Ranking the Most Successful College Football Programs of the Playoff Era

Ranking the Most Successful College Football Programs of the Playoff Era
David KenyonFeatured Columnist IVDecember 2, 2023

Ranking the Most Successful College Football Programs of the Playoff Era

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    ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 08:  Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide leads his team out of the tunnel prior to the game against the Georgia Bulldogs in the CFP National Championship presented by AT&T at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 8, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    The initial version of the College Football Playoff era is coming to an end in 2023.

    Before the last four-team edition is played and expansion to 12 soon follows, we’re highlighting the programs that have enjoyed the most success in the first 10 seasons of the CFP.

    That begs the question: How exactly do you define success?

    Here, we’re focused on the consistency of elite contention. Winning a national championship is obviously the primary goal, but CFP appearances, New Year’s Six bowl invites and conference titles all matter, too. Winning percentage is considered to a lesser extent as well.

    Your definition may vary slightly, but those are the main factors used to shape this order.

Honorable Mentions

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    Former Notre Dame QB Ian Book

    Former Notre Dame QB Ian BookGeorge Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Both CFP trips for Notre Dame have yielded semifinal losses, but nobody else in this section has multiple bids—for now.

    Florida State, Oregon and Washington are all seeking that second berth in 2023. Each one is set to earn a fourth New Year’s Six appearance, joining Notre Dame and Penn State at the number.

    Pending the results of 2023’s conference championship games, Penn State may improve to five. However, the Nittany Lions have yet to reach the CFP and have won only one Big Ten title in the last decade.

    Boise State and Appalachian State have enjoyed the most success among Group of Five programs.

    Highlighted by a berth in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, Boise State has collected six seasons of double-digit wins, seven appearances in the Mountain West Championship Game and three conference titles. Appalachian State has notched five 10-win campaigns and split or shared four Sun Belt crowns. Both teams made the respective title game in 2023, too.

7. Michigan Wolverines

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    Jim Harbaugh

    Jim HarbaughAlika Jenner/Getty Images

    How many times has Michigan made the CFP? Oh, that’s right. Thank you, above picture of Jim Harbaugh.

    Should the Wolverines defeat Iowa in the 2023 Big Ten Championship Game, a third CFP trip is on the horizon. Regardless of the result, Michigan is poised for its fifth appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl.

    Following a 5-7 end to Brady Hoke’s tenure, U-M boasts an 86-25 record in Harbaugh’s nine seasons, with six campaigns of 10-plus victories. Michigan has secured back-to-back Big Ten championships—with, again, a shot for a third straight when the Wolverines play Iowa.

    However, Michigan is still seeking its first CFP triumph after losing to Georgia and TCU in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

6. LSU Tigers

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    NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 13: ESPN's Rece Davis interviews Quarterback Joe Burrow #9 of the LSU Tigers on stage after the College Football Playoff National Championship game against the Clemson Tigers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 13, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. LSU defeated Clemson 42 to 25. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

    Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

    From a single-issue perspective, LSU has an obvious case for ranking no worse than fifth. Only a handful of teams—at least before the 2023 CFP—have won a national championship during the CFP era.

    Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow propelled the Tigers to that crown in 2019, leading them to a rare 15-0 record and smashing a long list of records. Burrow also helped LSU make its lone other NY6 appearance, winning the Fiesta Bowl in 2018.

    So if you prefer, bump LSU up to fifth.

    The tough part of the conversation is that the program has five- and six-win seasons mixed in, along with two eight-win years. Plus, other than 2019, LSU only reached the SEC Championship Game in 2022.

    LSU hasn’t added much to its trophy case during the last decade. But the featured one is an awfully important prize.

5. Oklahoma Sooners

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    MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 29: Kyler Murray #1 of the Oklahoma Sooners in action against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Hard Rock Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

    Mark Brown/Getty Images

    Oklahoma has neither won a national title nor appeared in the championship game in the CFP era.

    But the Sooners have won an awful lot anyway.

    Most impressively, they rattled off six straight Big 12 titles from 2015 through 2020. Baker Mayfield (twice), Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts each propelled OU to the College Football Playoff. Seven seasons included 10-plus victories, helping the Sooners (103) win the fifth-most games of any team.

    Unfortunately, they haven’t won a semifinal in four tries. Simply being on that stage should not be devalued, though.

    Oklahoma, which is leaving the Big 12 alongside Texas, will attempt to carry that success into the SEC next season.

4. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Ezekiel Elliott

    Ezekiel ElliottRay Carlin/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    In the aftermath of a third straight loss to Michigan, there is some lingering angst around Ohio State. Rivalry losses sting, and the stakes in those matchups only add to the disappointment.

    However, it cannot be emphasized enough that the Buckeyes have champagne problems.

    During the 2014 season—the inaugural year of the CFP—they won a national title. Ohio State has played in a New Year’s Six contest each season, and it’ll be 10-for-10 once the 2023 games are announced.

    Ohio State also reached the national championship game in 2020, falling to Alabama.

3. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Stetson Bennett

    Stetson BennettWally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

    In short: It’s a good thing Kirby Smart accepted Georgia’s head coaching job in 2016.

    For much of Mark Richt’s tenure, Georgia had productive years. But the Bulldogs couldn’t win the big game until Smart arrived, and he’s since overseen a pair of national champions.

    Additionally, the Dawgs were the national runner-up in 2017 and played in New Year’s Six games during the 2018-20 seasons.

    Georgia’s 113 victories rank fourth nationwide in the 10-year span, and the Dawgs have a pair of SEC championships. They played in three more conference title clashes and have the 2023 showdown with Alabama to come.

    Smart has built a powerhouse in Athens that likely won’t be going away anytime soon.

2. Clemson Tigers

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    Hunter Renfrow

    Hunter RenfrowPhoto by David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

    Clemson ended a 35-year title drought in style. After losing to ‘Bama in the 2015 national championship game, the Tigers had their revenge when Deshaun Watson hit Hunter Renfrow effectively as time expired in 2016.

    Two years later, it wasn’t so dramatic.

    Star freshman Trevor Lawrence put together a stellar year, and Clemson steamrolled Alabama 44-16.

    Dabo Swinney’s squad established itself as a national power in the decade, making the CFP in six straight seasons with two national championships and two runner-up finishes. Clemson also won seven ACC crowns, including six straight from 2015 through 2020.

    Alabama (126) is the sole program with more victories than Clemson’s 118 in the last 10 years.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    DeVonta Smith

    DeVonta SmithDavid Rosenblum/Icon

    By nearly every metric, there is no other option.

    Since the beginning of the CFP, Alabama has collected the most wins (126), championship game appearances (six) and national titles (three) of any program. Bama’s eight NY6 bids are only behind Ohio State (nine).

    Throughout the decade, elite defense and a powerful rushing attack have carried the Crimson Tide to their success. That’s been a key reason that Jake Coker, Jalen Hurts (plus Tua Tagovailoa) and Mac Jones each guided championship-winning teams.

    As the CFP expands to 12 teams, Nick Saban’s team has an even greater chance to stick in the spotlight.

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