The Case for an Eight Team Playoff
Where were you when the Group of Five’s National Championship hopes died with no hope of resuscitation?
I was in my living room, yelling at my TV because an undefeated, American Athletic Conference Champion Cincinnati not only did not make the Championship Four but did not even crack the top seven in the College Football Playoff Rankings.
Given the bizarre nature of this college football season, the CFP Committee’s true colors were shown in a clearer way than ever before. Bias toward certain teams and/or conferences is the only way to explain how Ohio State and Notre Dame made it to the playoff.
Don’t get me wrong here; I am not one of those people constantly advocating for G5 teams to make the playoff. I understand the talent disparity, but this was the one year where it was hard to find four teams truly more deserving than Cincinnati.
It turned out Ohio State was clearly one of the top teams, but it is still worth questioning whether playing six games should have been enough to qualify. Would this have been the case for other teams in the same situation?
There is a clear lack of objectivity among the committee, which, frankly, is understandable. How can we expect 13 people with extremely close ties to certain teams and conferences, most or all of which are Power Five, to put all bias to the side and pick the four teams most deserving to play for a National Championship?
And that, in itself, is another caveat; is it the four BEST teams, or the four MOST DESERVING teams? Because if the committee is trying to decide the former, there is bound to be a degree of arbitrariness in that decision.
To put it plainly, the system is flawed. There is far too much subjectivity in sitting 13 biased people down in a room and telling them to pick which four teams should play for a championship with no real on-field achievement or metric guiding their decision.
That is why the playoff system needs to expand to eight teams. And not just any eight; there need to be automatic qualifiers for conference champions.
Having automatic qualifiers would not work in a four-team system for obvious reasons (how the Power Five commissioners sat down and agreed to a system that would leave at least one of them disappointed every season is beyond me).
So, what would those automatic qualifiers be? Each Power Five conference champion would earn a spot. Additionally, the highest-ranked Group of Five team will automatically qualify, similar to how that team already qualifies for a New Year’s Six bowl.
Now, you have at least one guaranteed spot for each Power Five conference and the Group of Five. But that can not be it.
What if the SEC has two (or three) amazing teams? Or the B1G for that matter? What about Notre Dame and all the other Independents?
That is where the last two spots come in. The committee will choose two more teams from any conference to play for a national championship.
The committee will then use their rankings to determine seeding, setting up the quarterfinal matchups.
If this system were in place this season, here is what the playoff would have looked like:
#1 Alabama vs. #8 Oregon
#2 Clemson vs. #7 Cincinnati
#3 Ohio State vs. #6 Oklahoma
#4 Notre Dame vs. #5 Texas A&M
Sounds pretty fun, right?
The only undeserving team on this list is Oregon, but we will touch on their scenario in a little bit.
Here is what the CFP could have been with this system in place from the beginning:
#1 LSU vs. #8 Memphis
#2 Ohio State vs. #7 Baylor
#3 Clemson vs. #6 Oregon
#4 Oklahoma vs. #5 Georgia
#1 Alabama vs. #8 Washington
#2 Clemson vs. #7 UCF
#3 Notre Dame vs. #6 Ohio State
#4 Oklahoma vs. #5 Georgia
#1 Clemson vs. #8 UCF
#2 Oklahoma vs. #7 USC
#3 Georgia vs. #6 Wisconsin
#4 Alabama vs. #5 Ohio State
#1 Alabama vs. #8 Western Michigan
#2 Clemson vs. #7 Oklahoma
#3 Ohio State vs. #6 Michigan
#4 Washington vs. #5 Penn State
#1 Clemson vs. #8 Houston
#2 Alabama vs. #7 Ohio State
#3 Michigan State vs. #6 Stanford
#4 Oklahoma vs. #5 Iowa
#1 Alabama vs. #8 Boise State
#2 Oregon vs. #7 Mississippi State
#3 Florida State vs. #6 TCU
#4 Ohio State vs. #5 Baylor
Where do I even begin with how fun this could have been? Trevor Lawrence vs. Justin Herbert, P.J. Fleck’s undefeated 2016 Western Michigan squad playing Alabama, two undefeated UCF teams finally getting their shot, MICHIGAN AND OHIO STATE IN THE FIRST ROUND OF THE PLAYOFF?!
For anyone who loves watching college football, this has to make you at least a little bit excited. So many historic teams playing each other, plus a few wild cards!
And that, in a nutshell, is why this is the system college football needs. There is a clear lack of parity in college football, best exemplified by the following statistic:
There are only 6 programs that have won a game in the College Football Playoff:— Matt Schick (@ESPN_Schick) December 17, 2020
Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, LSU, Clemson, Oregon.
Updated 2021 recruiting class rankings:
2) Ohio State
There is an oligarchy at the top of college football, and it is a monster that the four-team playoff has created.
There is an extremely narrow path for other teams to make the playoff, and that is detrimental in recruiting. The two non-blueblood teams to make the playoff, Michigan State and Washington, both saw their recruiting class rankings increase in each of the next two seasons after their playoff appearances.
Plus, Clemson did not become the powerhouse it is now until it made the playoff two seasons in a row from 2015-16, opening the door to land five-star recruits with ease.
To become a regular contender, teams need to recruit well, and it is significantly more difficult to do so when they do not have a playoff appearance(s) to put themselves in the national spotlight.
Not only does this open the door for more programs to make the jump to a contender, but it adds an important nuance to the playoff that it severely lacks: the Cinderella.
Why do we love March Madness so much? It’s not because we want to see Duke or Kentucky play in the Final Four every year; it’s because ANYTHING can happen.
This system creates a smallscale version of the Cinderella story, as now any team can start the season with the goal of winning their conference and making the playoff.
In 2016, Clemson narrowly escaped upset when Virginia Tech threw an interception on the Tigers’ 23-yard-line with 1:11 left in the game down seven points. If the stakes were higher with a playoff bid on the line, who is to say an underdog like that Hokies team couldn’t have pulled off the upset and snuck into the playoff?
Sure, Virginia Tech was not even close to being one of the eight “best” teams that season, but that’s the beauty of this system: it opens the door for an underdog to wreak havoc.
This is exactly what could have happened with Oregon winning the Pac-12 this year. In a current system that closes the door for all but a few select teams from the start of the year, they could pivot to giving any team the ability to earn a spot.
Plus, this system can give teams with slow starts who turned around at the end of the year a better chance. This year’s Oklahoma team is the perfect example, as they started the year 1-2 but finished the year winning eight games in a row, including an emphatic victory over Florida in the Cotton Bowl, and are making the nation’s best teams glad they don’t have to play them.
Imagine Oklahoma entering the playoff as a red-hot six-seed and going on a run. I would certainly enjoy watching it.
But ultimately what this decision comes down to is money. What system will be most profitable for the teams/conferences?
In my eyes, it is the eight-team system. If the NY6 bowls all become playoff games, with a rotation similar to the current one of two bowls being the semifinal games and a select location for the championship, the viewership for the four quarterfinal games would almost certainly increase.
Right now, the non-playoff NY6 bowls hardly matter and are often viewed as a consolation prize for the teams that did not make the playoff. This would give these historic bowls much more meaning.
Sure, the same problem would inevitably be faced with the non-NY6 bowls, but that trend is already in place and, frankly, the Military Bowl or Sun Bowl or any other minor bowl being devalued is not that big of an issue (except you, Duke’s Mayo Bowl. I love you).
To me, this updated system is a no-brainer. It gives more good teams a chance to have a program-defining playoff run and will dismantle the oligarchy that college football is struggling with, all the while making more money for the sport.
Let’s make it happen!