This weekend, we finally got to the end of a weird, wild college football regular season. Along with that comes the selection of the four teams who will compete in the College Football Playoff, and yet again the blue bloods ruled the day. Alabama grabbed the top spot, fresh off of the great SEC season in the sport’s history, by getting their 11th SEC win of the year over Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Clemson was slotted in as the two-seed after avenging their earlier loss to Notre Dame, who ended up with the fourth spot (more on that in a second). Ohio State rounded out the playoff as the three-seed, defeating Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game and capping off an undefeated, albeit unimpressive, shortened regular season rife with controversy as the Big Ten did everything in their power to get the Buckeyes into the playoff.
Left out in the cold were undefeated, AAC champion Cincinnati and Texas A&M, who hasn’t lost a game since Alabama throttled them way back in the first weekend of October. Coastal Carolina also finished the year as undefeated Sun Belt champions, but they never had a shot to begin with; and that’s the problem, isn’t it?
As much as the Bowl Championship Series was a members-only club, the CFP isn’t any better, really. The selection committee can’t get their story straight on what the criteria is for selection. One year conference titles are important, the next the record is more important, and the next year after that good losses carry more weight than good wins. But, to anyone with half a brain, it’s clear that one thing holds more weight than anything else: who gets the ratings? As much as people like to bitch about the CFP being a rotation of the same 5 or 6 teams, the numbers don’t lie.
But, that doesn’t change the fact that the CFP is extremely unfair to teams who aren’t in a major conference. Sure, outsiders get their shot at a big boy in NY6 bowl, but that doesn’t mean much in this “playoff or bust” climate, does it? If you’ve read this column before, you know I love a chance to play around with hypotheticals. As such, I did some thinking and tinkering around, and came up with a number of alternatives to what we have now, presented in no particular order.
#1 – Same system, but expand to 8 teams
This is the most popular option, it seems, as anyone with a pulpit or social media account calls for the CFP to expand to eight teams. My question: would it be any different? We all saw Cincy’s freefall down the rankings the latter half of the season, despite staying unbeaten. Who’s to say the committee still won’t favor P5 teams over unbeaten mid-majors? In this year’s final rankings, the Bearcats finished 8th, one spot ahead of Georgia. You really think the committee wouldn’t be tempted to slide Georgia in because their only losses were to Alabama and Florida? If you do, you haven’t been paying attention. Even with an expansion, G5 teams would still need perfect seasons to get consideration, while 2 and 3-loss P5 teams would have no problem finding a spot with the committee finding some justification. All of this is why I’m against a straight-up expansion of the current model.
#2 – 16 teams, automatic bids for all conference winners and 6 at-large bids
In another lifetime, this was my preferred postseason. I wrote a hypothetical for this scenario in college, even being contacted by someone who allegedly wanted to put it in a book. No idea if anything ever came of that. Anyway, I finished school in 2006, and the college football landscape is immensely different than it was back then. The gap between the big boys and the smaller schools is just too wide now, and as much as people would love to see a 16-seed MAC champion upset a top seed champ from the SEC or Big Ten, it just ain’t happening. Had this system been implemented in the early/mid 2000s, there’s a chance the influx of money to the smaller conferences would’ve helped them keep pace to a degree, and the model could’ve worked. But, alas, this model just wouldn’t work today.
#3 – 6 teams, auto bids for P5 champs and 1 at-large
I’m sure you’ve seen this proposal before, and lemme tell you it stinks. Sure, every now and then we’d actually get the best 6 teams in the country, but more times than not we’d get one or two lame duck conference champs with 3-4 losses while a couple of much better teams sit on the outside. Hard no.
#4 – 6 teams, auto bids for P5 champs, last spot goes to highest ranked G5 conference champ
I have the same problems as the model above: too many times a more deserving team would get left out because they didn’t win their conference. While I’m all for placing more importance on winning your conference, this ain’t the way.
#5 – 6 teams, auto bids for P5 champs, last spot goes to winner of G5 conference champs tourney
This is where things get funky. In this model, the P5 champs would all get their bids, and between the conference title games and the CFP, the winners of the Mountain West, Sun Belt, American Athletic, Mid-American and Conference USA would hold a quick tournament to decide the last participant in the CFP. You could use the CFP rankings to seed this tourney, with the top seed playing the winner of a 4/5 matchup, and that winner playing the winner of the 2/3 matchup.
This model is certainly exciting, but is it too much? That’s two, or three if you’re a 4/5 seed, extra games during the finals/holiday season. Also, yet again we could leave out a non-conference winner who is more deserving than a mediocre conference winner.
#6 – 8 teams, 5 auto bids for rotating conference winners, 3 at-large bids
Rotating conference winners? Whatever do you mean, sir?
In this model, we nod to European soccer’s biggest competition: the UEFA Champions League. UEFA developed a coefficient to determine the number of bids each country receives, which factors in the results from European competitions of the previous five seasons. Basically, this means if a country’s representatives do well enough, they can in turn earn more bids for their country.
The CFP could come up with something similar, drawing on previous results to decide before each season which conferences will receive automatic bids. While kingpins like the SEC and Big Ten would likely never miss out, one team leagues like the ACC or Big 12, and inconsistent leagues like the PAC 12 could legitimately lose their bid to the Mountain West or AAC, should teams in those conferences put together a solid run of seasons.
The major problems here are that this might be too soccery for Americans to swallow, and the P5 conferences would likely never go for it, as they wouldn’t want to risk missing out (even tho it’s likely that should they lose their auto-bid, their champ would almost certainly receive an at-large bid).
#7 – 8 teams, no automatic bids, but rework Division 1
Look, 130 teams is just too many for the top division in college football, period. The resources of the power conference teams ridiculously outweigh those of their smaller counterparts, and without those bigger schools relinquishing some power and money – which they have no reason to do – the gap will only widen as time passes.
So, why not do the sensible thing and rework the NCAA division classifications? The last time this was done was in 1978, when Division 1 was split into 1A and 1AA (the move to FBS and FCS in 2006 was merely a rebranding and brought forth no actual change), and it worked for a couple of decades. Why not work up some new guidelines, and truly create a top level of college football? I don’t know what the number should be, nor do I get paid to do that research, but the NCAA absolutely has the resources to do this. In fact, it might be the only way to ensure that the major conferences just don’t break apart and form their own league.
The P5 conferences have 64 teams, but are all of them truly worthy of top division status? We know that there are mid-major programs like Cincinnati, Boise State and BYU to name a few, worthy of inclusion; and there are even a few smaller schools that could probably make the cut like Coastal Carolina or Appalachian State.
This is probably my preferred model, as it actually addresses problems beyond the CFP. As always, the question is if the big boys would be willing to play ball (The answer to that question is always no, unfortunately).
#8 – Create a 64-team Division 1, use either a 4-team or 8-team playoff
You might’ve seen this one floating around the internet, and the general idea is to take 64 teams, put them into four, 16-team conferences and go from there. While it could be interesting, there’s no way the P5 conferences would go for it. The real reason would be money, as always, but they would cry and bitch about “tradition” and how they have to preserve it.
This model does leave a lot of room for playing around, however. You could have an 8-team playoff, selected by CFP committee. You could have an 8-team playoff with four automatic bids for the conference winners, and four at large bids. You could get real quirky and have a pseudo 16-team playoff, with each conference putting their top four teams into semis and a conference title game, and the winners of the four conferences comprising the 4-team CFP.
Some 64-team models I’ve seen even call for a promotion/relegation system to keep the 64 teams fresh, but, again, there’s no way schools already in a top conference would ever risk their standing. Plus, I don’t think promotion/relegation is good for college athletics (In professional leagues I am 100% for it, as it kills tanking and gives us reason to watch all of the games besides fantasy sports).
#9 – The SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and PAC 12 break away and form their own league
This is the least desirable model, but also the one we seem to be on a collision course with. Doing this, the conferences could use a six or eight team playoff model, with whatever qualifying metrics they desire. While you could argue, from a financial standpoint, that this is the most reasonable way forward, there are just too many good mid-major programs left out in the cold.
Whatever way the powers that be choose, we’re likely to see some sort of change once the current CFP contract runs out in 2026. I wouldn’t hold my breath for any radical changes, though.
How about a slight tweak to #6: 8-team playoff with 6 automatic bids (each Power 5 conference champion + highest ranked Group of 5) and 2 at large or highest ranked of remaining teams….the 2020 example would be Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon (controversial I know but this year is a fluke), Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Texas A&M. The extra game created by having a Quarterfinal round could easily be accommodated by starting the regular season one week early, or by eliminating one of the non-conference ridiculously lopsided matchup that nobody cares about.
I like it, but the biggest con plays out this year with Oregon. It wouldn’t happen every year, but there’d definitely be years where a 3/4-loss conf champ getting in screws someone better over. As much as I want the conf champ games to matter more, I kinda hate that idea. I also think part of the problem, perception wise, is that the CFP’s first decade has coincided with the ACC and Big 12 becoming one-team leagues (and the Big Ten, too, to be fair), and sending the same reps every season. That will work itself out over time, of course.
I really do think 8 is a good number, paired with the slimming down of division one. Or hell, screw it, give everyone a bid, make a 12-team playoff with two at-larges.
One thing I forgot to mention is that this kind of playoff format is also meant to make the most people ok with it, kinda like a Goldilocks deal: 1) the greedy Power 5 bosses come to the table since they’ll get theirs each year 2) the Group of 5 get a chance each year to send their David to take on the Goliaths 3) in case of conference champ anomalies you get two bonus selections to make up for it – see Notre Dame/Texas A&M and 4) it only adds one week to the season for those worried about student athletes. I’m glad the discussions are happening, although a bit frustrating to see a lot of people being short-sighted thinking Alabama/Clemson are going to dominate forever so why bother with playoff expansion. Appreciate the dialog man, hopefully we’ll see some changes very soon!!
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