Now that we are 5 years deep into the new CFP, it is possible to start looking at some trends, albeit there are still a small number of data points. More and more, we are seeing teams schedule tough non-conference games. Why? A win is huge. Just ask OSU in 2016. Without OU, it is very likely that PSU makes the playoffs over us. On the flip side, a loss is recoverable. Again, OSU vs. OU. Had Iowa not happened, OSU easily makes the playoffs. So with that being said, lets dig a little deeper into the trends on how to make the playoff, and maybe more importantly, how to stress a little less early in the season.
Disclaimer: Everything mentioned above regarding non-conference games is completely false based on the trends; and therefor, you should stress even more early in the season.
1) Go Undefeated - Well duh. This is obvious. Notre Dame confirmed this last year. No matter how a Power-5 team looks on paper, they aren't getting left out with a 0 in the loss column.
2) Win your conference championship game with 1 loss or less - BUT, BUT, BUT last year. You're right, OSU was left out last year, even though they met the criteria. But as I mentioned, last year was funky, and unprecedented. For the first time since 2004, 3 Power-5 teams finished the season unbeaten. Not only did 3 teams go unbeaten, it was also the first time in the playoff era that more than 1 team finished the regular season unscathed.
5 years deep, Ohio State from last year, stands as the only Power-5 team to win their conference championship game, with 1 loss or fewer, and miss the playoffs. (Big 12 didn't have a title game in 2014).
3) Don't lose non-conference - Okay, I have to admit, this one boggles my mind, and goes against what I said about the 2017 season above. To me, I think it would be far better to lose a non-conference game, as it allows you to still control your destiny to your conference title game. But the numbers say differently. Through 5 seasons, 2014 OSU remains the ONLY team to lose a non-conference game, and still make the playoffs. This brings us to #4.
4) If you're gonna lose, make it an upset - Yep, get beat by mediocre team. Remember, had 2018 not been so freaking weird, OSU is in the playoffs. Clemson lost to Pitt in 2016, OU lost to Iowa State in 2017. Combining #3 and #4, what if OSU doesn't even play OU in 2017. Does a 1-loss OSU make the playoff in 2017? Yep.
On the flip side. 2015 OSU lost to MSU. 2014 TCU lost to Baylor. Both OSU and TCU missed the playoffs, even though they lost to MUCH better teams than the teams mentioned above. Why? Losing to a good team can knock you out of your conference title game. Ask yourself, does OSU make the playoff if they had lost that game to Indiana in 2015, and then beat MSU and Iowa? I say yes. Even look at 2016. OSU had one of the best resumes we've seen in the CFP era, and still had to scrape their way into the playoff, because they lost to a good team, that kept them out of Indy.
Summary - Everyone knows the simple answer. Win 'em all. That is obviously the best way to go; however, that is extremely tough, and rare to do, and more likely than not (2018 WAS FUNKY), most, if not all, of the playoff participants will have 1 loss. Just remember this, based on data, the "best loss", doesn't mean what you think it would mean. So when you're debating about how Nebraska and NW are trap games, just remember, losing one of those, even if they are 6-6, would be MUCH better, than losing to a team like PSU. This fact is my main beef with the CFP, but I'm not here to argue about that, so we'll save it for another time.
In regards to non-conference scheduling, more and more teams are scheduling tough NC games. But as we discussed, the trends should scare some teams away. Yes, a win is HUGE (OSU in 2016), but a loss can be devastating. Based on all the data, being a 1-loss conference champ is gonna be good enough in nearly every year, so why take chances with games against tougher teams? I HATE everything about what I just said, but it is how the trends are tracking.
Is it August yet?