With only four spots available, competition for the College Football Playoff is fierce. You can be undefeated and miss out (ask UCF), or fail to make your conference championship game and still get invited (ask Alabama).
But one thing is for sure. If you want to play for a national championship, you better have a tough schedule.
The 16 teams that have made the College Football Playoff since its inception in the 2014 season have all been in the 80th percentile of strength of schedule, at an average rank of 11.8 (out of either 128 or 130 teams, depending on the year).
What’s more, no team in the Top 10 of strength of schedule with fewer than two losses has ever missed out on the College Football Playoff.
Here's how all 16 of the prior teams stack up:
|SEASON||Team||Strength of schedule||Rank||Percentile||CFP result|
Obviously, having a tough schedule is only half of the battle. You need to survive it as well. There are only two times a team who finished with the strongest schedule made the CFP — Alabama in 2016 (would go on to win the title) and Alabama in 2017 (would lose in the championship game).
In 2017, Maryland had the hardest schedule in the FBS, but finished 4-8, not even bowl-eligible. In 2014, UCLA had the No. 1 strength of schedule, but dropped three games on the season. No team with two losses has ever made the College Football Playoff.
|SEASON||Team||Strength of Schedule (rank)||Record||CFP?|
A strong schedule doesn’t stop paying off once you get your invitation. Teams that won their CFP semifinal matchup had an average SoS of 9, while the losing teams averaged 14.6.
Yet when it comes to the title game, that correlation disappears. In fact, three of the four champions had a weaker strength of schedule than the runner-up, with Alabama's (SoS rank 1) win over Clemson (SoS rank 10) in the 2016 College Football Playoff being the lone exception.
What does this mean for this year? It's hard to say until the regular season is over, but one team does stand out as being the most poised for a CFP invite, based on the history.
Through Week 8 of this year, LSU is the only team in the Top 10 of strength of schedule with fewer than two losses. If the Tigers can survive the rest of the year unscathed, it’d be extremely surprising for them not to make the College Football Playoff.