College football teams seeded No. 5 or lower would win a 12-team playoff once every six years, and Georgia and most other teams would stand about the same chance as winning a national title under any format.
That’s according to the calculations of Loren Maxwell, a computer rankings expert.
It’s a moot point for now, as Football Bowl Subdivision commissioners revealed last week that the four-team playoff will remain through 2025. But Maxwell’s math model offers a glimpse of what might happen if expansion occurs.
Only a football program as dominant as Alabama’s over the past decade would see a significant reduction in national-title odds, Maxwell concluded. And even Alabama’s chances would go down only about 16%.
Maxwell, who does high school football rankings and projections for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ran millions of simulations using data from the past eight seasons, when a four-team College Football Playoff has been in place. Maxwell ran them for seven formats, from four teams to 24 teams and seeding the teams based on the final rankings from the CFP committee.
“Even of the Cinderella champions, nearly half would be the No. 5 or No. 6 seed, and about three-quarters would be the five through eight seeds. So once about every 20 years a 9-12 seed would pull it off."
- Loren Maxwell, a computer rankings expert
One finding was that a Cinderella team – one seeded outside the top four – would win a 12-team format about 17% of the time, or roughly one in six.
That’s despite low odds for any specific team winning it. According to Maxwell, the left-out team that had the best chance was TCU in 2014. Maxwell gives that TCU team, which beat Ole Miss 48-3 in the Peach Bowl after the CFP snub, only a 13.9% chance of winning as the CFP’s No. 6 seed in a 12-team playoff. But adding 96 teams – eight per season – allows Murphy’s law to kick in. Chances are, one of them eventually would win.
“Even of the Cinderella champions, nearly half would be the No. 5 or No. 6 seed, and about three-quarters would be the five through eight seeds,” Maxwell said. “So once about every 20 years a 9-12 seed would pull it off.”
Other schools that stood to benefit the most with a 12-team playoff were Wisconsin, Baylor, Penn State and Ole Miss. Each would’ve made three or four 12-team playoff brackets (if the top-12 teams were chosen), and each would’ve had between a 6% and 9% chance of winning one title given their three or four tries.
UGA would’ve made a 12-team playoff five of the past eight seasons, including three times when seeded 5-12.
As a 5-12 seed, Georgia would’ve had a 3.5% chance of winning in 2018, a 3.3% chance in 2019 and a 2.5% chance in 2020, according to Maxwell.
“If only considering their chances to win a national title, Georgia would have benefited from the three additional invitations to the playoffs, but that would have been offset by having to play an additional game in 2017 and 2021,” Maxwell said. “Overall, those two factors would essentially cancel each other out so that Georgia’s odds for a national title over the past eight years would have been about the same under either scenario.”
The only teams projected to fare significantly worse when moving away from a four-team playoff were Alabama and Clemson, the ones that appeared in more than four playoffs. Alabama made seven of the eight, while Clemson made six of the eight.
“That’s because an expanded field would not have resulted in any additional invitations for those two schools but would have forced them to play an additional game in some years,” Maxwell said.
Alabama has won three national titles in the eight four-team playoffs. Maxwell projects that Alabama would be expected to win 2.81 titles over those eight. In a 12-team playoff, Alabama would be expected to win 2.35 titles, a 16% reduction. In a 16-team playoff, the projection dropped to 2.19.
Clemson would go from 1.54 projected national titles in a four-team playoff (the Tigers won two) to 1.34 projected chances in a 12-team format, a 13% drop.
For teams making the playoffs no more than half the time (Oklahoma and Ohio State were in the CFP four of the past eight seasons), chances remain essentially the same under any format, Maxwell’s research shows.
Georgia’s projected national titles range from 0.66 championship to 0.74 – virtually the same in any of the seven formats.
That’s based on the past eight years only. There’s no promise that Georgia, Alabama or any team will have the same odds going forward.
The only thing for certain is that expanding the playoffs to 12 teams would increase the number of schools that experience the playoffs.
Over the past eight seasons, 13 schools made the playoffs. But there have been 37 different schools to finish in the top 12 of the CFP rankings. Georgia Tech was one of them. The Yellow Jackets were rated the No. 12 team in the CFP standings in 2014.
Teams that would’ve benefited the most the past eight seasons with a 12-team playoff, in addition to TCU, would’ve been Wisconsin, Baylor, Penn State and Ole Miss. Each would’ve made three 12-team playoff brackets if the top-12 teams were chosen, and each would’ve had between a 6% and 9% chance of winning with all their opportunities combined.
“Ultimately, an expanded playoff represents an additional obstacle for those rare programs as dominant as Alabama has been recently,” Maxwell said. “Those types of programs are going to get an invite regardless of what the field is set at, so an expansion is only another game they could potentially lose. But that’s the top 1% of college football. All other programs would realize more invitations overall even if that extra game reduces their chances in the years they happen to be a top-four team. And for many programs, expanding to 12 is probably the only realistic way they’ll ever get an invite.”