Would an Eight-Team College Football Playoff Actually Lead to Disappointing Matchups?

    If an eight-team College Football Playoff was in place for the 2018 season, three of the four teams that would have earned the No. 5 through No. 8 seeds

    January 2, 2019

    If an eight-team College Football Playoff was in place for the 2018 season, three of the four teams that would have earned the No. 5 through No. 8 seeds in such a hypothetical playoff lost their bowl game this season.

    On the heels of the College Football Playoff Semifinals that saw two of the biggest point spreads in the playoff era (and resulted in 11 and 27-point wins by No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson, respectively), college football fans should prepare for the potential for even more lopsided results if the playoff expansion talk materializes.

    The teams that have finished No. 5 in the playoff selection committee’s final rankings – a.k.a. the “first team out” – in the last five seasons have a collective 1-4 record in their bowl games after just missing the playoff.

    Sure, Georgia fans this season — like Penn State, Iowa and Baylor fans before them — could make arguments about the motivation of their team’s players after they narrowly missed the playoff or they could highlight a key player(s) who sat out a bowl game in order to focus on the NFL Draft.

    But the track record of No. 5-ranked teams in bowl games hints at the gap that exists between the best teams in the country and those that are one tier below.

    An eight-team playoff field this season would have matched up No. 1 Alabama against No. 8 UCF and No. 2 Clemson against No. 7 Michigan. The Crimson Tide was a 14.5-point favorite over No. 4 Oklahoma and the Tigers were a 10.5-point favorite versus No. 3 Notre Dame, so imagine the point spreads that Las Vegas would have set for the top two seeds against even more inferior opponents.

    Since the first year of the playoff in 2014, the teams that finished the regular season ranked No. 5 through No. 8 in the committee’s final rankings have a 9-11 record in bowl games. It’s important to note that four times in the last five years, two teams ranked between No. 5 and No. 8 have played each other in a bowl game.

    The higher ranked team is 2-2 in those four games, including losses by No. 5 Iowa in the 2015 season and No. 5 Baylor in the 2014 season.

    Here’s the complete list of how teams ranked No. 5 through No. 8 have fared in their bowl games during the CFP era.

    Season Team Bowl Game Opponent Result Final Record
    2018 No. 5 Georgia Sugar Bowl No. 15 Texas Lost 28-21 11-3
    2018 No. 6 Ohio State Rose Bowl No. 9 Washington Won 28-23 13-1
    2018 No. 7 Michigan Peach Bowl No. 10 Florida Lost 41-15 10-3
    2018 No. 8 UCF Fiesta Bowl No. 11 LSU Lost 40-32 12-1
    2017 No. 5 Ohio State Cotton Bowl No. 8 USC Won 24-7 12-2
    2017 No. 6 Wisconsin Orange Bowl No. 10 Miami (FL) Won 34-24 13-1
    2017 No. 7 Auburn Peach Bowl No. 12 UCF Lost 34-27 10-4
    2017 No. 8 USC Cotton Bowl No. 5 Ohio State Lost 24-7 11-3
    2016 No. 5 Penn State Rose Bowl No. 9 USC Lost 52-49 11-3
    2016 No. 6 Michigan Orange Bowl No. 11 Florida State Lost 33-32 10-3
    2016 No. 7 Oklahoma Sugar Bowl No. 14 Auburn Won 35-19 11-2
    2016 No. 8 Wisconsin Cotton Bowl No. 15 Western Michigan Won 24-16 11-3
    2015 No. 5 Iowa Rose Bowl No. 6 Stanford Lost 45-16 12-2
    2015 No. 6 Stanford Rose Bowl No. 5 Iowa Won 45-16 12-2
    2015 No. 7 Ohio State Fiesta Bowl No. 8 Notre Dame Won 44-28 12-1
    2015 No. 8 Notre Dame Fiesta Bowl No. 7 Ohio State Lost 44-28 10-3
    2014 No. 5 Baylor Cotton Bowl No. 8 Michigan State Lost 42-41 11-2
    2014 No. 6 TCU Peach Bowl No. 9 Ole Miss Won 42-3 12-1
    2014 No. 7 Mississippi State Orange Bowl No. 12 Georgia Tech Lost 49-34 10-3
    2014 No. 8 Michigan State Cotton Bowl No. 5 Baylor Won 42-41 11-2


    An expanded playoff would certainly give more teams and conferences (read: Pac-12 and Big Ten) the opportunity to compete for a national championship. It would prevent multiple Power Five conferences from getting left out of the playoff while also potentially allowing multiple conferences to send multiple teams to the playoff.

    But it might come at the price of uncompetitive quarterfinal games.

    Just because the future of the playoff might include an eight-team field, it doesn’t necessarily mean there are eight teams on an annual basis that are national championship caliber teams.

    While undefeated UCF was ranked No. 8 in the committee’s final rankings this season, which would have made the Knights a compelling playoff entrant for UCF supporters and detractors alike, the No. 8 seed will typically have two or three losses.

    In 2017, USC was ranked No. 8 in the committee’s final rankings. The Trojans lost by 35 at Notre Dame during the regular season and they lost 24-7 to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.

    In 2016, Wisconsin finished the regular season at No. 8 in the rankings after losing to the three best opponents it played.

    With just one college football game left this season before an offseason that will surely feature more discussion about playoff expansion, keep in mind that the eight-team playoff that many believe in theory would be a positive change for the sport may result in more lopsided scores in reality.


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