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How the College Football Playoff Selection Process Works

It's not so complicated.

With the first College Football Playoff selection committee rankings coming out tonight, you might be interested in how those rankings would translate into bowl matchups. In order to figure that out, you need to understand how the selection process works.

If you're familiar with how the BCS bowls got their teams, the CFP process is similar. If you read this site last fall, you've probably got it down. Still, I know a lot of fans out there still don't feel like they fully understand it. So, I made a video that tells you exactly how it happens in simple terms in under three minutes.

A transcript of the video is below, but it's easier to understand by taking the 2:24 it takes to watch the video.

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The College Football Playoff selection process may seem complicated, but it’s actually not. Just think about it as having three phases.

The first phase is setting the semifinal games. The No. 1 team plays the No. 4 team in whichever of the semifinal games is closest to No. 1, and No. 2 plays No. 3 in the other.

The next phase is fulfilling the contracts of up to three of the six bowls. When they’re not hosting semifinal games, the Rose Bowl gets its traditional Big Ten vs. Pac-12 matchup, the Sugar Bowl gets an SEC vs. Big 12 matchup, and the Orange Bowl gets an ACC team against the highest ranked available team among the SEC, Big Ten, and Notre Dame. All of those spots except for the Orange’s second one go to the champions, if available, and to the highest ranked available teams otherwise.

Also by contract, the highest ranked champion of the Group of 5 non-power conferences gets a spot somewhere, but it’s not tied to any particular game.

The final phase is filling in whatever open spots remain with any Power 5 conference champions that don’t have a spot yet, the Group of Five representative, and the highest ranked teams left in the selection committee’s rankings. The committee picks those matchups based on geography and trying to avoid rematches.

To illustrate, let’s run down how things worked in the playoff’s first year.

Phase 1 is populating the semifinals. No. 1 Alabama played No. 4 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl because New Orleans is closer to Tuscaloosa than Pasadena is. No. 2 Oregon then played No. 3 Florida State in the Rose Bowl.

Phase 2 is satisfying contracts. The ACC champ wasn’t available, so the Orange Bowl got the highest available ACC team in Georgia Tech. The other spot went to the highest available team from the SEC, Big Ten, and Notre Dame, which was Mississippi State. Mountain West champ Boise State was the highest ranked Group of Five champion, so it earned a spot somewhere. Baylor also earned a spot somewhere as the Big 12 champion, even though its Sugar Bowl tie-in was taken up by the semifinals.

Phase 3 was then filling in the other three games. Arizona and Boise State were the westernmost teams, so it made sense to put them in the westernmost bowl. Baylor was a natural fit for its home state Cotton Bowl, as was the SEC’s Ole Miss for the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. TCU would need to go to the Peach Bowl to avoid a rematch with Baylor, leaving Michigan State as the other team in the Cotton Bowl.

Which bowls make up the semifinals rotates each year, so outcomes will look different from one season to the next. The process remains the same though: semifinals, contracts, and highest ranked teams.