Ranking best programs of College Football Playoff era: Alabama, Clemson take top two spots

The four-team College Football Playoff decade is done. 

The 2024 NFL Draft marked the last class before a new era takes over in college football. Conference realignment coincides with the expansion to 12 playoff teams, and with that the definition is going to change. 

Take the four-team CFP era, for example. Six schools combined for 29 of 40 (72.5%) of those appearances. That certainly was the benchmark for success, and those schools make up half of our list. 

Sporting News ranked the top 12 programs of the CFP era. These are the schools that will likely be the regulars in the 12-team playoff, and the list  We used a formula that judges programs through eight categories: 

  • 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 poll style
  • NFL Draft picks: 16-1 poll style 
  • Heisman Trophy winners: 1 point 

That is a straight-forward method – the list includes nine schools that will be either in the SEC or the Big Ten in 2024. Two ACC schools and one independent (guess who?) also made the list.

The list of 12 teams also could be tiered off into three groups – as the gaps in point differential show. Who are the dozen schools that have dominated the CFP era? The same ones who will start off the 12-team era in a good spot. 

MORE: Updated way-too-early Top 25 for 2024

Top 12 college football programs of CFP era

1. Alabama 

Total score: 169

Last year:

Lowdown: There is not much of a debate here. The Crimson Tide had three national championships and eight playoff appearances in 10 seasons under Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide were 127-14 – the only FBS program that won more than 90% of its games in the CFP era. Alabama also produced the most NFL Draft picks (91) and Consensus All-Americans (27). Derrick Henry, DeVonta Smith and Bryce Young won the Heisman Trophy from three different skill positions. Saban retired after the 2023 season, which leaves a lofty standard for Kalen DeBoer to follow in the 12-team CFP era. 

2. Clemson 

Total score: 117

Lowdown: Is this a glitch in the formula? Ohio State and Georgia have a strong argument here, but the Tigers were a two-time national champion like the Bulldogs and have four CFP championship game appearances. Maybe some of that was built on the ACC schedule. Clemson produced 55 NFL Draft picks in this stretch and nine consensus All-Americans. Still not convinced? The Bulldogs were not the powerhouse they are now at the beginning of the CFP era, and Clemson was 2-1 against Ohio State in CFP semifinals. This might change in the 12-team CFP era,  but Dabo Swinney did his part to keep the Tigers elite over the last 10 seasons. Clemson is 30-10 the last three years – and the new format will make them a playoff regular again. 

3. Ohio State 

Total score: 110

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Last year:

Lowdown: Ohio State made a New Year’s Day Six bowl in each of the last 10 seasons; a run that included five CFP appearances and a national championship in 2014. The Buckeyes had the second-best winning percentage in that stretch at .885, and they have produced the second most All-Americans and NFL Draft picks. This is the most stable program of the 21st century, but there are a handful of teams that could have won national championships that fell short. Will the Buckeyes continue that success in the 12-team playoff era? One look at the roster Ryan Day has assembled for 2024 makes that an easy question to answer. 

Stetson Bennett

(Getty Images)

4. Georgia 

Total score: 102

Last year:

Lowdown: In another year or two, the Bulldogs might be No. 1 on this list given the surge under Kirby Smart since 2020. Georgia is 50-4 since then – the best record among all Power 5 schools. Three of those losses are to Alabama, and last year’s team missed a shot at a three-peat. The Bulldogs have 10 or more wins in eight of the last 10 seasons, and they reached the CFP championship game three times. The Bulldogs have produced 73 NFL Draft picks in that stretch, and the program continues to recruit at a five-star level that will make them the team to beat in the SEC to start the 12-team playoff era. 

5. Michigan 

Total score: 74

Last year:

Lowdown: The Wolverines surged up this list with a 40-3 record the last three seasons under Jim Harbaugh, a run that led to three straight Big Ten championships, three CFP appearances and the program’s first national title since 1997. Keep in mind this program was 5-7 in 2014 – the first year of the CFP era. That three-year run is marked with controversy from a pair of NCAA investigations, but Harbaugh resurrected the program with more Consensus All-Americans (10) and NFL Draft picks (69) after his arrival. Harbuagh left for the Los Angeles Chargers, and it’s on Sherrone Moore to maintain that top-five billing in the 18-team Big Ten. 

BENDER: Sherrone Moore will face challenges in 2024

6. LSU

Total score: 58.5

Last year: 6

Lowdown: The Tigers have been in this spot for the last three seasons. LSU has at least one point in every category on this list. The only other team with that distinction is Alabama. LSU has two Heisman winners in the last five years in Joe Burrow and Jayden Daniels, and Brian Kelly has led the Tigers to a 20-7 record the last two seasons. The 2019 national championship run under Ed Orgeron was the only CFP appearance, but it was also arguably the greatest single-season team of all time. LSU is tied for third in Consensus All-Americans (11), and fourth in NFL Draft picks (70). Will that continue with Oklahoma and Texas joining the list?

Baker Mayfield

(Getty Images)

7. Oklahoma 

Total score: 57.5

Last year:

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Lowdown: Oklahoma reached the College Football Playoff four times under Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley, but they were 0-4 in those semifinals and lost those games by an average of 18 points per game. The Sooners were 10-3 in their final season in the Big 12, and the move to the SEC is going to be intriguing. This is a blue-blooded program with a track record that is better than Texas in the CFP era. Yet the last two seasons have been up and down. The Sooners produced 51 NFL Draft picks in the CFP era, and that included a pair of Heisman Trophy winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. That number should increase in the SEC.

8. Notre Dame 

Total score: 48.5 

Last year:

Lowdown: The Irish stay in the same spot as the last season – and there is a drop-off in points moving down the list. Notre Dame made two CFP appearances and compiled the seventh-best winning percentage in the FBS at .742 in this era. The Irish have built on this decade with 40 wins since 2020 – one of only six programs to do that. The Irish are tied for third in Consensus All-Americans (11) and 10th in NFL Draft picks (40). Marcus Freeman is 19-7 the last two seasons. The Irish will remain independent in the 12-team CFP era. With success like this, that model is sustainable in the future. 

9. Washington 

Total score: 31.5 

Last year: N/R 

Lowdown: Washington finishes as the top-ranked program from the now-defunct Pac-12. The Huskies made two CFP appearances and broke through to the CFP championship game last season – part of an impressive two-year run under DeBoer before he took the Alabama job. Washington (87-38) was slightly behind Oregon (90-38) in winning percentage, and the programs are near-mirror images as they transition to the Big Ten in 2024. The Huskies produced 44 NFL Draft picks, which accounts for the small difference in points between the two programs. 

Bo Nix Oregon

Getty Images

10. Oregon 

Total score: 29.5

Last year: 9

Lowdown: The Ducks had the 11th best-winning percentage at (.703), which was tied with Wisconsin – who did not make the list this season. Oregon made four New Year’s Day Six appearances with three different coaches, and that included last year’s 45-6 victory against Liberty in the Fiesta Bowl. Most of Oregon’s points were generated from the 2014 season, where Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota led the Ducks to the CFP championship game. Dan Lanning will have the program in position for playoff runs in their new surroundings in the Big Ten, but will the program break through for its first national championship? 

11. Penn State

Total score: 22

Last year: 12 

Lowdown: Penn State is the best program in the FBS that did not make the College Football Playoff – an inglorious label that will change in the 12-team College Football Playoff. James Franklin led the Nittany Lions to five New Year’s Day Six appearances – which would be playoff spots in the new format. The Nittany Lions have produced 54 NFL Draft picks – eighth-most among FBS programs, and they rank 13th in winning percentage at .693. The struggles against Ohio State and Michigan – the Nittany Lions were 4-16 against those teams in the CFP era – were an issue. The addition of Washington and Oregon to the Big Ten will be a challenge, too. 

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12. Florida State 

Total score: 18.5

Last year: N/R 

Lowdown: This total would be higher if not for last year’s CFP snub. The Seminoles edged Texas by one point for the final spot on this list. Florida State made one College Football Playoff appearance in 2014 – one year after winning the final national championship of the BCS era. The Seminoles have produced six consensus All-Americans and 42 NFL Draft picks. Florida State made four New Year’s Day Six appearances and finished 1-3 in those games. Mike Norvell led Florida State to a 13-1 record last season and has this program ready to make an impact in the 12-team era – no matter what happens with the ACC in the future.

Total scoring 

How those programs scored using our point system: 

SCHOOL NC (10) NC APP (5) PLAYOFF (5) WIN% (16-1) NY6 (2) AAs (16-1) NFL (16-1) HEISMAN (1) TOTAL
Alabama 30 30 40 16 18 16 16 3 169
Clemson 20 20 30 14 14 9 10 0 117
Ohio State 10 10 25 15 20 15 15 0 110
Georgia 20 15 15 13 14 11 14 0 102
Michigan 10 5 15 11 10 11 12 0 74
LSU 10 5 5 6 4 13.5 13 2 58.5
Oklahoma 0 0 20 12 12 3.5 8 2 57.5
Notre Dame 0 0 10 10 8 13.5 7 0 48.5
Washington 0 5 10 4 8 0 4.5 0 31.5
Oregon 0 5 5 6 8 3.5 1 1 29.5
Penn State 0 0 0 3 10 0 9 0 22
Florida State 0 0 5 0 8 3.5 2 0 18.5
Texas 0 0 5 0 4 7.5 1 0 17.5
Florida 0 0 0 0 6 0 11 0 17
Wisconsin 0 0 0 6 6 3.5 0 0 15.5
Iowa 0 0 0 2 2 11 0 0 15
TCU 0 5 5 0 2 0 0 0 12
Utah 0 0 0 0 4 7.5 0 0 11.5
USC 0 0 0 0 6 0 4.5 1 11.5
Boise State 0 0 0 9 2 0 0 0 11
Michigan State 0 0 5 0 6 0 0 0 11
Cincinnati 0 0 5 0 4 0 0 0 9
Texas A&M 0 0 0 0 2 6 1 0 9
Appalachian State 0 0 0 8 0 0 0 0 8
Miami, Fla. 0 0 0 0 2 0 6 0 8
Ole Miss 0 0 0 0 8 0 0 0 8
Auburn 0 0 0 0 4 0 3 0 7
Baylor 0 0 0 0 6 0.5 0 0 6.5
Oklahoma State 0 0 0 1 4 0 0 0 5
UCF 0 0 0 0 4 0 0 0 4
Pitt 0 0 0 0 2 0.5 0 0 2.5
Memphis 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Arizona 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Georgia Tech 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Mississippi State 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
TCU 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Houston 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Stanford 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Western Michigan 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Virginia 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Iowa State 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
North Carolina 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Tulane 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Kansas State 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Tennessee 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Liberty 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Missouri 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2
Louisville 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1

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