For the sake of eliminating subjectivity, the College Football Playoff needs to expand. Since the beginning of College Football, final season results are dependent on opinions and computer models. Are these rankings based on merit? Absolutely. That doesn’t change the fact that each season there is a certain level of debate and controversy regarding the teams who get a chance to win a national championship, or in recent years participate in the four-team playoff.
Introducing a four-team playoff was a great first step in consistently ensuring a championship game of the two best teams in the country. In 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff, the #4 Seed Ohio State defeated #1 Alabama to face #2 Oregon who defeated #3 Florida State. It was reported that under the former BCS system, the National Championship game would have pitted Alabama against Florida State. As much as college football fans would have loved to watch a battle of the Crimson Tide against the Jameis Winston-led Seminoles, we got the championship game determined by merit.
The unfolding of these events in the inaugural College Football Playoff validated the decision to introduce this system. In 2015, the #1 and #2 seeds (Alabama and Clemson) won their respective semifinal games. The results of the semifinal games left virtually zero debate over who were the nation’s top two teams that should be going head to head in the National Championship Game. One could argue the semifinal games were not necessary because the teams considered to be the better teams won, and in convincing fashion. However, the results eradicated any belief that Michigan State or Oklahoma, the #3 and #4 teams should be in the title game.
Every few years there is some degree of controversy over the team getting left out, who played a tougher schedule, what conference is more competitive and which victories were the most impressive. Sure, it gives fans, writers, analysts and prognosticators something to talk about throughout the season. But it still means that subjective opinions are determining the fate of a few programs each season.
Under the current system of five “Power 5” conferences and four playoff spots, it is a guarantee that one of these conference champions will not have a spot in the playoff. In 2014, the Big 12 was left out in the cold as Baylor and TCU finished 5th and 6th respectively with 11-1 records. The popular explanation is that the Big 12 hurts itself by being the only P5 conference not to play a conference championship game. As valid as that may be, both schools were punished despite stellar seasons and neither had the opportunity to participate in the playoff.
There is not much use in reopening a debate from two years ago about who did and did not deserve to be in the Playoff. But, those events along with how this season is unfolding gives credence to the idea that the College Football Playoff needs to expand to eight teams and also follow a more objective process.
To start, every Power 5 Champion should have a seat at the table. No questions asked. That condition immediately requires for the playoff field to expand. Secondly, there are a always a few fringe teams that do not win their conference. This season is a perfect example. Look at the Big 10 East Division. Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are all playoff-worthy teams, especially if there are eight total spots. Staying in the Big 10, but looking in the West Division at Wisconsin and where they currently sit, would certainly be part of the conversation as well.
Now let’s consider the Group of 5, or more bluntly the “lesser half” of college football. We all know that the Group of 5 encompasses the programs with less history, resources and talent than those schools in the Power 5. Naturally, a Group of 5 team qualifying for the current College Football Playoff is nearly impossible. Houston could have made it with impressive wins against Oklahoma and Louisville, but there chances were squandered by three conference losses.
Consider Western Michigan, who will head into the MAC Championship Game with a perfect 12-0 record. Due to their underwhelming schedule, they will not sniff the Top 4. Even if the playoff expanded to a Top 8 and simply granted access to teams ranked 1-8, Western Michigan would still be on the outside looking in when the Playoff Committee releases its final rankings in December. One argument could be that Western Michigan shouldn’t deserve a spot, especially if they are not considered one of the eight best teams in the country by the committee. However, the other side could contend with “What did Western Michigan do wrong, aside from not playing a competitive enough of a schedule?”
While universities have some control over their out-of-conference schedule, when looking at an individual season, that specific team and group of players should not be punished for their school not being able to schedule more competitive opponents. A team should not be punished when they do everything they can, defeating every team on their schedule.
When Group of 5 teams have virtually perfect seasons, we never find out exactly how good those teams are. Do we get to see them against a great Power 5 team in a major bowl game? Yes. Sometimes they prevail, sometimes they flounder. But now that college football has graduated to a playoff system, teams like Western Michigan are still left out of the dance without ever finding out how that team stacks up against the other playoff participants. This needs to change.
The best Group of 5 team needs to be guaranteed a spot in the College Football Playoff. It would eliminate the mystery and ultimately give hope to each and every team at the beginning of the season, much like college basketball when every team theoretically has a shot. At the very least, even if we saw Western Michigan get blown out by Alabama, there would be a resolution to the season and a clear understanding of how the top G5 team stacked up against the best team in the country.
To recap, the proposed structure would call for an eight-team playoff granting spots to the following:
(5) Power 5 Conference Champions
(2) At-Large Teams, or the two highest ranked teams not to win their conference
(1) The highest ranked Group of 5 team
This creates an eight-team bracket where the rankings would still have a purpose for seeding the teams. Let’s take a look at how it would look this season and assume the presumed favorites win next weekend. The field would look something like this:
#1 Alabama (SEC Champ)
#2 Ohio State (At-Large)
#3 Clemson (ACC Champ)
#4 Washington (Pac 12 Champ)
#5 Michigan (At-Large)
#6 Wisconsin (Big 10 Champ)
#7 Oklahoma (Big 12 Champ)
#8 Western Michigan (Top ranked Group of 5 Team)
A bracket would then be created in a #1 vs #8, #2 vs #7, #3 vs #6 and #4 vs #5 structure. In order to keep the major bowls with their sponsors in tact, the extra games created by expanding the playoff from four to eight would occupy the appropriate bowl games and locations on a rotating basis.
An eight-team playoff bracket would mean seven games. The current “New Year’s Six” would occupy the first two rounds, with the National Championship Game being played at the end with the two teams left standing.
Taking these steps would drastically improve the College Football Playoff and the sport as a whole. Expanding to eight teams is the next, necessary move. Ideally, we will have a sixteen-team playoff someday soon. But eight needs to happen first. If we ever get to sixteen, the tremendous College Basketball model needs to be replicated.
An ideal sixteen-team playoff would include all ten conference champions and six at-large schools. This would truly give every single team hope. A system like this would do wonders for the sport, especially with the chance to narrow the gap between the Group of 5 and the Power 5. But, one step at a time. Hopefully we get to talk about who makes the “Elite 8” in the near future.
Author: Casey Gillespie
Editor in Chief, Eye off the Ball.