Which College Football Playoff team was the best? Ranking them all, 1-12

The College Football Playoff is only three years old, but it’s already provided fans with plenty of memories. Take last year’s national championship ending, for instance.

It doesn’t get much better than that. 

The CFP has given us a better way to crown a national champion. But has the best team always won? Who has the best team been of the 12 who have made it into the CFP in these first three years? Who’s had the best team not to win it all?

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We at NCAA.com set out to judge and rank all 12 CFP participants based solely on stats. Using a formula that accounts for strength of schedule and on-the-field numbers, we rank the teams 1-12.

Spoiler alert: The strongest of the 12 teams didn’t win a national title.

The formula

The factors in our formula include: strength of schedule, score differential, total offense, total defense, wins against ranked opponents and conference championships.

Let’s start with strength of schedule. Using TeamRankings.com’s yearly strength of schedule rankings of all 128 FBS programs, an inverse 1-13 point scale was applied. For example, any program rated No. 1-9 in strength of schedule would receive 13 points; programs rated No. 10-19 earn 12 points; and so on. Only three CFP participants did not rank in that top percentile.

Scoring differential. The difference in points scored per game and points allowed was divided by 10, which adjusted to a 0-5 point scale. A similar method was used to assign points for total offense (points scored per game) and total defense (points allowed per game). In the case of total defense, once that total was divided by 10, it was subtracted from five to create an inverse scale.

RELATED: A simple 6-step guide to making the 2017-18 College Football Playoff

Next, we looked at each programs’ ranked wins. Each regular season Top 25 victory — based on that week’s AP Top 25 rankings — earned a program 0.5 points in our formula. Each Top 10 win was good for one point.

Finally, there are conference championships to account for. Only two of the Playoff teams from the past three years did not stake claim to a conference title. That would be 2016 Ohio State and 2015 Oklahoma — the latter did not have a chance to compete for a crown; the Big 12 championship game was in the midst of a six-year absence. For the remaining 10 teams, two points were rewarded for conference titles.

Add up all the points from each category and it provides a basic outline for how each team stands.

The data

Here’s a look at how each of the 12 CFP participants rank:














TEAM S.O.S RANK SCORING DIFF. TOTAL OFFENSE TOTAL DEFENSE TOP 25 WINS TOP 10 WINS CONF. CHAMP? TOTAL PTS
2016 Alabama 1st (13 pts) 25.6 (2.6 pts) 38.8 (3.9 pts) 11.8 (3.8 pts) 6 (3 pts) 2 (2 pts) Yes (2 pts) 30.3
2015 Alabama 1st (13 pts) 18.8 (1.9 pts) 35.1 (3.5 pts) 14.4 (3.6 pts) 3 (1.5 pts) 3 (3 pts) Yes ( 2 pts) 28.5
2014 Oregon 5th (13 pts) 23.1 (2.3 pts) 45.4 (4.5 pts) 22.5 (2.7 pts) 2 (1 pt) 2 (2 pts) Yes (2 pts) 27.5
2014 Alabama 2nd (13 pts) 17.3 (1.7 pts) 36.8 (3.7 pts) 16.6 (3.3 pts) 5 (2.5 pts) 1 (1 pt) Yes (2 pts) 27.2
2016 Washington 10th (12 pts) 23.0 (2.3 pts) 41.8 (4.2 pts) 17.2 (3.3 pts) 2 (1 pt) 2 (2 pts) Yes (2 pts) 26.8
2016 Ohio State 2nd (13 pts) 23.9 (2.4 pts) 39.4 (3.9 pts) 14.2 (3.6 pts) 1 (0.5 pts) 3 (3 pts) No (0 pts) 26.4
2014 Ohio State 6th (13 pts) 22.9 (2.3 pts) 44.8 (4.5 pts) 21.2 (2.9 pts) 1 (0.5 pts) 1 (1 pt) Yes (2 pts) 26.2
2015 Clemson 4th (13 pts) 16.8 (1.7 pts) 38.5 (3.9 pts) 20.2 (3.0 pts) 1 (0.5 pts) 2 (2 pts) Yes (2 pts) 26.1
2016 Clemson 3rd (13 pts) 18.5 (1.9 pts) 39.2 (3.9 pts) 18.4 (3.2 pts) 2 (1 pt) 1 (1 pt) Yes (2 pts) 26
2015 Oklahoma 2nd (13 pts) 21.5 (2.2 pts) 43.5 (4.4 pts) 20.8 (2.9 pts) 3 (1.5 pts) 2 (2 pts) No (0 pts) 26
2015 Michigan State 20th (11 pts) 8.1 (0.8 pts) 29.8 (3.0 pts) 20.5 (2.9 pts) 1 (0.5 pts) 3 (3 pts) Yes (2 pts) 23.2
2014 Florida State 27th (11 pts) 6.8 (0.7 pts) 33.7 (3.4 pts) 23.0 (2.7 pts) 2 (1 pt) 1 (1 pt) Yes (2 pts) 21.8

* bolded teams won national championship





Yearly totals:
CFP YEAR TOTAL POINTS
2016 109.5
2015 103.8
2014 102.7

It’s worth noting, again, that this formula isn’t perfect. But it certainly passes the eye test when observing the top and bottom teams in the power rankings.

The champ

Using our method, last year’s Crimson Tide had the most formidable squad, despite finishing as runner-up to Clemson. Alabama breezed through its regular season schedule in 2016 — which was rated No. 1 in the country in terms of strength of schedule — and entered the national title game in Tampa with a pristine 14-0 record. The Tide led the nation with seven defensive touchdowns and had three 800-yard rushers.

Watch Now

FBS Championship: Clemson captures title over Alabama

But 2016 Alabama’s pursuit toward becoming the first undefeated national champion of the CFP era fell short, thanks to Hunter Renfrow’s touchdown catch with one second left to give Clemson its second national title (video above).

So if the strongest team on paper didn’t win college football’s ultimate prize, which national champion came closest to topping the list? That would be Nick Saban and Co. once again.

Alabama’s 2015 team slides in at No. 2 on the list thanks to an equally difficult lineup of games and an even better defense, in terms of points allowed per game. That version of the Crimson Tide was led by Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry. Alabama beat Clemson that year in the title game 45-40.

MORE: Breaking down the undefeated teams still remaining in FBS play

If occupying the top two spots isn’t impressive enough, Alabama’s 2014 team didn’t fall far behind.  In the inaugural CFP, the No. 1-seeded Crimson Tide were knocked off by eventual title winner Ohio State in the semifinal round, but that ‘Bama team still comes in fourth in our rankings of all-time CFP squads.

Sandwiched in between the Bama trio is 2014 Oregon, who lost to Ohio State 42-20 in the championship game at AT&T Stadium that year. Marcus Mariota threw for 57 touchdowns that year.

So there you have it, our version of the ultimate Playoff foursome: a lot of Crimson with a splash of neon yellow and green.

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