Monday, January 4, 2021

How to Expand the Playoff the Right Way

By Ross Lancaster

When the College Football Playoff came into existence for the 2014 season, I was an unabashed defender of it. I was tired of the politics of the BCS and wanted to see more teams invited truly compete for a national championship.

Now, as we're about to wrap up the seventh season of the CFP era in a week, it seems we have more politics than ever in selecting the top teams and a system where a handful of teams lockout at least three of the four playoff spots each year. In other words, the issues I thought would be solved in college football are now about as bad as they were before.

To be sure, Friday's semifinals had some great performances, the most notable of which came from Alabama's probable Heisman winner DeVonta Smith and Ohio State's Justin Fields. But there was a combined total of about two quarters where the outcome of either game was in doubt. And about three quarters of total suspense if you're a bettor and had money on the huge spread for the Alabama/Notre Dame game.

Any way of selecting teams has its advantages and disadvantages, but it's clear that the CFP needs changing. Knowing the conservative ethos of the sport, I'm not exactly holding my breath for big changes by this time next year, when, hopefully, we'll have gone back to every team playing 11 or 12 games before conference championships and the playoff. But there's enough groundswell for change and general boredom with the product to significantly modify the format in the relatively near future.

The most likely change is probably a doubling of the teams from four to eight, with guaranteed spots for all five Power Five champions, the best Group of Five champion, and two at-large teams. This would be a mistake.

Imagine if that format was in place this season. You'd have had Alabama against Oregon. If it was clear after a quarter that the No. 4 team wouldn't be able to compete with Alabama, the No. 25 team certainly wouldn't have solved the boredom conundrum. And then you'd have the No. 4 or 5 team still getting trucked the next week by 'Bama.

The one issue that finally gets solved in this format is that the Group of Five conferences would finally get their chance, something I fully support, knowing full well that Cincinnati might have put up the same showing Notre Dame did on Friday evening. But what if there was a way to include the Group of Five, have the teams prove their worthiness on the field instead of a hotel conference room, and ensure as much competitiveness as possible?

Here's what I'm proposing: six teams and, in principle, they're all champions: the five Power Five champs and the best Group of Five champ. But, if a Power Five champ has more than two losses, the playoff committee can choose to replace them with an at-large team. And if Notre Dame is in the top five teams (and assuming they don't join the ACC full-time), the worst Power Five champion is bumped out.

For this era, where every FBS conference plays a conference championship, this format means that almost every spot is being claimed by a team that's won their conference on the field.

And yes, I know the "out" for 3+ loss teams and Notre Dame would enter politics and committee subjectivity back in to play. But it would also protect against outlier conference championship results. Plus, having six teams instead of eight would give a bye to the top two teams and prevents a huge mismatch if the Group of Five team ends up not being undefeated.

Let's look back on recent seasons and see how this may have played out. I'll caution that I'm only going back to 2017, when the Big 12 was able to bring back a conference championship. (All records/rankings are prior to bowls.)

2017

Clemson (12-1; ACC champ), Oklahoma (12-1; Big 12 champ), Georgia (12-1, SEC champ), Ohio State (11-2; Big Ten champ), USC (11-2; Pac-12 champ), UCF (12-0; Group of Five best champ)

Changes: Ohio State, USC and UCF in; Alabama (11-1) out

In this case, the Alabama team that won the title in Atlanta that season is out of the playoff. But if we're making every team earn it on the field, we can't include a team that couldn't win its own division in the SEC.

2018

Alabama (13-0; SEC champ), Clemson (13-0; ACC champ), Notre Dame (12-0; ranked No. 3), Oklahoma (12-1; Big 12 champ), Ohio State (12-1; Big Ten champ), UCF (12-0; Group of Five best champ)

Changes: Ohio State and UCF in; Washington (10-3; Pac-12 champ, ranked No. 10) bumped for Notre Dame

The Notre Dame exception here is a pretty clean one, as they replace a 3-loss Pac-12 champ that the committee probably would have replaced with 11-2 Georgia if given the chance.

2019

LSU (13-0; SEC champ), Ohio State (13-0; Big Ten champ), Clemson (13-0; ACC champ), Oklahoma (12-1; Big 12 champ), Oregon (11-2; Pac-12 champ), Memphis (12-1; Group of Five best champ)

Changes: Oregon and Memphis in

In years where three Power Five teams go undefeated, there's some potential for some mismatches with the Group of Five team. The Tiger Bowl between Memphis and Clemson is probably a laugher, but otherwise this year is fairly uncontroversial. 11-2 Georgia is once again No. 5 in the rankings here and left out — not much different from how it played out in real life.

2020

Alabama (11-0; SEC champ), Clemson (10-1; ACC champ), Ohio State (6-0; Big Ten champ), Notre Dame (10-1; ranked No. 4), Oklahoma (8-2; Big 12 champ), Cincinnati (9-0; Group of Five best champ)

Changes: Oklahoma and Cincinnati in; Oregon (4-2; Pac-12 champ, ranked No. 25) bumped for Notre Dame

I wasn't sure how to treat Notre Dame here in the COVID season of craziness, since they were actually a member of the ACC for football in 2020. I'm assuming the committee would find a way to get the Irish in against Oklahoma and leave Oregon out (even if the Ducks technically only have two losses).

For the majority of the sport's history, top-level college football was a regional sport where winning your conference was the main prize for a successful season. That cat is well out of the bag due to money and television, but this playoff format could help win back the prestige of winning a conference and improve the playoff.

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