Too many blowouts? Sorting out fact, fiction with College Football Playoff semifinals

Too many blowouts? Sorting out fact, fiction with College Football Playoff semifinals

“There are too many blowouts in the semifinals.” 

That is the go-to criticism about the four-team College Football Playoff and one of the leading arguments against expansion. Does that carry weight? 

The 2021 semifinals didn’t do much to stop that notion. No. 1 Alabama beat No. 4 Cincinnati 27-6. No. 2 Georgia beat No. 3 Michigan 34-11. That set up a CFP championship matchup between the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs, but the semifinals were not competitive. 

Sporting News looked at the eight-year history of the College Football Playoff semifinals and broke down the numbers in an effort to find out how much of a problem that is.  

MORE: Alabama flexes the old-school way against UC

Let’s dig in behind the numbers with a simple Q-and-A: 

Q: Are there too many blowouts in the semis? 

Yes. It’s a seven-year sample, but only four of the 16 CFP semifinals have been decided by 14 points or less.

The CFP started in 2014, and No. 2 Oregon routed No. 3 Florida State 59-20 in the first semifinal. There have been four semifinals decided by 30 points or more.

The average margin of victory in the CFP semifinals increased to 21.1 points per game, and that is not a fluke number when you look at the results by seed. Every type of matchup has an average margin of victory in double digits. 

CFP semifinals by matchup

When 1 beats 4 20.2 ppg.
When 4 beats 1 12.5 ppg.
When 2 beats 3 33.8 ppg.
When 3 beats 2 15 ppg. 

Q: Who can you blame for the blowouts? 

Alabama, Clemson and Georgia. The Crimson Tide is the easiest answer. Alabama is 6-1 in CFP semifinals, and they have won those five games by an average of 20.3 points per game. The Crimson Tide were favored by 19 points in last year’s semifinal matchup against Notre Dame. Alabama is a 14-point favorite against Cincinnati this year. 

It’s not just Alabama. Clemson has won four semifinal matchups by an average of 21 points per game. LSU beat Oklahoma 63-28 in 2019, and Ohio State has won a pair of semifinals by an average of 14 points per game. 

Georgia has won two semifinals by an average of 14.5 points per game. 

Q: Does the high seed always win? 

Most of the time. Despite the blowouts, the higher seed in the CFP semifinals is 11-5. The No. 1 team is 6-2 vs. No. 4, and the No. 2 team is 4-4 against No. 3.

For the bettors, the favorite is 12-4 S/U and 10-6 ATS in the semifinals. The favorites also are 4-2 ATS when the spread is double digits. 

The favorite has covered in four of the last six semifinals. 

Q: How do the semifinals compare with the NFL? 

Closer than you think. This is an interesting trend to keep in mind. Yes, the margin of victory is high at 20.9 points per game, but it’s not that different from its NFL counterpart.

Use the AFC/NFC championship games as a comparison. Over the last seven years, the average margin of victory in a NFL conference championship game is 15.2 points per game. That’s 17 ppg. In the NFC and 13.4 points per game in the AFC.

Now, compare the distribution of those game results by margin. The NFL has more close games, but there are blowouts, too. 

CFP semis vs. NFL champ. games by margin of victory

POINTS CFP SEMIS NFC/AFC CHAMP
0-9 3 6
10-19 4 4
20-29 5 1
30+ 4 3

Q: What is the biggest difference with the NFL?

Inclusiveness. Look at that conference championship weekend against the CFP semifinals. Including this season, a total of 13 of the 130 FBS schools have participated in the CFP. That includes first-timers in Cincinnati and Michigan this year.

In the last seven years, 11 different NFC teams have played in the conference championship, and Green Bay is the only team with more than one appearance. In the AFC, a total of eight teams have participated in conference championship games. New England and Kansas City have combined for eight appearances.

Still, that’s 19 of 32 teams.

Q: Will expansion lead to less blowouts?

Who knows? That’s hard to say. It’s only a seven-year sample, and the blowouts have received most of the attention in the CFP era.

Still, think about the three semifinals that have been decided by 10 points or less:  

CFP semifinals decided by 10 points or less

YEAR WINNER SCORE LOSER SCORE MARGIN
2014 No. 4 Ohio State 42 No. 1 Alabama 35 7
2017 No. 3 Georgia 54 No. 2 Oklahoma 48 6
2019 No. 3 Clemson 29 No. 2 Ohio State 23 6

That Ohio State-Alabama semifinal set the tone for the CFP era. The 54-48 thriller between Georgia and Oklahoma went to double overtime, and the Clemson-Ohio State rivalry has taken off because of games like the 2019 matchup.

Those were great games, and in a 12-team format there would be more chances for memorable matchups like that. Sure, there will be blowouts too, but that’s not just exclusive to the CFP semifinals.

CFP semifinals results by year ​

YEAR WINNER SCORE LOSER SCORE MARGIN
2014 No. 2 Oregon 59 No. 3 Florida State 20 39
2014 No. 4 Ohio State 42 No. 1 Alabama 35 7
2015 No. 2 Alabama 38 No. 3 Michigan State 0 38
2015 No. 1 Clemson 37 No. 4 Oklahoma 17 20
2016 No. 2 Clemson 31 No. 3 Ohio State 0 31
2016 No. 1 Alabama 24 No. 4 Washington 7 17
2017 No. 4 Alabama 24 No. 1 Clemson 6 18
2017 No. 3 Georgia 54 No. 2 Oklahoma 48 6
2018 No. 2 Clemson 30 No. 3 Notre Dame 3 27
2018 No. 1 Alabama 45 No. 4 Oklahoma 34 11
2019 No. 1 LSU 63 No. 4 Oklahoma 28 35
2019 No. 3 Clemson 29 No. 2 Ohio State 23 6
2020 No. 3 Ohio State 49 No. 2 Clemson 28 21
2020 No. 1 Alabama 31 No. 4 Notre Dame 14 17
2021 No. 1 Alabama 27 No. 4 Cincinnati 6 21
2021 No. 3 Georgia 34 No. 2 Michigan 11 23





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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.