The College Football Playoff System Explained

 Orlando Sentinel / Getty Images

The lack of a fair and just playoff tournament to decide college football's National Champion has led to campus protests, such as the BYU bonfire in 1996 when students and faculty burned tortilla chips after they were snubbed by organizers of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. One politician compared the old Bowl Championship Series, created in 1998, to communism, and even President Obama joined the chorus calling for football reform.

So after decades of newspaper writers declaring winners, and another 16 years of the flawed BCS, the majority of us just wanted a simple postseason tournament to crown the champion. Now we finally have one in the College Football Playoff (CFP). But while its name seems simple and to the point, that’s about the only part not rife with complications.

Here’s what we do know: The CFP includes the top four teams in the country (still based on a convoluted voting system) and consists of two semifinals and a championship game. It is football’s Final Four, an accelerated version of the 68-team NCAA basketball tournament. It’s small enough that you can sketch your office pool bracket on a Post-it.


This is what we’ve been waiting for. Kind of. But how we arrive at those final four teams, who picks them, and where they play are just the tip of an iceberg piled high with complex contingencies and confusing algorithms that has the potential to infuriate even the most casual fans for years to come. But don't worry: We deciphered the seven most complicated parts of the NCAA football playoffs so you don’t have to.

1. College football playoff teams are picked by a selection committee.
A 13-member selection committee serving three-year terms is made up of athletic directors, coaches, NCAA administrators, one former player (Archie Manning), and one former U.S. Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice). They have been chosen by the NCAA for their integrity and will begin ranking teams in late October by secret ballot.

2. But some members of the selection committee are not allowed to vote for certain schools.
Any committee member who has a professional relationship with a school, or has a family member who is paid by a school, may not vote for that institution because of the clear conflict of interest. This recusal scenario affects nine of the committee members. However, as long as you don’t receive compensation from it, you are allowed to vote for schools you previously attended or worked for.

3. Only four teams compete in the playoff bracket, but the selection committee ranks 25 schools to participate in postseason bowl games.
The committee selects the top four teams in the country to compete in the semifinal games for a chance to win the National Championship. But it also assigns teams that will participate in four additional bowl games, too. The selection committee will release a Top 25 on ESPN seven times: every Tuesday between Oct. 28 and Dec. 2, and the final ranking on Sunday, Dec. 7.

4. The committee comes up with a top 25, three schools at a time, through a multi-step selection process.
This is where it gets hairy. There are five steps included in the selection process:

  1. Each member first submits his or her top 25 schools, in no particular order. The schools listed by three or more members are retained.
  2. From that group, each member lists their top six teams — also in no order. The six schools that get the most votes are added to a first-round ballot.
  3. Members then rank those teams, No. 1 to 6, and the three highest ranked teams become the top three seeds. The other three teams go back into the pool for a second-round ballot.
  4. Committee members then list six more teams, in no order, from the remaining schools. The three schools receiving the most votes are added to the next ballot.
  5. Steps 3 and 4 are repeated until a list of 25 teams is chosen.

5. There are six major bowl games. Two will host semifinal games each year.
Six stadiums — housing the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Peach, Rose, and Sugar Bowl — will rotate as semifinal sites each year. While two of the six host semifinal playoff games on New Year’s Day, the other four will host non-tournament bowls to be played on New Year’s Eve. The championship game is played about a week later at a neutral site selected each year by the NCAA. This year’s final game will be played Jan. 12, 2015, at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The 2016 title game will be played in Arizona and the 2017 contest will be held in Tampa.


6. In the past, schools automatically qualified to play in certain bowl games depending on their conference. These are no longer hard affiliations.
The Rose Bowl, for example, was traditionally played between conference winners from the Pac-12 and Big Ten. Those conference connections are severed in years when the bowl hosts semifinal games — the selection committee now assigns participants, based on geographic location to give the higher ranked teams more of a home-field advantage.

7. In the years they don’t host semifinal games, bowl stadiums will retain their traditional conference affiliations.
The Rose (Pac-12 vs. Big Ten), Sugar (SEC vs. Big 12), and Orange Bowl (ACC) will host the highest-ranked teams from those conferences only when they are not in line to host semifinal games.

We hope that cleared things up for you.