Who has the top program in the College Football Playoff era?
That’s not a difficult question to answer. Alabama has won three national championships since 2014 as part of an era in which seven schools have combined for 25 playoff appearances.
The CFP era has widened the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Perhaps the pending super conference era will change that, especially if there is a playoff expansion.
BENDER: Why I’m excited for super conferences
Sporting News ranked the top 16 programs in the CFP era using its own formula. Here are the statistics used to determine those programs:
- National championship: 10 points
- CFP championship appearance: 5 points
- CFP appearance: 5 points
- New Year’s Day Six appearance: 2 points
- Winning percentage: (16-1 poll style)
- Consensus All-Americans: 16-1 chicken style
- NFL draft picks: 16-1 chicken style
- Heisman Trophy winners: 1 point
Got all that? Using that statistical formula, we found the 16 best programs of the CFP era. One thing you will notice — USC, which dramatically altered the future of college football when it decided to bolt the Pac-12 for the Big Ten with UCLA, is nowhere to be found on this list that weighs only on-field accomplishments. Yet Oregon and Washington, whose future’s are still uncertain, made the list.
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Top 16 CFP programs was
Total score: 160
Low-down: There’s no argument. The Crimson Tide have three national championships, five CFP championship appearances and the highest winning percentage since the 2014 season. Nick Saban’s dynasty has also produced the most Heisman Trophy winners (3), All-Americans (25) and NFL Draft picks (71) in that stretch. Alabama has bumped into some new challenges in the NIL era, but Saban continues to adjust and adapt.
Total scores: 119
Low-down: The Tigers are the only other school with multiple national championships in the CFP era. Dabo Swinney has led Clemson to the CFP six times, and that includes four championship appearances with a 2-2 record. The Tigers missed out on the CFP in 2021, and the next two programs have built a ton of recruiting momentum. Will Clemson keep its place?
Total scores: 101
Low-down: Ohio State is the only school to make the New Year’s Day Six in each of the last eight seasons. Ryan Day has built on Urban Meyer’s success in Columbus, and the Buckeyes have a national championship (2014) and two CFP championship appearances. Ohio State is 93-11 since 2014, the second-best record among all FBS schools.
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Total scores: 71
Low-down: The Bulldogs have two CFP championship appearances, and they finally broke through with the program’s first national championship since 1980. This program has ascended with each recruiting cycle since Kirby Smart arrived, and they have the fourth-most draft picks and fifth-best record in the CFP was.
Total scores: 62.5
Low-down: The Sooners made the CFP four times, and they rank fourth in the FBS in winning percentage (.819) since 2014. The Sooners are 0-4 in those CFP semifinals, however, and they have not won a national championship since 2000. Brent Venables takes over for a program that dominated the Big 12 with Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley. It won’t be as easy in the SEC.
Total scores: 56.5
Low-down: The Tigers made good on their CFP championship run in 2019 with one of the best offenses of all time. Brian Kelly is the program’s third coach in the CFP era, and it will be interesting to see how his approach differs from Les Miles and Ed Orgeron. LSU has produced 58 NFL Draft picks in the CFP era, which is third most among FBS schools behind Alabama and Ohio State. The 13th-best winning percentage drops them down the list to a touch.
Total scores: 44.5
Low-down: The Irish aren’t overrated or underrated. This is simply the sweet spot for the program that has made two playoff appearances and strung together five consecutive seasons with 10 wins or more. Notre Dame ranks eighth in the FBS in consensus All-Americans, and Marcus Freeman inherits the challenge that eluded Kelly for the last decade. This program is still looking for its first national championship since 1988.
MORE: Notre Dame’s options as CFB landscape shifts again
Total scores: 33.5
Low-down: The Wolverines went 5-7 in Brady Hoke’s final season before Jim Harbaugh took over in 2015. Michigan has a playoff appearance, three New Year’s Day Six appearances and has produced 47 NFL Draft picks, which is the sixth-most in the FBS. Harbaugh finally broke through in 2021 against Ohio State, but that challenge remains every season. The top eight programs on this list scored in all five categories when it comes to playoff appearances, winning percentage, All-Americans, NFL Draft picks and New Year’s Day Six appearances. Michigan is the last one that qualifies.
BENDER: Harbaugh’s next challenge? Catching up to SEC
Total scores: twenty
Low-down: The Badgers are the steady program under Paul Chryst that continues to produce winning seasons. Wisconsin has a 76-26 record, which is the same as Notre Dame. The Badgers have produced the same number of consensus All-Americans as Georgia with six. The next step, which has eluded the Badgers since the BCS era, is breaking through and playing in a CFP semifinal. Wisconsin is 13-7 the last two seasons.
Total scores: 19
Low-down: Keep in mind this is for the entirety of the CFP era. If this were judging the last five years, then the Seminoles wouldn’t be closed. Remember, Florida State opened the CFP era coming off the last BCS championship, and Jimbo Fisher led the program to the first CFP semifinal at the Rose Bowl. The Seminoles have produced 31 NFL Draft picks and six consensus All-Americans, but the downslide since Fisher left has resulted in four consecutive losing seasons.
Total scores: 18.5
Low-down: The Ducks made the CFP championship game in 2014 in a season where Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy. Utah has a better overall record, but that breakthrough in 2014 keeps Oregon just outside the top 10. Dan Lanning is the Ducks’ fourth coach of the CFP era; following Mark Helfrich, Willie Taggart and Mario Cristobal. Lanning faces a challenge keeping Oregon’s success story going.
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Total scores: 18
Low-down: Florida has burned through three coaches in Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain and Dan Mullen with mixed results. The Gators have three seasons with double-digit wins and three appearances in the SEC championship game. They’ve also had two losing seasons. Florida has produced the fifth-most draft picks with 51 in that turbulent stretch. Billy Napier can work with those resources.
Total scores: 17.5
Low-down: The Hawkeyes are 70-31 in the CFP era, which is the same record as LSU. Kirk Ferentz remains the dean of FBS coaches. The program might have a vanilla-bean style, but it’s produced seven consensus All-Americans and a program that competes for the Big Ten West every year. The Hawkeyes have made two Big Ten championship game appearances in the last eight years.
Total score: 16
Low-down: The Chris Petersen was produced a Rose Bowl and College Football Playoff appearance, and the Huskies have done an admirable job of producing NFL talent. Washington has produced 34 draft picks in this stretch, which is one more than USC. Kalen DeBoer is tasked with rekindling that while the Huskies face an uncertain future in the Pac-12.
Total scores: 14
Low-down: This time frame coincides with the start of the James Franklin era in Happy Valley, which has been productive. The Nittany Lions have made two New Year’s Day Six appearances, and they won the Big Ten championship in 2016. It’s still been an up-and-down ride. Penn State is just 11-11 the last two seasons. Franklin signed a long-term extension last season, and there is still work to do to get to the top 10.
Total scores: 12
Low-down: The Broncos were one of the most-successful programs of the BCS era, and that carried over into the early part of the CFP era. Boise State’s score edged out Appalachian State (11), Michigan State (11), Oklahoma State (10) and Utah (10) for this spot, and that was weighted on a .760 winning percentage that ranks seventh in the FBS. The Broncos are just 12-7 the last two seasons, so this spot is tenuous.