It's time to expand the College Football Playoff
I love college football.
I love the electric atmosphere that permeates on Saturday afternoons in the fall. I love watching the contrasting styles of play from one conference to another. Whether it's a low-scoring, Big Ten field position battle or a Big 12 shootout, I simply can't get enough. I love watching amateur athletes living out their football dreams, powered by nothing but their pure, unadulterated love of the game.
But while I love college football, I do not love college football's current playoff format and selection process. Quite frankly, I'm sick of it.
Last week we witnessed the game of the year. With just two-days notice, BYU flew cross-country to play an undefeated Coastal Carolina team, filling in for the Liberty Flames, who canceled due to COVID-19 issues. Led by their fearless quarterback Zach Wilson, the Cougars stormed into Myrtle Beach with one clear goal: claim victory and build a resume strong enough to appear in the College Football Playoff.
From a rocking atmosphere packed with fans banging cowbells on the side of a teal turf, to late hits and overall chippy-ness, to the Cougars' hopes at a playoff evaporating one yard short of the goal line, the battle of "Mormons vs. Mullets" had it all. The atmosphere, the scene and the game as a whole is one that I will remember for the rest of my life. Still, something was missing.
Three days later, the College Football Playoff selection committee released its latest rankings. Where would head coach Jamey Chadwell's Chanticleers peak at, coming off the big win over no. 8 BYU? The answer: no. 13. A two-loss Iowa State team moved into the no. 7 spot; the same Cyclones team that lost by 17 to Coastal Carolina's conference foe Louisiana, who Coastal beat earlier in the season.
We didn't need to wait for the committee to tell us, we simply knew that the game of the year sadly wasn't going to have any impact on the College Football Playoff. All guts, no glory.
Through its first six seasons, the College Football Playoff has become somewhat predictable. Initially, the expansion provided a healthy and fun debate, and necessarily expanded the competition from the top two to the top four. Who's in your four? became the fun, 2010s version of the T-Mobile tagline, "Who's in your five?". In the early years, schools like Michigan State and Washington crashed the party, while other unlikely hopefuls such as TCU, Iowa, Wisconsin and Baylor just barely missed the cut.
Since then, however, we've gone from asking "Who's in your four?" to "Who's number four?". Before the 2020 season even began, it felt like a foregone conclusion that Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State would be competing in the Playoff. Even with a pending decisive Notre Dame-Clemson game this weekend, it certainly seems that way.
The teams at the top have stayed at the top. Playing in the College Football Playoff gives elite teams greater exposure and recruiting opportunities than the teams on the outs. With the reputations the schools at the top have built for themselves, what incentive is there for them to play meaningful non-conference games? They've proven to the country how good they are, so why rock the boat? Why make any waves, when one loss could mean the difference between a return to the CFP and a consolation bowl game? Meanwhile, elite teams from non-power 5 conferences are routinely snubbed.
Conversely, in college basketball, as recent as two tournaments ago, we saw Loyola Chicago emerge from the Missouri Valley and make a push to the Final Four. No team has a stranglehold of the sport of college basketball the way the blue bloods of college football do. With a tournament field of 68 teams, and automatic bids going to conference champions, every team has a legitimate shot at winning a championship each year. The teams that lose in the court of public opinion didn't win their conference championship. Championships are won and lost on the court; teams aren't defeated by a powerful committee of voters.
Upon Tuesday night's latest College Football Playoff rankings, it appears that once again the committee has upended the promising season of another group of five juggernaut. The final rankings released prior to Sunday's selection show had undefeated Cincinnati at no. 9. This of course, coming one day after I discussed the seemingly realistic possibility of the Bearcats moving into the Playoff on the Jack Vita Show.
Moving from two to four teams in the 2010s was progress in the right direction, but it shouldn't be the finish line. It's time to update the College Football Playoff for the 2020s. An eight-team playoff wouldn't solve all of college football's flaws, but it would offer an automatic bid to all five of the sport's power 5 conference champs, and allow for three at-large bids to be distributed. Perhaps one of those at-large bids could instead be an automatic bid given to the highest-ranked group of five team.
In a crazy year complicated by COVID-19 delaying the start of some conference seasons and entirely wiping out games from schedules, 2020 would be the right time to expand the playoff. Much to my chagrin, Major League Baseball expanded its playoffs for a trial run in a pandemic-shortened season. The NCAA could rip a page from MLB's book and kick the tires on an eight-team playoff this January.
For the sake of my argument, here's what my proposed eight-team playoff would look like:
#1 Alabama vs. #8 Coastal Carolina - Alabama will probably roll through whoever they face in round one, even in a four-team playoff. Let's give Coastal a chance to earn their stripes against the most dominant team in division I football.
#2 Notre Dame vs. #7 Pac-12 Champ, USC or Oregon - I would be crossing my fingers for a historic USC-Notre Dame rivalry game in round one! Could you imagine the hype on that matchup?
#3 Clemson vs. #6 Big 12 Champ Iowa State or Oklahoma - Clemson would likely win this one, but a lot of points would be scored.
#4 Ohio State vs. #5 Cincinnati - The battle for Ohio!
Okay, so I actually included two group of five schools. I used the current top four for my seeding, which resulted in the ACC being the only two-bid league. Even with eight teams, I noticed that several high-caliber teams would miss out. Arguments for Northwestern, Texas A&M, Indiana, Florida, Georgia and others could very well be made. The sports talk debate of "Who should be in the Playoff?" that radio hosts and the NCAA seems to enjoy would still exist, and it would result in an exhilarating bracket filled with teams spread across different regions of the United States. Can you imagine the excitement this bracket would generate from the casual fan? People LOVE filling out brackets - I've witnessed this with my very own eyes!
Unfortunately, we won't see an eight-team playoff this year. Come Sunday, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina will likely be kicked to the curb, and we'll instead watch Alabama kick the life out of Notre Dame, or a different power 5 school in a couple weeks. Perhaps the College Football Playoff will be an instant classic, one that's far superior to the blowouts we've seen in recent years. Hopefully we'll get some great games. As far as 2020 goes, It will be difficult to top that grit-filled battle on the teal turf.
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(Photo via Coastal Carolina athletic department)