The most important thing to remember about the College Football Playoff format is that nobody will ever be entirely satisfied.
Some years, a four-team playoff would work best. Others, eight would be preferable. Or six. Or 10. Some years, Alabama should just be handed the trophy the day after the regular season ends.
College football has always been faced with a tricky question: What is the fairest way to decide a national champion without devaluing the most meaningful regular season in sports? The stakes are so high every week for national contenders, from September though November. Any postseason needs to be designed with that in mind, because nobody wants to fundamentally alter what people love about the sport.
But while a four-team playoff preserves the regular season, it has always been set up to fail, with five major conferences vying for four spots. When someone is left unsatisfied too often, change becomes inevitable. Like it or not, expansion from four teams to eight teams is going to happen.
So, if the College Football Playoff featured eight teams instead of four, what should it look like? Here's our plan.
1. Give automatic bids to Power Five champions.
Through two years of the four-team playoff, the brackets have consisted only of Power Five conference champions. While winning a conference title is not a requirement, the committee is instructed to use championships when debating teams with similar resumes. The lack of a non-champion could change this year: Ohio State has a playoff-worthy resume, but because of a loss to Penn State, it did not win its division. The widely held assumption is that the Buckeyes will make the playoff anyway, but nobody can be totally sure because it's hard to know how the committee will act and how much weight will be given to conference championships, which aren't factored in until the final rankings.
That leads to a legitimate criticism of the current format: The criteria for the committee's top 25 are somewhat vague, with explanations that often seem inconsistent from one week to the next. While the committee does have a spelled-out protocol, ultimately this is still a subjective process, with an unclear distinction between "best" and "most deserving." The committee says it picks the "best" teams, but based on the way teams are ranked, it tends to lean toward "most deserving" -- two terms that overlap but have some key differences.
The most obvious way to eliminate subjectivity? Give the five major conference champions automatic bids into an eight-team playoff.
The four-team bracket set itself up for controversy from the start by not having enough spots for all five power conferences. In some years, that's OK: In 2005, for example, Florida State won the ACC with an 8-4 record, losing three games in a row before upsetting No. 5 Virginia Tech in the conference championship. After that win, the Seminoles were ranked No. 22 in the AP poll. They did what they had to do to win the conference, but nobody would argue that a team like that deserves to be playing for the national championship or is one of the best teams. Including them in the playoff would devalue the regular season in some respects, especially because nonconference losses would be meaningless as long as you win your conference.
This is a legitimate argument against automatic bids, but an eight-team bracket would likely give advantages to the top teams that we'll get into below. By guaranteeing a spot for each conference champion, the subjectivity and politicking involved in deciding the national champion would be significantly reduced. Everyone would know exactly what they need to accomplish to get in.
2. Give the best Group of Five champion an automatic bid, too.
The current system guarantees that the Group of Five conferences -- American, MAC, Conference USA, Mountain West, Sun Belt -- get some national recognition and some money out of the playoff system. While it's going to be tough for a team from these leagues to finish a season ranked in the top four, the highest ranked Group of Five champion receives an automatic bid to one of the major bowl games. Those teams are 2-0 so far, as Boise State beat Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl in 2014 and Houston beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl last year. This year, it appears that either Western Michigan or the winner of the American will head to the Cotton Bowl.
As it stands, only 65 teams -- Power Five plus Notre Dame -- appear to have a realistic chance of earning playoff bids in most seasons. Giving an automatic eight-team playoff bid to the top Group of Five conference champion would at least give those five conferences a seat at the table and a chance to prove themselves. Many times, that team would be the No. 8 seed, which would make the first-round draw a sort of reward for whomever earns the No. 1 seed. But we've seen in the past that a team like Boise State is capable of becoming a Cinderella story.
3. Establish a minimum standard for automatic bids.
One way to negate a problem like an 8-4 Power Five champion or a 9-3 Group of Five champion getting an automatic bid into the playoff is to create a minimum standard. Maybe automatic bids are awarded only if a team is in the top 15 or top 20, based on a selection committee's rankings, computer rankings or some combination of both. In this case, conference champions would only be rewarded if their full body of work warranted a chance to play for a national championship and didn't water down the field because of one conference title game upset.
The system of automatic bids would prevent a team like 2016 Penn State, should it win the Big Ten, from getting left out in favor of Ohio State, who it beat. And establishing minimum standards would prevent unwanted four-loss teams from stumbling into the bracket.
4. Play the first round on the home fields of the better seeds.
College football's postseason remains tied to bowl games, with the two playoff semifinals rotating between the Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Fiesta and Peach bowls. There are longstanding relationships and traditions that conference and university leaders have been unwilling to disrupt.
However, an eight-team playoff played exclusively at neutral sites would be impractical. Yes, the 68-team NCAA Tournament in basketball is played in neutral venues, but it would better for all involved for the first-round games of an eight-team football playoff to be played at on-campus stadiums, for a few reasons:
- Earning a home game in the playoff would be a reward for top-four teams. Last Saturday's Iron Bowl didn't matter for the SEC championship, but Alabama would certainly rather play a home game against Western Michigan than a home game against Michigan or a road game at Washington in the first round of the playoff.
- It's easier to fill 20,000-seat arenas at a basketball tournament that features several games being played at one site with four or eight fan bases. It's harder to fill a 70,000 football stadium with fans of only two teams. Playing the championship at a neutral venue is a no-brainer. So far, playing the semifinals at neutral sites has worked out OK, too. But are fans really going to travel long distances to first-round games when the possibility of one or two more games exists?
- College football has some of the greatest venues in sports. Playoff games in the Big House, Bryant-Denny Stadium, Ohio Stadium or the Swamp would be fantastic. On-campus atmospheres always trump neutral NFL stadiums hundreds of miles from either school.
5. Keep playing conference championship games.
When the possibility of expanding the playoff has been broached, one of the criticisms -- from coaches like Urban Meyer -- has been the toll it would take on players. National title game participants have played 15 games the past two years, and an eight-team playoff would push that to 16 games: 12 in the regular season, plus one conference title game and three playoff games. Expanding the season would open players up to more injuries and more wear and tear, and there are some legitimate concerns about the impact on the academic calendar.
However, the FCS already has a 24-team playoff system, meaning a team can play as many as five playoff games. While FCS teams play 11 regular-season games and don't have conference title games, that still means teams can play as many as 16 games.
It's hard to imagine FBS schools ever agreeing to reduce the regular season back to 11 games -- too much money would be sacrificed -- so one way to prevent an eight-team playoff from expanding the season would be to get rid of conference championship games, with the first round of the playoff effectively replacing them. In the current system, conference title games can often act as de facto playoff quarterfinals, so this would complete that transition.
But eliminating conference title games might only work if the playoff is selected based on the top eight teams and does not include automatic bids, otherwise the system would be headed for potentially messy tiebreakers when deciding conference championships. Ten-team leagues with round-robin schedules can cleanly decide automatic bids. With 14-team leagues, conference title games are close to essential, even if they leave open the possibility of unwanted upsets.
The concerns about extending the season are justified. Possible ways to help would be to move the regular season up a week to ensure two bye weeks for every team, or add a few more scholarships to the current 85-player limit.
6. Establish more conference-to-conference uniformity.
There are five power conferences. One has 10 teams, one has 12 teams and three have 14 teams. Three play nine conferences games; two play eight conference games. The 10-team league, the Big 12, does not play a conference championship game, although it will start doing so next year without splitting into divisions. The lack of uniformity can be charming, but if the sport moves toward a more uniform national championship system, then it makes sense to make the path to the playoff more equal.
So let's re-open the possibility of Big 12 expansion. Make every conference play the same number of conference games -- given the way every league has expanded, nine is better than eight -- and require every major conference to have at least 12 teams and split into two divisions. Everyone but the Big 12 is already there, so it can add Houston and Cincinnati (or some other combination of teams) and do what everyone else is doing. The season-long structure of the playoff would be more clear: Win your division, win a conference title game that serves as a play-in round and advance to the quarterfinals. Don't do that, and be left at the mercy of the selection committee.
7. Keep the selection committee to pick at-larges and seed teams.
Regardless of whether the Group of Five gets an automatic bid, someone or something would have to fill out the eight-team field with two or three wild cards and then seed the teams.
The easiest solution would be to keep the selection committee and operate like the college basketball tournament. Once the conference champions are determined, pick two at-larges that have the best resumes, just like the committee does now. In terms of seeding, the committee would need to decide who gets home games in the first round. An NFL-like model would give the home games to the top four conference champions, but to reward overall bodies of work, it's better to take the eight playoff teams and seed 1-8 based on strength of resumes.
8. Keep the bowl system.
If you stop and think about it, the bowl system has always been ridiculous. But it's still part of the charm of a unique sport. Antiquated exhibition games should not stand in the way of deciding the best way to crown a national champion, but there is still value in making sure that the system still exists in some capacity.
If the playoff is expanded to eight, 120 teams (93.8 percent) still don't play for the national championship in the postseason. Most of those teams never have a chance of getting a spot in the playoff, either. With 128 unequal teams -- in terms of resources, geography, history, tradition, etc. -- everyone has different goals. Alabama wants to win national championships; Indiana wants to get to play any kind of postseason game. It's a goal to shoot for, and bowls are generally fun, harmless opportunities for vacations and extra games that also serve as revenue-generating holiday TV content.
A four-team playoff has not ruined the bowl system, and while an eight-team playoff -- and the increased playoff-or-bust mindset of the national conversation about the sport -- could harm the bowls, there is still going to be demand for them. They're still a good undercard to the playoff that gives all 128 teams a chance for increased exposure.
There is also a way to fit an eight-team playoff into the current system: Play the first round of the playoff at on-campus venues in mid-December, then play out the final four as currently constructed, with semifinals at bowl games around New Year's. Quarterfinal losers could go on to remaining bowl destinations through conference tie-ins.
Bowl games might feel more like anticlimactic consolation games, but isn't that what they already are?
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What would this year's eight-team playoff look like?
There is still a weekend of games to be played, but assuming conference championship games stay in the system, here's what this weekend would decide:
- Big Ten: Penn State vs. Wisconsin. Winner is in the playoff, loser is most likely out.
- ACC: Clemson vs. Virginia Tech. Clemson would have an at-large argument if it lost, but it needs to win to guarantee a spot and get a home game. Virginia Tech crashes the party if it wins and is ranked high enough to meet the minimum standards.
- Pac-12: Washington vs. Colorado. Winner gets in.
- SEC: Alabama vs. Florida. Alabama would be in regardless of the result and still would probably get a home game with a loss, but a Florida win would impact the rest of the field, putting Michigan at risk.
- Big 12: Oklahoma State at Oklahoma. Starting next year, the Big 12 will have an official conference championship game. This serves as one anyway, and the winner would get into the eight-team field.
- MAC: Western Michigan vs. Ohio. If the Group of Five gets an automatic bid, then unbeaten Western Michigan is in the playoff with a win over the Bobcats.
Let's just assume that there are no upsets and all the favorites win on Friday and Saturday. The eight-team playoff might look like the following, with the first round played at campus sites on either Dec. 10 or Dec. 17:
8 Western Michigan at 1 Alabama
5 Wisconsin at 4 Ohio State
6 Michigan at 3 Washington
7 Oklahoma at 2 Clemson
Who wouldn't want to see that day of football?
The winners of the first two games meet in the Peach Bowl and the winners of the second game meet in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31. The other bowls are picked like they are now, except they would include the losers of the quarterfinals. The national championship is played in Tampa on Jan. 9. No major conferences are left out, and deserving Ohio State and Michigan teams get a chance.
Is this a perfect system? No. But there is no perfect system. The playoff was never created to solve all of the controversies of the polls and BCS eras, because college football is unsolvable. It was created to find a better (and, yes, more profitable) way to crown a champion.
This would be a positive step in its evolution.