We now have five years of data to analyze for the College Football Playoff, which means we can begin to identify trends among the teams that have qualified for the four-team playoff.
We examined the non-conference schedule for every team that has made the playoff — except for Notre Dame, which doesn’t play a conference schedule or a non-conference schedule as an FBS independent.
Here are some takeaways and trends we found in the non-conference schedules of past playoff teams.
You likely have to go undefeated in non-conference play
If we ignore FBS independent Notre Dame, which made the 2018 College Football Playoff and doesn’t play a non-conference schedule, the other 19 playoff participants have gone 69-1 in non-conference play during their playoff seasons. That’s a winning percentage of 98.5 percent.
The only playoff team to suffer a loss in non-conference play, ironically, was in the inaugural year of the playoff in 2014, when eventual national champion Ohio State lost at home to Virginia Tech.
So while Ohio State is the exception to the rule, chances are you have to win all of your non-conference games to make the playoff.
Of course, Michigan last season showed the potential path to the playoff with a “best-possible” loss, meaning your only loss is to another playoff team and likely an undefeated one at that.
The Wolverines lost their season-opener at Notre Dame, a future playoff team, then won their next 10 games, taking a No. 4 ranking into Columbus, Ohio, to face Ohio State in their regular season finale.
If Michigan had won at Ohio State, then defeated Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship, the Wolverines would’ve had a strong case to earn the No. 4 seed in the playoff over Oklahoma.
You (probably) need a marquee non-conference win
Thirteen of the 19 non-Notre Dame playoff teams had at least one non-conference road win or a non-conference win over a team that ultimately finished the season ranked in the AP Poll.
Four teams had both — a road win and a win over a team that finished the season ranked.
The 2017 season featured some especially notable non-conference wins as far as the playoff is concerned.
Clemson beat two ranked opponents in non-conference play — Auburn and South Carolina — including a road win over the Gamecocks. Oklahoma beat an Ohio State team that was ranked No. 2 in Columbus.
Georgia beat Notre Dame, which was ranked, and Georgia Tech — both on the road — that fall.
On the other hand, Washington proved in 2016 that non-conference strength of schedule may be overrated — or at the very least, an inconsistent barometer of playoff worthiness and selection.
The Huskies beat two FCS opponents in Idaho and Portland State, plus Rutgers, which was essentially the quality of an FCS team since the Scarlet Knights went 2-10 that year.
However, we don’t recommend schools letting their guard down when it comes to their future non-conference scheduling if they’re a potential playoff contender. Every team that has made the playoff played at least one Power Five opponent in non-conference play and some beat two (2015-18 Clemson, 2016 Ohio State, 2017 Georgia) or three (2014 Florida State).
When you look at the way that some of the best college football programs currently have scheduled future non-conference games against each other — for example, Clemson and LSU (2025-26), Clemson and Georgia (2029-30, 2032-33), and Clemson and Oklahoma (2035-36) — the importance of non-conference scheduling and wins may only increase in the future.
But not every playoff team’s schedule is a gauntlet
Of those 70 non-conference games played by non-Notre Dame playoff participants, 41 percent (29 games) were against Group of Five schools, 37 percent (26 games) were against Power Five schools and 18 percent (13 games) were against FCS schools.
On average, that’s just over one non-conference game against a Power Five opponent per playoff team per season.
Alabama and Georgia were responsible for six of the 13 games against FCS opponents, while Clemson was responsible for three and Washington played two.
Does an early win over a ranked opponent retain its value?
The first five years of the playoff — once again, not including Notre Dame — featured teams that had a combined 13 non-conference wins over opponents that were ranked at the time of the matchup.
Ten of the 13 opponents finished the season ranked in the final AP Top 25 Poll, so chances are that beating a ranked opponent in September or October will still have at least some value on a resume in December.
However, those 19 playoff teams combined for only three wins over unranked opponents that ended up finishing the season ranked in the final AP Poll, meaning it’s unlikely that beating an unranked opponent in September or October will turn into a marquee win by the time the selection committee is determining the four playoff teams.
Clemson was the beneficiary of two of those three unranked-to-ranked wins — Auburn in 2016 and Texas A&M in 2018. Both opponents, however, are respected programs, so it’s not a stretch to believe, in the moment, that beating Auburn or Texas A&M would be a quality win by the season’s end.
Oklahoma’s win over Army last fall was the third win of that kind among playoff participants.
Ultimately, playoff selection criteria is a bit of a moving target from year to year and the surest way to earn one of the four spots is by going undefeated. As is stated in the selection committee protocol, the committee will “need to select the four best teams,” and “best” can be subjective — or at least the arguments used to support it can be.
While many consider the SEC to be the toughest conference in the country, its schools play an eight-game conference schedule with four non-conference games — one of which is often against an FCS foe.
That hasn’t hurt the conference and its playoff viability.
We’ve seen playoff teams that have played all of their non-conference games at home and those that didn’t face a single ranked opponent in non-conference play. Then we’ve seen others that have beaten multiple Power Five teams, multiple ranked opponents or multiple opponents on the road during non-conference play.
If and when the College Football Playoff expands, perhaps we’ll see a stronger correlation between non-conference strength of schedule/marquee wins and playoff selection/seeding since at least a handful of two-loss teams will be in the discussion annually.
But until then, going undefeated in non-conference play and having at least one notable non-conference win is what’s most important for championship contenders.