CFB: What would a 16-team, 24-team and 32-team playoff look like in 2020?
As I have written in recent weeks, the College Football Playoff needs a makeover.
Moving from two teams to four in the 2010s was necessary progress, but the playoff system should receive a steady upgrade in the 2020s.
The beauty of college basketball (and really, every other NCAA sport) is that theoretically, every team has the chance to win a championship in a given year. If a team wins its conference championship, it will receive an automatic bid to the Big Dance. Most of the time, the champions of the Ivy League and the America East won't play spoiler to to the sport's bluebloods, but there's always a chance. When the NCAA expanded the tournament to fit 64 teams, nobody could have ever dreamed that a 16 seed would one day beat a one seed. Over the last 35 years, in 1 vs. 16 matchups, the one seed is 139-1. The one seed wins 99.3% of the time, but in 2017, the unthinkable occurred. As I predicted on the podcast, the UMBC Retrievers sent the Virginia Cavaliers packing, and it instantly became one of the best sports moments of the new millennium.
Even in one of the most lopsided of matchups, the impossible happened. While it didn't really mean much in the grand scheme of the 2017 tournament — UMBC got bounced by Kansas State just two days later — it certainly meant a lot for UMBC's coaches, players, fans, alumni, and college basketball fans across the nation, for that matter. Over the years, schools like Gonzaga and Butler have capitalized on their one shining moment, using their unprecedented tournament success as a springboard for their programs. Now, both schools are perennial contenders.
As it stands right now, the highest level of college football is denying itself the possibility of a Gonzaga-like program to rise up from obscurity and move in to the sport's upper echelon. It's also denying itself the opportunity for a UMBC-like program to make history.
Being a northerner in a big city, I often get funny looks when I mention to my fellow Chicagoans that I actually prefer the college football game to the NFL. The number one complaint that I always get from the college football critic? "Alabama or Clemson wins it every year. The teams at the top have a stranglehold on the sport that keeps teams underneath them from moving above them."
Even non-sports fans love the unpredictability of March Madness and the thrill of filling out a bracket. It remains arguably the most inclusive event in sports (aside from the Super Bowl of course); by including more teams, you also include more fans. There are currently 360 Division I college basketball teams and 18.9% of those teams make up the sport's 68-team playoff system. There are 130 teams in the highest subdivision of Division I football (FBS), and just 3% appear in the sport's playoff. There has to be a better way to do this thing.
Before we fully indulge in Bowlmania and play couch potato for the next two weeks, I wanted to know what various expanded playoff fields would look like. If there were eight teams included this year, who would be in? What about 12, 16, 24 and 32? Since the start of the week, I've worked tirelessly on building four brackets that I prefer to what the committee came up with on Sunday.
*Keep in mind that I created my rankings/seedings before any bowl games were played. Perhaps these seedings/rankings would change based on postseason performance, but I thought it would be best to capture a snapshot of where these teams fit following the conclusion of the regular season. I don't expect my seedings to satisfy everybody; in fact, I'm anticipating the opposite. Nevertheless, I hope you get a kick out of these brackets.*
This is the most likely expansion we'll see in the near future. In an eight-team playoff, a playoff berth would be awarded to the winner of each power 5 conference. The highest-ranked group of five team would crack the playoff, and two at-large bids would be available for independent programs and other teams. If I were running this year's eight-team playoff, I'd actually include a second group of five school (Coastal Carolina) to the mix and make the ACC the only multi-bid league with my inclusion of Notre Dame. Sorry A&M (they'd be team no. 9 in this situation). Coastal finished the regular season undefeated, beat two top 20 teams this year (BYU and Louisiana, who beat Iowa State) and the Sunbelt proved its legitimacy, going 3-0 vs. the Big 12. The Chanticleers did everything they could to earn a spot in the playoff, and I would rightfully reward them for it.
Unfortunately, this format would probably still exclude four conference champs, but it would be a step up from where the format currently stands, and it's most likely the next stage of expansion we see.
The 12-teamer would add the next best four teams, excluded from the 8-teamer. If you really want to quibble with my selections you can; I went back and forth between Northwestern and Georgia for the final at-large bid, but ultimately sided with the Big Ten runner-up that kept no. 3 Ohio State close. Would we really need a fourth SEC team in, and one that lost by 16+ to Alabama and Florida at that? They got their chance. Let the Big Ten runner-up in. I'm also a mildly biased 'Cats fan, so if you have a problem with it, suck it up and create your own bracket!
No, but in actuality, I did go back-and-forth on this one and can be convinced that Georgia should be in instead. The fact that there's a debate over team number 12, would keep the the "Who's in your four?" debate alive in spirit, and a first round bye would also be a nice reward for the top four teams at the top.
If 12 teams aren't enough for you, let's try 16! While three conference champs would still be snubbed in this case, and again, the debate over Iowa State vs. UNC vs. Iowa for that final spot would be alive and well, you'd be hard-pressed to build a better 16-team field for the sport this year. At this point in this exercise, fans now have a bracket challenge to compete in with their friends and family. The BYU-Ohio State matchup would be electric, and NFL fans would have a chance at checking out two potential 2021 first round quarterbacks, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields.
There's another version of a 16-team playoff that would probably work out even better. Simply strip Louisiana, BYU and UNC of their at-large bids, bump Oregon up to a 13 seed, and add conference champs San Jose State, UAB and Ball State to the madness. Then, every conference champion would rightfully have a shot at a title. More on this...
As I mentioned earlier, the Division I NCAA basketball tournament currently includes 68 teams, approximately 18.9% of the 360 Division I-qualified teams. Having a 24-team College Football Playoff would be the closest equivalent, as 18.4% of the FBS' 130 teams would be included. This format would also give an automatic bid to all ten FBS conference champions, offering San Jose State, Ball State and UAB the opportunity to create some UMBC magic. This one is my personal favorite.
In order to expand the postseason significantly, the regular season would need to be shortened. Shrinking the regular season would mean one less home game for each school, which would likely result in a loss in revenue. But a bigger playoff would also mean big postseason money. As easy as it is for me to pitch a 24-team playoff, I can't solve the logistical problems with the snap of my fingers. However, the FCS runs a 24-team playoff every year, so there is a helpful blueprint out there for FBS to adopt, if it ever were to do so.
A playoff system featuring more than 24 teams will never happen, nor should it. Instead of having 18% of the sport's teams making a trip to the playoff, 25% would be. The playoff should still remain a relatively-exclusive group. We don't need a quarter of the sport's teams competing in the playoff, but this tournament sure would be fun, wouldn't it? Do you not get excited looking at those potential round one matchups, and thinking about five weeks straight of playoff college football? You should. This bracket is a pipedream, as is the 24-teamer, but it sure was fun to create and to think about. If this piece is unable to do anything else, can it at the very least resurrect the Texas vs. Texas A&M rivalry? Those games were awesome.
Which of these brackets is your favorite? How would you like to see the College Football Playoff expanded or improved upon? Or would do you keep it as is? Comment or tweet me @JackVitaShow and let me know, and subscribe to the Jack Vita Show on Apple Podcasts for more sports and entertainment analysis.
(Photo via John Locher / AP Photos)