If you lose two games can you still get into the College Football Playoff (CFP)? The brief history of the CFP says no, but looking a little further back in time it would appear to be quite plausible.
The CFP committee began their work in 2014, so we have only seen four seasons of football data and committee decisions to inform us. Four teams per season times four seasons equals sixteen total teams which have been selected for inclusion in the CFP.
Of those sixteen, here are the number of losses in each team's record:
- 0 losses: 3 (18.75%)
- 1 loss: 13 (81.25%)
- 2 losses: 0 (0%)
Clearly a team does not need to be undefeated, as one loss is the rule of the day. Nobody has yet made it into the 4-team CFP with two losses.
However, they have been close. The CFP committee does provide a complete top-25 list even though only their top four actually make it in. Here is the highest finish for a 2-loss team in each season:
- 2014: #7 Mississippi State (10-2)
- 2015: #6 Stanford (11-2)
- 2016: #5 Penn State (11-2)
- 2017: #5 Ohio State (11-2)
Both of the past two years it was a 2-loss team that just missed at #5. It's not difficult to envision a football season with slightly different circumstances where a 2-loss team is selected, especially when we consider our history.
Prior to the CFP, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) operated for sixteen seasons from 1998 - 2013. While the BCS technically only endeavored to find the top two teams, it did provide a ranking for many more teams. It provided a top 15 initially and changed to a top 25 in 2003.
Using the top four teams in the BCS rankings as a proxy, we can surmise how many 2-loss teams might have made it into a 4-team playoff during the BCS years. Four teams per season times sixteen seasons equals sixty-four total teams which theoretically could have been selected.
Of those sixty-four, here are the number of losses in each team's record:
- 0 losses: 23 (35.94%)
- 1 loss: 32 (50%)
- 2 losses: 9 (14.06%)
Many remember the mayhem at the conclusion of the 2007 season, and the BCS top-four had three 2-loss teams in it that season! However, six other BCS seasons also had a 2-loss team in the top four.
All Seasons From 1998 To Present
If we combine the BCS and CFP eras and look at the top four for the entirety of the last twenty seasons combined, here's what the percentages look like:
- 0 losses: 26 (32.5%)
- 1 loss: 45 (56.25%)
- 2 losses: 9 (11.25%)
11.25% of the time we should expect a 2-loss team to make it into the mix. That works out to once every second or third season on average.
Hold On A Second
Of course, the logic above assumes that the dynamics of college football teams' scheduling and performance haven't changed over the past twenty years. It also assumes that the CFP committee makes its assessments in exactly the same way as the BCS formula did. These are rather large assumptions and, perhaps, quite faulty ones. Exhibit A.
Still, math is fun, which is the whole point of this exercise anyway.
The source of the data used in this piece is College Poll Archive.