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? 

Sporting News looked at the seven-year history of the College Football Playoff semifinals and broke down the numbers in an effort to find out. Will this year’s CFP semifinals between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Cincinnati and No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Georgia help change that narrative? We’ll look at that, too.

MORE: SN experts make their semifinal picks

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 14 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 is 20.9 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 ppg.
When 4 beats 1 12.5 ppg.
When 2 beats 3 33.8 ppg.
When 3 beats 2 11 ppg. 

Q: Who can you blame for the blowouts? 

Alabama and Clemson. The Crimson Tide is the easiest answer. Alabama is 5-1 in CFP semifinals, and they have won those five games by an average of 20.2 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, which plays Michigan in the other semifinal this year, won its only CFP semifinal in a 54-48 overtime thriller against Oklahoma in 2017. 

Q: Does the high seed always win? 

No. Despite the blowouts, the higher seed in the CFP semifinals is 9-5. The No. 1 team is 5-2 vs. No. 4, and the No. 2 team is 4-3 against No. 3.

For the bettors, the favorite is 10-4 S/U and 8-6 ATS in the semifinals. This year’s Alabama-Cincinnati is the sixth one with a double-digit spread. The favorite is 3-2 ATS in those previous five games.

While the games on the field might not be close, the betting action has been a little tighter, even when the spread is high. 

BETTING TRENDS: Alabama-Cincinnati | Georgia-Michigan

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

0-9 3 6
10-19 4 4
20-29 3 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.

TROCCHI: Why aren’t more fans pulling for underdog Cincinnati?

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

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 ​

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