What Is the College Football Playoff and How Does It Work?

(Last Updated On: January 2, 2019)
What Is the College Football Playoff and How Does It Work?

In this post, we’ll break down the College Football Playoff system. What is the College Football Playoff in the first place, and why do we have it? How does the College Football Playoff work? And how to teams qualify for it?

Why Do We Have a College Football Playoff?

Determining a college football national champion has always been a bit tricky. For a long time, it was generally year-end polls, notably the AP Top 25 Poll and Coaches Poll, that were used to determine the best college football team at season end. When the press and coaches could agree on the top spot, the system worked fairly well. But when there was disagreement over who was #1, things could get messy.

When these year-end polls differed over who should be champion, scenarios would arise where there might be co-champions or even multiple champions. A school could pretty much just declare themselves National Champions based on any old poll. This system really didn’t work for the many fans that wanted to see one, clear-cut champion each year.

To better address this issue, the NCAA came up with the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in 1998. The BCS used complex equations and poll results to ultimately select what they thought were the top 2 teams in the nation. These teams would play in the BCS National Championship Game, and theoretically, the winner would be National Champion.

But much like the system in place before the BCS, not all year-end polls would recognize the BCS winner as true National Champion. In 2003, the LSU Tigers won the BCS National Championship Game, but the USC Trojans were voted the #1 in the AP Top 25 Poll. Thus, the two teams split the National Championship, a happening the BCS was designed to prevent. This, coupled with many other controversies surrounding the BCS, would ultimately lead to a new system for determining the nation’s top college football team.

What is the College Football Playoff?

In 2014, the College Football Playoff (CFP) system was put in place to replace the BCS. This annual knockout tournament features four teams who play in two semifinal games, with the winners of each moving on to the College Football Playoff National Championship game.

The CFP is the first such bracket competition used to determine a college football national champion.

How Does the College Playoff Work?

The four teams selected to the CFP are chosen by a 13-member committee made up of former coaches, athletic directors, and others close to the sport. These committee members generally serve three-year terms to ensure a rotation of members. Using a committee to select teams differers from the polls or computer rankings that had been used previously.

The two semifinal games rotate between the six major bowl games, which are known as the New Year’s Six: Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, and Peach Bowl. The CFP rankings are not only used to select the four playoff teams, but also the participants in the New Year’s Six.

Make sure to check out these Funny College Football Bowl Game Names!

The National Championship game is typically played on the first Monday that is six or more days after the semifinals. The venue for this game is selected based on bids submitted by cities, much the same way the Super Bowl or NCAA Final Four locations are picked. The winner of the game is awarded the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy, which is unique and unconnected to championship trophies (like the AFCA “crystal football”) used in the past.

Best Ways for a Football Team to Qualify for the CFP?

At the start of each season, all NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams (formally Division I-A) are eligible to participate in the College Football Playoff. Here are a few things teams can do to increase their chances of making the CFP:

1. Win a Power 5 Conference

“Power 5 Conferences” are athletic conferences that exist in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. This is the highest level of collegiate football. More often than not, the winner of each conference gets an automatic berth into one of the New Year’s Six bowl games. While not a requirement to make the CFP, it certainly can help.

2. Don’t Lose

Having fewer losses can be more important than winning a conference. Generally, one loss is okay, but when you start getting two or more, a team’s chances of making the CFP decline drastically. In general, one bad loss is still better than two “good” losses.

3. Strength of Schedule is Important

As the 2017 UCF Knights football team will tell you – strength of schedule matters. Despite going undefeated for the season, the Knights were excluded from the CFP in 2017 because they didn’t really beat anyone notable. So it is pretty clear that the selection committee favors teams that have played (and beaten) tough opponents throughout the season.

The goal of the College Football Playoff is to have more exciting games and crown a champion that everyone can agree upon. Whether or not everyone agrees with the system has yet to be seen, but at the very least, this new system has brought a new excitement to college football.

Like this post? Check out these other Sports posts from the Sporcle Blog. Or, test your trivia knowledge with some fun football quizzes, like the one below!

About the Author:

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.