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Offseason Stat Series: The Playoff Era in Review

With the sixth college football playoff coming to a close, let’s survey the landscape of college football since 2014.

Introduction to the 2020 Offseason Stat Series

Hello friends, and welcome to the offseason. After an agonizing 5-7 campaign from the TCU Frogs, we’re finally through the bowl season. Yes, it’s true that there remains one game, but we are in offseason in my book. It’s time again to dust off the computer keyboard, fire up the R console, and dive back into the stats. This offseason, like the last, I’ll be running my offseason stat series, where I do my best to ask and answer interesting questions about college football from an economics/data science perspective. If you’re just starving for content, you can go back and read my posts from last year: A Simple Model for College Football Strategy, Punting, and Lots of It, An Inquiry into the Nature of Field Goals, Movement and Moments in Yards Per Play, Home Games, Road Games, and TCU’s 9 Game Conference Schedule, What if the Season Started in October?, A Rough Pass at an Expected Points Metric, and a primer on EPA and how to use it.

This offseason, you can look forward to pieces about whether offense or defense controls outcomes more, fourth down decisions, and a whole lot more. Sometimes I’ll have TCU exclusive content, but most times, like today, I’ll ask and answer a big picture college football question, and then focus on TCU in a separate section at the end of each post. Additionally, I’ll continue podcasting, albeit infrequently, and talking to other smart analytics minded-people. You can look for those episodes in the Frogs O’ War podcast feed wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for the Offseason Stat series, leave them in the comments here or tweet me @statsowar.

Alright, enough with the housekeeping. This week, on the figurative eve of the sixth college football championship decided via the Playoff, I thought it would be a fun exercise to look in the rearview mirror and discuss the landscape of college football since the Playoff was implemented. In this article I’ll recap what happened in all six playoffs, discuss the best teams and the worst teams of the playoff era, and then examine how TCU fits into the landscape.

The Playoff Era in Review

The question I’m asking this week: Who are the best and worst teams of the College Football Playoff Era?

The College Football Playoff has featured 10 different teams:

Alabama (5 appearances)
Clemson (5 appearances)
Oklahoma (4 appearances)
Ohio State (3 appearances)
Florida State, Michigan State, Washington, Notre Dame, LSU, Georgia (1 appearance each)

Only three teams have one the CFP since its inception in 2014, with a game between Clemson and LSU remaining to determine the sixth champion.

Alabama (2 times)
Clemson (2 times)
Ohio State (1 times)

The College Football Playoff Participants are selected via committee, which is somehow an upgrade on the BCS because now the selection is... subjective and behind closed doors? I’ll refrain from that rant at the present moment, though, and settle for a more lukewarm take: the CFP selection process is somewhat arbitrary, and so I’d like to instead use advanced statistics to talk about the best teams (and for fun, the worst teams) of the college football era.


These numbers are not opponent-adjusted. I know that. Do not yell at me about opponent adjustments, because I don’t care. This is about descriptives, not prediction, and so I’m not making any statements about “Team X would beat Team Y” on a neutral field right now, I’m just looking at who performed the best against who they played. We’ll talk about opponent adjustments, and we’ll talk about prediction later in the series. For now, though, I don’t care. Also, don’t get me started on wins and losses. Be better.


The Best Teams of the CFP Era

Well, that’s shocking off the bat: three of 2019’s playoff contenders were the top three teams of the college football playoff. 2019 Oklahoma isn’t in the top 25, whereas 2019 Alabama is 5th overall, giving this year’s Crimson Tide the crown for “Best Non-Playoff Team of the CFB Era”. The list also features four of the six CFP winners: 2014 Ohio State (14th), 2017 Alabama (11th), 2018 Clemson (6th), and 2019 LSU (3rd)/Clemson (1st).

Notable G5 teams made the list: 2018 Fresno State is the highest ranked G5 since the schism. That team went 12-2, with 12.1 second order wins and ranked 16th in SP+. As I’m just using the raw, unadjusted EPA, that makes sense! Of course, head to head, I wouldn’t take 18 Fresno over 18 Ohio State or 2014 Michigan State; this is more a good comparison to other G5 teams. That Fresno State capped off their season with a double-digit Las Vegas Bowl win against Arizona State, who had beaten #17 SP+ Utah earlier that season.

Also on the list from the G5: the very fun 2016 Toledo/Western Kentucky combo. The Rockets went 9-4 and posted a double digit adjusted scoring margin in 6 of their games, while the Hilltoppers finished 16th in SP+ with 11.1 second order wins and posted seven 20+ adjusted scoring margins. Again, disclaimer about opponent adjustment remains, but still! Additionally, as you’ll see on the table, I’ve filtered out FBS vs FCS games, which are a huge boost to P5 schools who play them, and so that filter disproportionately affects P5 schools. We’re only describing here, not making any causal statements, though. So I’m comfortable with this list as a “who did the best against who they played”.

Three top ten teams failed to make the playoff: 2016 Louisville (7), who had #6 FSU, #2 Clemson, and 9 top 100 SP+ teams on their schedule, and 2016 Michigan (8), who similarly had 4 top 20 teams on their regular season schedule (11 top 100), and probably would’ve made the playoff were it not for The Spot. The third team, number 9, is a familiar one for Frogs O’War readers. I’ll discuss them more at the end of this piece.

The Worst Teams in the CFP Era

Now for what I think is the more fun list. Without further ado, I present to you the 10 Worst teams in the College football Playoff Era.

It is astounding to me that 2019 UMASS and 2018 UCONN aren’t on this list. 19 UMass finished 50th, whereas 18 Connecticut finished 47th. The range of EPA margin from 1 to number 50 was only .3, so we’re talking slight fluctuations determining vast differences in the rankings. Rest assured, those were two terrible teams.

In terms of worst teams, let’s do a quick drive-by: 16 Hawai’i went a respectable 7-7, but along the way, they picked up adjusted score margins of -72.4, -39, -35.9, and -23.1, while winning 4 of their games by single digit adjusted score margins. 15 Rutgers deserves to be on this list as much as anyone: 3.9 second order wins, 8 games with a team performance in the 25th or lower percentile, and 5 games with double digit adjusted scoring margins. We won’t pick too much on 2017 Coastal Carolina, as they had just transitioned up to FBS.

I will pick on the two 2019 teams, though. Kansas lost to Coastal Carolina and should’ve lost to Indiana State, and despite a couple decent offensive performances, lost six games by double digits. Stanford sputtered, also losing 6 games by double digits, finishing the season 4-8 with a 74th SP+ ranking.

TCU in the CFP Era

TCU: 2014 TCU finished 12-1 on the season, with 11.2 second order wins. They ranked 9th in SP+, and beat teams ranked 50th (by 23), 17th, 39th (by 33), 57th (by 55), 41st, 25th (by 21), 37th (by 38), and 97th (by 52), in the regular season (that’s nine top 100 wins, eight top sixty, and seven top 50, for those of you counting). Their lone loss came on the road against #8 Baylor on the back of a drive extended by pass interference. The Frogs, spurned from the playoff, beat #14 Mississippi, who boasted the best defense headed into bowl season, by 39 (scoring 5 touchdowns against that vaunted defense). They truly were one of the great teams of the CFP era.

Other TCU teams of the CFP era:

2015 TCU ranked 73rd overall, going 11-2 with 10 second order wins (6 one score wins) in a season I’m sure took years off of Frog Fans’ lives. Kenny Hill’s last season, 2017, was the only other team to finish in the top 100 at 92nd overall. That team went to the first Big 12 championship game of the modern era.

2019 TCU finished 219th, 2016 finished 223rd, and 2018 finished 465th.