CFB Playoff Angles, Trends, Predictions – Part 1

Who's Hot & Who's Not

Part 2

College Football Playoff Edition – Part 1

This was a highly entertaining exercise to go through last year at this stage of the college football season, so why not bring it back for another crack.

We weren't able to get the National Champion correct last year in picking Ohio State over LSU, and in a year like 2020 where there was a big disparity for at least one playoff-bound team in terms of games played, some of the signallers from last year's breakdown may have to get manipulated over to percentages to possibly apply.

Three of the four programs from last year's playoff are back for another go-around, with Notre Dame returning for another shot at it after getting blown out by Clemson in the 2018 semifinals.

The Irish have Nick Saban and No. 1 Alabama to knock off first though, as last year's semifinal game between Clemson and Ohio State is up for a sequel this year, with Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and his argument on why playing more games matter taking the early center stage.

Playing more games means more opportunity for these great teams to slip up for sure, but teams like Clemson reside in the All Cupcake Conference (aka ACC) and see one-year visitors there like Notre Dame run the table in the regular season with a 17.1 points/game average winning margin in the process, questions have to be asked about how much “power”, depth, or talent is actually in the ACC's “Power 5” status.

Notre Dame is notorious for no-showing huge games and yet they ran the table in the regular season in ACC this year. Would any other Power 5 conference have let that happen?

I'm not sure any of them would have, but here we are with these four teams selected for this year, so let's try and grind our way through this information to find ourselves the National Champion. Before we get to do it all over again in 2021, and 2022, and 2023, and 2024, likely with at least 50% of the same programs in those years too.

*All numbers are pulled from regular season data only (including conference championship games) for the CFB Playoff teams that particular season

ATS Records

2020: Alabama: 8-3; Clemson: 5-6; Ohio State: 3-3; Notre Dame: 5-6

Past numbers with champion in Bold

  • 2019: LSU: 8-5; Ohio State: 9-4; Clemson: 10-3; Oklahoma: 5-8 ATS
  • 2018: Alabama: 8-5; Clemson: 7-6; Notre Dame: 6-4-2; Oklahoma: 5-7-1
  • 2017: Clemson: 8-4-1; Oklahoma: 8-5; Georgia: 9-4; Alabama: 5-7
  • 2016: Alabama: 9-4; Clemson: 6-7; Ohio State: 6-6; Washington: 7-6
  • 2015: Clemson: 6-7; Alabama: 7-6; Michigan State: 5-7-1; Oklahoma: 9-3
  • 2014: Alabama: 5-8; Oregon: 9-4; Florida State: 3-10; Ohio State: 8-5

Point #1: In the history of the CFB Playoff, every National Champion had at least 5 ATS losses

Positive for: Clemson and Notre Dame
Negative for: Ohio State and Alabama

This one held true for LSU last year, as only they and the Sooners finished the season with at least five blunders against the number, and only one of them was going to make it to the Finals. LSU still had to win it all for that to be the case, as it held true on Point #2 below as well in them beating Clemson in that regard.

Flipping things over to a percentage this year has Alabama coming in at the top at 72%, Ohio State at 50%, and the two ACC representatives sitting at 45.5 %. In those previous six years of playoff football, eight different teams have gone in with an ATS record worse than 50% and two have them – Clemson in 2016 and Alabama in 2017 – have gone the distance.

That's not the best news for those ACC teams either with both being losers against the spread this year, putting Ohio State right in that sweet spot at 50%.

Point #2: The team with the best regular season ATS record has been the runner-up in each of the last four years, and five of the six seasons overall

Negative for: Alabama

This was the other part of the equation that held true last year with Clemson losing, but it's Nick Saban's Alabama side on this particular chopping block a year later.

Along with what will likely be another Heisman Trophy in Tuscaloosa for one Alabama player, these two negatives may be the only “bad” you can say about how good this Alabama team is this year.

But the best ATS record combined with the Heisman winner (most likely) is a historical mountain that I can only look to fade given the prospective numbers the Tide will have attached to them in these upcoming games.

At the same time, an Alabama runner-up finish means one of Clemson or Ohio State wins it all, and maybe this is the year the winner of that game still has something left for the championship.

Another sneaky little positive for Ohio State though, as maybe the Buckeyes have been meant to win it this year all along.

3rd Down Conversion Rate Percentage – Offense

2020: Alabama: 59.20; Clemson: 45.75; Ohio State: 51.25; Notre Dame 49.01

Past numbers with champion in Bold

  • 2019: LSU: 49.67; Ohio State: 56.97; Clemson: 47.30; Oklahoma: 49.24
  • 2018: Alabama: 52.55; Clemson: 43.95; Notre Dame: 44.32; Oklahoma: 51.18
  • 2017: Clemson: 45.99; Oklahoma: 43.06; Georgia: 45.70; Alabama: 40.43
  • 2016: Alabama: 48.80; Clemson: 51.09; Ohio State: 48.65; Washington: 44.83
  • 2015: Clemson: 46.70; Alabama: 35.43; Michigan State: 50.53; Oklahoma: 44.58
  • 2014: Alabama: 52.91; Oregon: 49.70; Florida State: 46.05; Ohio State: 51.52

Point #1: In three of the last four CFB Playoffs, and four of the last five, the team with the WORST 3rd down conversion rate percentage has made it to the Final

Positive for: Clemson

Not the first go-around for Clemson being in the basement of this category for the playoff teams, as a 46% 3rd down conversion team is what the Tigers have been for the past four years now.

Not winning it all last year ended the run at two for these bad 3rd down offensive teams turning things around and winning it all, but unless they get Notre Dame for a third time this year, Clemson is really up against it vs. Ohio State and possibly Alabama in those 3rd down rates.

If those offense(s) find ways to stay on the field, Clemson may live up to that 46% number and not make it through the semifinals.

Point #2: The team with the best 3rd down percentage has only won the national title once – Clemson in 2016

Negative for: Alabama

Didn't even need to change the header this year, as we find the Tide and their dominance in 2020 actually somehow being considered a negative.

Converting on 60% of your 3rd downs is spectacular though, as it's tops in the country too by nearly three full percent – Texas A&M is 2nd at 56.67.

You could argue that the best way to beat Alabama is to get in a shootout with them where the first to 40 wins, as Florida went that route in the SEC title game and the Gators were the only Alabama opponent not to lose by at least 15 points. The winner of the Clemson/Ohio State game can definitely play their part in a shootout with Alabama, but those defenses still have to deal with a 60% 3rd down conversion rate the Tide throw at them.

Tough to really consider that a “negative”, especially if it's Clemson and them not even converting half the time on the money down.

3rd Down Conversion Rate Percentage – Defense

2020: Alabama: 40.59%; Clemson: 31.72, Ohio State: 34.57; Notre Dame: 29.37

Past numbers with champion in Bold

  • 2019: LSU: 29.65; Ohio State: 28.65; Clemson: 30.60; Oklahoma: 31.61
  • 2018: Alabama: 30.34; Clemson: 27.60; Notre Dame: 37.82; Oklahoma: 45.18
  • 2017: Clemson: 28.19; Oklahoma: 38.67; Georgia: 32.95; Alabama: 32.92
  • 2016: Alabama: 30.53; Clemson: 30.17; Ohio State: 30.77; Washington: 31.11
  • 2015: Clemson: 24.86; Alabama: 28.88; Michigan State: 35.06; Oklahoma: 40.00
  • 2014: Alabama: 36.90; Oregon: 41.97; Florida State: 40.98; Ohio State: 36.90

Point #1: Every National Champion in the CFB Playoff era has been either the best, or 2nd best in Opponent 3rd down conversion rate percentage

Positive for: Notre Dame and Clemson

Good news down the pipeline for the ACC here, as the two representatives attached to their conference this year come in as the top two there.

Again, makes you question the overall depth of talent inside the entire ACC on the whole, especially considering Clemson's been among the best in this category nearly every year.

That aside, any future thoughts on either ACC team will have Clemson be the popular choice. Although, with Notre Dame in the three-TD underdog range vs Alabama, even a ML play there if you want to go the oddball route of this trend rolling could scratch an itch.

Point #2: The team with the better number in this category when we reach the title game has won five of six national championships – outlier was in 2015

Negative for: Alabama

Couldn't tell you who this would be a positive for until the finalists are determined, but any way Alabama looks at it as the #4 rank here has them looking up at it again in these historical concepts.

Again, the 40% conversion rate allowed on 3rd down comes from a full slate of SEC games, including one against a strong Heisman contender in Florida QB Kyle Trask.

Context always matters, but historically another number the Tide will find themselves up against if they make it to the championship.

Heisman Trophy Winners

2020: Yet to be determined

  • 2019: Joe Burrow
  • 2018: Kyler Murray
  • 2017: Baker Mayfield
  • 2016: Lamar Jackson
  • 2015: Derrick Henry
  • 2014: Marcus Mariota

Point #1: One Heisman winning QB has gone on to win the National Title, and playoff teams with the Heisman winner are now 2-for-5 in terms of winning it all.

Negative for: Alabama (likely)

Joe Burrow and LSU managed to surpass this historical hurdle last year, one that did have a little something to do with the selection of LSU losing in the title game in this piece last season. Burrow was the first Heisman QB to win the title in the same season, and depending on which Alabama player likely takes this award home, yet another case here against seeing the Crimson Tide capture another crown.

None of the other QB stars involved in these playoffs will threaten Alabama's chances of taking home the Heisman this year, so it can only be potentially bad news for the Tide.

Although, the last Heisman winner they had was Derrick Henry in 2015 and Alabama did win it all that year.