December 12, 2015
Nick Elam

On the Scale of Self-Assuredness (where 0 = Just Spitballin’ and 10 = I’ve Got It!), writer rates this idea as a 5.

For generations, FBS college football insiders and fans have debated the best way to determine a national champion. At least three factors have always made this effort especially challenging:

  • College football, when compared to any major North American professional sport, includes a lot of teams (128 FBS teams in 2015)
  • College sports seasons are significantly shorter than professional sports seasons (in college football, a national champion is named a mere four months after the season begins)
  • Football is an especially rigorous sport, meaning games must be played relatively infrequently (about once per week)

Many teams to compare, with little time and few games to compare them – yep, it can be especially tricky to identify the teams worthy of college football’s postseason. But even with all of these regular season limitations in mind, college football compounds its national champion determination challenge by making its playoff especially exclusive.

Consider how other sports guard against the limitations of their regular season with a more inclusive postseason:

  • NBA: 16 playoff qualifiers out of 30 total teams (53.3%)
  • NFL: 12 of 32 (37.5%)
  • MLB: 10 of 30 (33.3%)
  • NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball: 68 of 351 (19.4%)

I happen to believe each of the above professional sports’ playoffs are flakily inclusive. Even so, the College Football Playoff (4 of 128; 3.1%) seems flakily exclusive – especially when the selection of included teams comes down to, well, guesswork.

Many defenders of an exclusive playoff (the current four-team playoff, or the previous two-team “playoff” used under the Bowl Championship Series system) insist that it enhances the meaningfulness of regular season games. I’ve always found this to be an extremely flimsy, if not contradictory, argument:

  • Are we sure that an exclusive playoff system makes regular season games more meaningful? If a game can only be meaningful if it affects a team’s chances of winning a national championship (I don’t buy this claim, but many do), then one can easily argue that every remaining game is meaningless after any team loses twice in a season, and that every remaining game is meaningless for many teams after they lose just once in a season. In some cases, we’ve seen a team finish a season undefeated without having a chance to play for a national championship. One could easily argue that such a team’s entire season was meaningless! To look at it differently, if you believe a game can only be meaningful if a loss erases a team’s chances of a national championship (I don’t buy that claim either, but many do), we’ve seen plenty of teams win a national championship or play for a national championship even after losing one game (and even under exclusive playoff formats). So, um, I guess the game they lost wasn’t meaningful, after all?
  • Are we sure that meaningless games are such a bad thing? College football – more than any other sport – celebrates meaningless games, and will resume that annual tradition during the upcoming bowl season. No true college football should claim he or she can only enjoy games where a participant’s national championship hopes are on the line.

With no concern that a more-inclusive playoff system would diminish the meaningfulness of regular season games, college football absolutely should expand its playoffs as a hedge against the limitations of its regular season. A 16-team playoff would be an improvement over the current four-team playoff (the concerns commonly associated with such a format are overstated or flat-out inaccurate: with only 12.5% of teams qualifying, this format would still be relatively exclusive; this format would not prolong the season, as most of the playoffs would be played during the currently-dormant weeks of December; and many other levels of college football already use this format), as would a less-conventional format where only the playoff qualifying criteria is pre-determined (rather than the number of playoff qualifiers) and where the number of playoff qualifiers fluctuates slightly from year to year (in the spirit of a format I propose here).

But if college football insiders and fans would consider those formats too radical, I believe the regular season and playoffs could be improved – and much of the Committee guesswork eliminated – by adopting a six-team playoff. The playoff would include the champion of each of the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC – each of which can employ its own preferred method of determining a champion – with/without a conference championship game, etc.) and one team, selected by the Committee, not in a Power 5 conference.

The Committee would rank the playoff teams 1-6, but would not set the match-ups (another improvement over the current format that calls for the Committee to not only choose all of the participants, but also inexplicably calls for the Committee to set the semifinal match-ups – rather than let the #1-ranked team choose the match-ups themselves). Instead, those rankings would represent a “draft” order (in the spirit of a choose-your-own-adventure format I propose here). The #1-ranked playoff team would choose its first round opponent or opt for a first-round bye, then the #2-ranked playoff team would choose its first round opponent or opt for a first-round bye, and then the #3-ranked playoff team would choose its first-round fate from a shorter list of options (which might or might not include possible potential opponents, and might or might not include a possible first-round bye). Then, the #1-ranked team would select its potential semifinal opponent, and the rest of the bracket would automatically fall into place.

Such a format would have included the following teams in recent years, shown in their drafting order (based on Playoff rankings or BCS rankings):

Michigan State
Notre Dame

Florida State
Ohio State
Boise State

Florida State
Michigan State
Central Florida

To clarify, I don’t necessarily believe that six is the magic number of qualifiers, but I like the idea of including the champion of every power conference, plus the most worthy team not in a power conference (I would also recommend a clause that any undefeated team is automatically included in the playoff, even if the number of total playoff qualifiers must be increased in a given year). So, if one of the power conferences were to dissolve, I would favor a five-team playoff; if a new power conference is introduced, I would favor a seven-team playoff; etc. For instance, if this format were in place during the last year the Big East was still considered a power conference, the playoffs would have included:

Notre Dame
Kansas State
Florida State

Of course, a playoff system so closely tied to conference championships would significantly change our view of non-conference games – probably for the better. Independent teams (Army, BYU, and Notre Dame) would probably need to join a conference (not necessarily a bad thing), one or more of each team’s non-conference games would probably be replaced with the corresponding number of conference games (not necessarily a bad thing), and the reduced risk of a non-conference loss would probably lead to bolder non-conference scheduling by teams (definitely not a bad thing!).