Ideal Playoff System Includes Eight
By Joe Coughlin
Is a step in the right direction positive if an inevitable goal still is yards away?
Bowl Championship Series officials seem to think so, making the College Football Playoff the new climax of the FBS season. Starting next season, four teams, chosen by a panel of experts, will enter a mini bracket and fight for a national championship.
A year ago, those four teams (based on the panel that votes on the AP poll) may have been Notre Dame, Alabama, Georgia and Florida (since 12-0 Ohio State was ineligible).
A playoff system of any kind is an improvement over a flawed BCS template that over-weighted strength of schedule and margin of victory. That being said, the BCS wasn’t awful. It surely was better than the old system and in many instances wasn't wrong. But that’s not the point. Teams from two conferences on opposite ends of the country that play to an equal record against non-similar opponents are too hard to judge or rank. So, why try? Why not have the teams decide it for themselves on the field?
Instead pundits across the nation play the transitive property game with mutual opponents — something like: “Florida beat Tennessee, which beat LSU, so Florida must be superior to LSU.” Fortunately for the sports fan, college football rarely is that simple and doesn’t deserve to be treated like it is.
Therefore, the men in pads — not the ones in ties — should decide the final rankings by proving said ranking on the turf. A playoff of any kind does that.
But (you knew that was coming), four teams are not enough. The line of supremacy is far too blurred atop college football's rankings and it varies vastly from year to year. There can be 10 teams less than three losses one year, and only two the next.
There is so much talent in college football that the playoff could probably extend into the dozens, but that’s crazy. We know No. 20 is not better than No. 1. I trust the men in ties to figure that out at least. So we narrow and narrow until we get to a point where fairness and drama merge. Once we get to the Top 10, we start to see that happen nearly every year.
Eight is an ideal number for the College Football Playoff and I think every decision-maker in the room knows it. Of course, there’s money tied up in all this — bags and bushels and briefcases of money. And while that’s a piece for another day, it’s the primary reason bowl-game change is harder to come by than decent pizza in the Southeast.
So, starting next season, we will see four teams throw down in an exciting two-week playoff that will cap the postseason. Six bowls will rotate hosting the four games for 12 seasons, until 2025 unless a contract is severed.
This got me thinking, who’s going to be on the outside looking in? Last year, if the AP voters ran the College Football Playoff, it would have been 11-1 Oregon. That is strange because the Ducks ended up ranked No. 2 by the AP after a bowl win. Kansas State also would have been feeling blue with one loss going into the postseason, while Georgia sat at No. 3 with two losses.
These comparisons are going to happen on a yearly basis, and if we look back at the final BCS rankings (completed prior to the postseason) we can see a trend at Nos. 4-8. There’s rarely an obvious difference.
In 2010, Wisconsin and Ohio State were at 5 and 6, respectively, with one loss apiece while Stanford was at No. 4, also with one loss.
It was a free-for-all in 2008, when teams 1-9 had one or no losses apiece to finish the regular season. Zero-loss teams Boise State and Utah didn’t figure in the championship bout. And while Oklahoma and Florida squared off, fellow one-loss teams Texas, USC, Texas Tech and Penn State were wondering where they went wrong. That year, Texas beat Oklahoma in the regular season, but lost to Texas Tech, which lost to Oklahoma. (Alabama also had one loss, but fell to Florida in the SEC title game, sealing their own fate.)
It’s more of the same confusion in 2001 when two-loss Colorado snuck in at No. 4 to the chagrin of two-loss Florida, Tennessee and Texas. Illinois, which lacked a quality win, had just one loss in the No. 8 hole.
Now, a computer selected these finals and you can argue a human being will have more sense. But truth is, there is no sense to be had. There’s no indisputable way to assess two teams’ talents that haven’t played on the same field. You have to let them slug it out.
It is worth noting that teams that have finished 5-8 in the BCS rankings are all over the U.S. map. The only trend seems to be the alarming ratio of Big Ten schools in the top four to the second four. From 1998-2012, that ratio was 4:10. SEC’s was 15:11, while Boise State’s was 0:3.
The Big Ten doesn’t get much love from anybody and under the new system, if a Big Ten program doesn’t finish undefeated there is little chance it gets in that top four. Secondary teams from the SEC, Big 12 and even Pac-12 will edge that team out almost every time.
At ‘Bama, a loss can be overcome, as we’ve seen each of the last two seasons, but not at Ohio State. The strength of schedule just isn’t there.
So, while we learn to love or love to hate the new College Football Playoff, take notice of unlucky No. 5, the team that doesn’t quite get there and doesn’t have the power of its league counterparts to lean on to leap back into contention.
If you’re a fan of the ACC, Big Ten or Boise State, I’m talking to you. Get your arguments ready because just like the old system and the BCS, the four-team College Football Playoff isn’t built to last.
Eight teams is an acceptable option (though I'd love to see 16 someday). Five conference champions get automatic bids (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12), then include champs from the Mountain West, the American, the MAC, Conference USA and the Sun Belt if they meet some sort of attainable criteria. Whatever spots are not filled by champions from those leagues would go to at-large selections. That's why 16 would be ideal. You take the champions of those 10 leagues and extend six at-large berths. Then you can incorporate more of the existing bowls as sites for early round playoffs. Everybody wins. It's a case I've been arguing for nearly 20 years.