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Daniel Wilco | | October 30, 2018

How strength of schedule affects College Football Playoff chances

USA Today Sports Images LSU strength of schedule Looking at the history of the College Football Playoff forecasts good things for LSU, thanks to the Tigers' high strength of schedule.

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.

RELATED: First CFP poll features Alabama, Clemson at the top Complete Top 25

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
2017 Alabama 5.46 22 83.08 Champion
2017 Georgia 7.01 8 93.85 Runner-up
2017 Oklahoma 5.26 25 80.77 Semifinal
2017 Clemson 6.84 10 92.31 Semifinal
2016 Clemson 6.55 4 96.88 Champion
2016 Alabama 7.29 1 99.22 Runner-up
2016 Washington 3.98 25 80.47 Semifinal
2016 Ohio State 6.59 3 97.66 Semifinal
2015 Alabama 7.46 1 99.22 Champion
2015 Clemson 5.21 10 92.19 Runner-up
2015 Oklahoma 4.38 25 80.47 Semifinal
2015 Michigan State 6.58 5 96.09 Semifinal
2014 Ohio State 5.17 17 86.72 Champion
2014 Oregon 6.02 9 92.97 Runner-up
2014 Alabama 7.27 5 96.09 Semifinal
2014 Florida State 5.13 19 85.16 Semifinal

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).

RELATED: How the first CFP poll predicts the national semifinals | How to watch the CFP

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?
2017 Maryland 9.78 (1) 4-8 No
2016 Alabama 7.29 (1) 14-1 Runner-up
2015 Alabama 7.46 (1) 14-1 Champion
2014 UCLA 9.1 (1) 10-3 No

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.

RELATED: Here's how Notre Dame can make it to this year's Playoff

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.

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