A Playoff Fix

The College Football Playoff Rankings made its debut in the 2014 season. The purpose of the playoff was two fold: 1) to expand the number of title worthy teams eligible for the national championship; and 2) to increase interest in college football.

As to the latter goal, the Playoff system has been an unqualified success. The national media and fan websites have been abuzz with the College Football Playoff rankings since they made their debut in October, and the fans of six schools sat anxiously awaiting their fate on a Sunday morning in early December, when the sporting world would otherwise have been settling in for NFL playoff races.

As to the former goal, the playoffs are receiving mixed reviews. Having four teams compete for the title is certainly a step up from the BCS model of two teams, but the result will leave fans across the nation screaming about how their team was unjustly left out of the process.

This weekend, numerous conference championships were conducted, with the Playoff Committee likely hoping that the teams would sort things out for themselves. Instead, all six of the top contenders won, leaving the Committee to publicly declare which of their children they liked more than the others.

The six contenders consisted of two front-runners – Alabama and Oregon – which knew they would be in the playoffs if they won, and four other teams – TCU, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor – vying for the other two spots.

No. 1 Alabama took care of business with a 42-13 win over No. 16 Missouri, while No. 2 Oregon dispatched No. 7 Arizona, 51-13.

The other four teams also won, leaving the Playoff Committee to work through the following resumes:

– No. 3 TCU – The Horned Frogs dominated hapless Iowa State, 55-3, to close out an 11-1 campaign. With the Big 12 not conducting a championship game, TCU was forced to share the Big 12 title with No. 6 Baylor. The upside for TCU was that the Horned Frogs had posted four wins over ranked teams, and had also taken out a tough Minnesota team in non-conference play. The downside for TCU was that its one loss came against rival Baylor, in a 61-58 shootout in which the Horned Frogs lost a 21-point fourth quarter lead.

– No. 4 Florida State – Only in America could a defending national champion, with the only perfect record in college football, be nervous about hearing its name being called for a four team playoff. The Seminoles ran through their 2014 schedule 13-0, and were fresh off of a 14-0 national title run in 2013. Counting the last two games of the 2012 season, both victories, Florida State is on a 29-game winning streak. The downside? The Seminoles didn’t look very pretty in many of their wins. Seven of their 13 victories in 2014 were by a touchdown or less, including the last four (30-26 over Miami; 20-17 over Boston College; 24-19 over Florida; and 37-35 over No. 11 Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game). Still, keeping out the only undefeated team, a conference champion, and a defending national champion, seemed like a ludicrous concept.

– No. 5 Ohio State – The Buckeyes were supposed to do the Committee’s work for them. Down to their third-string quarterback, Ohio State was supposed to lose to No. 13 Wisconsin, making the Playoff Committee’s final choice come down to one between TCU and Baylor. Instead, the Buckeyes not only defeated the Badgers, they mauled them, 59-0. “I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re one of the top four teams in America,” said Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. The downside? Ohio State’s one loss, back in September, came against Virginia Tech. Yes, the Buckeyes were breaking in quarterback No. 2 at the time, freshman J.T. Barrett, but it was a 35-21 loss, at home, to a team which finished the season 6-6 (with the Hokies needing to eek out a 24-20 over Virginia to become bowl-eligible, a week after going through regulation 0-0 with Wake Forest, before losing, 6-3, in double overtime).

– No. 6 Baylor – The Bears closed out their season with a 38-27 win over No. 9 Kansas State, earning a share of the Big 12 championship. The ironic catchphrase of the Big 12, the only Power-Five Conference without a title game, is “One true champion”. The idea was that, since the Big 12 is the only conference where every team plays every other team, “One true champion” would emerge. Baylor did defeat its co-champion, TCU, but that in and of itself was not enough to have the Bears declared the Big 12’s titleist. Baylor lost to West Virginia, 41-27, in October, preventing the Bears from being undisputed champions of their conference. “There’s one true champion and it’s the Baylor Bears,” Briles screamed to the celebratory crowd after the victory over Kansas State. Well, not so much.

So, the College Football Playoff Committee had six teams to choose from, with four slots to fill.

In the end, Ohio State jumped over TCU to earn the final playoff spot, coming in at No. 4, with Alabama, Oregon, and Florida State earning the top three spots.

Could there be a better system?

Let’s not go back to the BCS

There is no way to close Pandora’s box once it has been opened. College football will never regress in the number of teams who will play for a title – there is simply too much money to be made from a playoff system. On top of that, look what we would have been left with had the BCS been in place in 2014.

Alabama and Oregon were the clear No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the eyes of the Committee for much of November, and would have been clear favorites for the title game.

But, as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friends”.

Alabama and Oregon have been No. 1 and No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings, but, in the Associated Press poll (you remember the AP poll, the one which has been used to crown champions for almost 80 years?), Alabama and Florida State are the top two teams. In the last poll before the title games, Alabama was No. 1, with 1,426 points (and 25 first place votes), Florida State was No. 2, just behind the Crimson Tide with 1,423 votes (and 29 first-place votes), with Oregon in at No. 3, with 1,391 points (and only five first-place votes).

Had the old system been in place, the college football championship game would have been just as controversial, but not for the same reasons.

Expand the Playoff to include eight or even 16 teams

Some see this as the wave of the future, with more teams – and more money – involved than ever before. The “we can’t keep the students out of the classroom for extra games” argument is so absurd that it has become irrelevant (did you know that the FCS playoffs include 24 teams, with the top eight teams getting byes in the first round?).

The problem I have with expanding to eight or more teams is that, for the first time, there really would be a dilution of the regular season. Would Oregon have been so intent on beating – and beating up on – Arizona, if the Ducks were already assured of a playoff spot? Would Florida State fans been on the edge of their seats in the final moments of the game against Missouri, content in the knowledge that their team, even with a loss, would still have a playoff run ahead?

An example from here in Bozeman. A few weeks back, the Montana/Montana State game was played. The “Brawl of the Wild” is as intense as any other in-state rivalry, and the game was played between two of the top teams in the Big Sky Conference. That being said, the game between the 8-3 Bobcats and the 7-4 Grizzlies did not have quite the sense of urgency it might have had if only the winner was destined for the FCS playoffs. With a 24-team playoff, the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the Big Sky were all but assured playoff berths, so the game was quite as life-or-death as it might otherwise have been.

The conference title games should be – as they were this past weekend – battles for playoff spots. Expanding the playoffs to eight or 16 teams would take away from the excitement of these regular season ending games.

So, what is the solution?

Let’s go with a six-team playoff.

And not just because there happened to be exactly six teams this year with fewer than two losses this fall.

A six team playoff, with the top two teams vying for a bye the first weekend of playoff action, would give fans two levels of discourse. At the top level, there would be the argument between the No. 2 and No. 3 teams as to which would deserve the bye. Florida State and Oregon fans would be at it in full voice today, arguing that there team should have a two-game path to the title, instead of three. The desire – the need – to earn a bye would keep the top teams interested in their seasons, all the way to the conference championship games.

The debate as to which teams deserves the No. 5 and No. 6 spots would also be interesting. This season, it would be more clear cut as there are exactly six teams which have fewer than two losses. Seeding, though, would still be at issue, with the placement of TCU and Baylor still up for conversation.

Had a six team playoff been in place in 2013, the top two teams, Florida State and Auburn, were fairly clear cut, and those two would have earned byes. The next group, however, would have been interesting. With a four team playoff, the discussion would have been whether No. 5 Stanford, victor over Oregon in the Pac-12 title game (but with two losses), deserved to be in the playoffs over No. 7 Ohio State, which was undefeated before falling to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game.

In 2012, there would have been controversy as to whether 12-1 Alabama deserved the second bye (after undefeated Notre Dame), over 11-1 Oregon or 12-1 Kansas State, with a pair of 11-2 teams, Stanford and Georgia, arguing for the final playoff spot.

Controversy is good for collegiate athletics – at least the good kinds of controversy. With controversy, there is discussion. With discussion, there is passion. With passion, there is increased interest. With increased interest comes increased money … and money is the bottom line for this multi-billion industry.

Four teams is certainly an improvement over the two team BCS which was in place before, with the BCS an improvement over the bowl system and polls of year’s past.

The College Football playoffs will likely – sometime in the next decade – expand. There is just too much money to be made not to make that money grab in the not too distant future.

Here’s hoping that the collegiate powers that be see that an eight- or sixteen-team playoff will dilute the “every game counts” sport we love, and settle on six as the magic number.


4 Replies to “A Playoff Fix”

  1. Stuart, I couldn’t care less what the Big 12 does. It’s history.

    However….. in a playoff system, if the Div. II can do it why can’t the Div. 1 ?

    I say take the Big 5 champions (Big 12 to figure out it’s own champion) and the next 3 highest rated teams by computer, coaches poll, writer’s poll or however it is a consensus to be determined, and let the Bowl system be an initial part of the playoffs.

    Problem solved.

  2. I agree with the 8 team format with power 5 conference champs getting automatic bids, and then 3 wild card teams.

    My main reason is to see teams stop playing “cupcake games” (Oregon playing South Dakota, Alabama playing Western Carolina etc.). Right now few teams will play tough non-conference games because a single early season loss means “your season is in ruins and you have a HUGE hole to climb out of”. I want to see a team lose 2 or 3 non-conference games, yet win their own conference and get in to the play-offs with a 9-3 record. Everyone accepts a pro team losing 4 or 5 games and still being worthy for the play-offs.

    I want to see CU play Georgia again. I want to see Florida play in the Pacific Time Zone. I want to see PAC-12 and SEC teams play each other often.

    No more “cupcakes”!

  3. CSU might want to pick up a public affairs team to politic for a Big 12 slot now that the Big 12 will be looking for a conference championship game after their shutout from the first playoff.

  4. Personally I like the 8 team format with the confernece champions of the power 5 getting automatic bids and 3 at large bids. That lets the other conference champions compete for an at large bid and some deserving number two’s from the power conferences.

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