other five lost by 12, 13, 14, 16 and 23 points (Georgia fell 40-17 to Auburn in the 10th game of the 2017 season, then beat the Tigers in the SEC title game to work their way into a CFP berth.)

10. Play and beat a name brand non-conference opponent. They don't have to be ranked; they just have to be a recognizable name that at one time played Top 25 football. With the non-conference schedule, perception is reality. It's hard to Buffalo the committee members.

John, this next set of numbers is staggering. I checked my math five times:

The 24 teams that have made it to the CFP since 2014 played 77 non-conference games the year they got an invite (not counting Notre Dame, since every game of theirs is out of conference...unless it's Big Ten ice hockey or ACC basketball or almost any sport that is not football).

The number of teams that have subsequently made it to the playoffs after losing one of those 77 games?

One. That would be Ohio State in 2014, when it lost 35-21 to Virginia Tech in The Horseshoe in the second game of the season. Then went on to win the national championship.

Otherwise, that's a 76-1 record. John, that's a .987 winning percentage.

Of the 24 teams, only one had with their best non-con win against a not-very-good, at-least-average team, by reputation or reality: in 2016, Washington of the Pac-12 defeated non-conference opponents Rutgers, Idaho and Portland. Two teams that came a little close to that are Alabama in 2014 (when it beat West Virginia) and Ohio State in 2019 (when it beat Cincinnati).

So John, what have learned here, at least as far as your alma mater is concerned?

Answer: You can lose to Virginia Tech, go undefeated the rest the way, and make it to the CFP. You can lose to Auburn, go undefeated the rest of the way, and go to the CFP.

Which, if history and analytical trends hold true (which may fall to you, John, as the adult in the room), it is a plus for Franklin since the biggies on his non-conference schedule at Penn State line up this way: at Virginia Tech in 2020, home and away vs. Auburn in 2021-22, home and away vs. West Virginia in 2023-24, and home vs. Virginia Tech in 2025.

(James is crazy like a fox.)

And just so you have it, John, here is a listing of the CFP teams' biggest non-con win in the year they made it to the playoffs (a neutral site win never hurts):

2014 — Alabama (West Virginia, Georgia Dome), Oregon (Michigan State, H), Ohio State (Virginia Tech, H), Florida State (Oklahoma State, AT&T Stadium; Notre Dame, H; Florida, H).

2015 — Alabama (Wisconsin, AT&T Stadium), Clemson (Notre Dame, H), Oklahoma (Tennessee, A), Michigan State (Oregon, H).

2016 — Alabama (USC, AT&T Stadium), Clemson (Auburn, A), Ohio State (Oklahoma, A), Washington (Rutgers, H).

2017 — Alabama (Florida State, Mercedes-Benz Stadium), Clemson (Auburn, H), Oklahoma (Ohio State, A), Georgia (Notre Dame, A).

2018 — Alabama (Louisville, Camping World Stadium), Clemson (Texas A&M, A), Oklahoma (UCLA, H), Notre Dame (Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Pitt, Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse at Yankees Stadium).

2019 — Clemson (Georgia Tech, H; Texas A&M, H), Oklahoma (Texas, H), Ohio State (Cincinnati, H), Oklahoma (UCLA, A).

11. Here is the last rule, John: When all else fails, invite the winner of the ACC. In other words: Pick Clemson.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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