When the College Football Playoff rankings debuted on Tuesday night, the Michigan Wolverines found themselves sitting all the way up at No. 3. This is the highest spot ever occupied by the Wolverines in the third-year rankings, as they fluctuated between No. 10 and No. 17 through the second half of last season. With at least four games remaining on the schedule, a lot of movement is expected between now and the end of the season. But looking at the past may give a glimpse at what paths Michigan could take going forward.
33 different teams made an appearance in the Top 25 during the 2014 season, and 32 teams were ranked during 2015. Below are two graphs showing the weekly movement of each team during these two seasons. The gray lines represent teams who were mostly on the outside looking in. Small, colored lines denote teams who were in the mix, and the larger colored lines show the playoff finalists.
2014 Playoff teams: 1. Alabama, 2. Oregon, 3. Florida State, 4. Ohio State
Other teams of note: 5. Baylor, 6. TCU, 7. Mississippi State, 9. Ole Miss, 19. Auburn
2015 Playoff teams: 1. Clemson, 2. Alabama, 3. Michigan State, 4. Oklahoma
Other teams of note: 5. Iowa, 6. Stanford, 7. Ohio State, 8. Notre Dame, 20. LSU
While the charts are a little messy and the rankings only cover two years, there are a few trends in the data that are likely to repeat this season. Below are the four main ways that teams have made or missed the playoff.
Solid teams keep winning
A pair of ACC teams, Florida State in 2014 and Clemson in 2015, entered the CFP rankings undefeated and stayed that way through the end of the regular season. While Oregon in 2014 and Alabama in 2015 did carry a loss each into the initial rankings, both teams still started in the top 5 and won out to earn a playoff bid.
The simplest way for Michigan to make the playoff is to be like these four teams and win out. That will include a couple of tough games to end the season, but the Wolverines should be favorites in each contest.
Good teams get big wins
Alabama was ranked No. 5 through Week 11 in 2014, but a close win over No. 1 Mississippi State vaulted them to No. 1 and they never looked back. Ohio State started down at No. 16 during the first CFP rankings in 2014, but a win at No. 8 Michigan State gave them the No. 8 spot, and a smackdown of No. 13 Wisconsin was enough to sneak into the top four.
In 2015, it was Michigan State who took down No. 3 Ohio State to earn the No. 5 ranking, and they beat No. 4 Iowa to jump into the playoff at the end of the year. Oklahoma started at just No. 15, but a win over No. 18 TCU gave them a boost up to No. 3.
Michigan only has two tough opponents on the schedule, and they will face them during the last two weeks. The only way they fall into this scenario would be a loss to an Ohio State team who already has a loss, followed by a big win over the Big Ten West champion. This path is not ideal.
On the outside looking in
The biggest headline during the 2014 CFP rankings was the snub of Big 12 leaders Baylor and TCU. Both teams hovered around the top four, but both were ultimately left out in the cold. Each entered the rankings with one loss (TCU at No. 6 and Baylor at No. 13) and never lost again, but neither had a big enough win to break the barrier.
In 2015, it was one extra loss that proved to be too much for four teams on the bubble. No. 7 Stanford dropped a game at unranked Oregon, and a two-loss Cardinal was left out of the playoff despite winning the Pac-12. When they beat No. 6 Notre Dame, the Irish were also knocked out of the race earning a second loss of their own
Two Big Ten teams both fell at the hands of the Spartans in 2015. No. 3 Ohio State was undefeated until facing Michigan State, and they missed out on the Big Ten Championship Game and the playoff. No 4. Iowa also fell to Michigan State, losing their first game of the year during the conference final.
The lesson here is that two-loss teams are going to have a hard time making the playoff and so are teams that do not win their conference. Michigan has little margin for error, and they must find a way to win the Big Ten Title.
The last grouping might as well be called the SEC Bias Effect. Only three of the eight teams that have started in the top four made the playoff during the first two seasons, and four of the five teams that missed out come from the SEC. Perhaps this has to do with quality of competition, but it seems highly likely that there is an inflated initial value given to these teams as well.
In 2014 Mississippi State started 7-0 and earned the No. 1 ranking at the start of the rankings. They wound up dropping two games down the stretch to end at No. 7. Both No. 3 Auburn and No. 4 Ole Miss had just one loss, but three losses by each team put them out of playoff contention. Last season it was No. 2 LSU who sat atop the SEC when the first rankings were released. Three straight November losses left the Tigers at No. 20 and nowhere close to a playoff spot.
Michigan could fall into this trap, but their schedule should be lighter over the last month of the season than what these teams faced. If they drop multiple games over the remainder of the season, there are much bigger issues to worry about.
There still are big games left for every top team, so movement is to be expected. As was the case in 2014 and 2015, expect the top four to look quite different in December than it does now. However, if Michigan handles its business, their CFP ranking will take care of itself. But if they do drop a game, things could get tricky.