After a season of crazy bounces, things wrapped up neatly for the College Football Playoffs last Saturday.
Clemson and Alabama prevailed as favorites in their conference championship games to wrap up their semifinal spots. Michigan State edged Iowa a Big Ten title game that served as a de facto quarterfinal. And Oklahoma, without a Big 12 championship game to worry about, didn’t fall out of the top four as conference mate TCU did last year.
Four clear-cut champions. No problems.
It’s never going to be perfect. No playoff system in any sport is.
In college football’s case, as long as schools are left to their own devices when it comes to nonconference scheduling (although that’s finally changing for the better) and the leagues each have their own way of determining their champion, you’re going to have inequities.
Would Pac-12 champion Stanford have had a better case for the top four if instead of starting the season with a road loss at Northwestern played Wofford at home like Clemson did?
What about Notre Dame? The Fighting Irish are an independent but have only two-point losses to league champs Clemson and Stanford blotting their résumé.
Even without reversing one of those outcomes, they deserve to be in the conversation.
Do any Group of Five schools ever have a chance to make the top four? Is there a sport where you are basically denied the chance to win the championship before the season begins?
And speaking of those crazy bounces, what if Arkansas hadn’t had that miracle fourth-and-25 lateral that helped the Razorbacks get to overtime and eventually beat Ole Miss?
Without that, the Rebels would have been playing Florida for the Southeastern Conference title last week but with little chance to make the top four. While Alabama, which the selection committee ranked No. 2 before the Florida game, would have been done for the regular season.
How would that have affected the Tide’s standing?
There are just so many variables — especially in the high-scoring, unpredictable sport college football has become — that more often than not, finalizing the final four is inevitably going to be messy.
It’s even messier than it was when only the top two teams advanced to the BCS championship.
Throw in the selection committee, which, for all of its expertise, is still using subjective standards, not just results.
So what’s the solution?
Expand to eight. That way, no team with a legitimate argument that it has a chance to win the championship would be left out.
Sixteen teams are too many and an unfair burden on the players, who already have a valid argument they should benefit more from the postseason than getting a travel bag and a watch they’ll never wear.
We presented this plan last year, and it’s still valid:
The five Power Five champions automatically qualify, along with three wild cards. There’s a case to be made for giving the top Group of Five one of the wild card spots, but that team should be ranked ahead of the lowest-ranked Power Five champion.
Would it, as many have argued, take away the drama of the regular season?
Sometimes. The Michigan State-Iowa winner would have been advancing, but the work it took to get them there shouldn’t be negated by one late loss.
And no longer would losing once eliminate a team. Think LSU after the Alabama game.
Play those quarterfinal games at the home sites of the top four teams on the weekend before Christmas, the same weekend that the first bowl games are now played.
This would create an NFL-playoff-type atmosphere and cut down on fan travel to a bowl site. There are things to work out about tickets and final exams, but the amount of money ESPN or some other entity would pay for such an opportunity would have the schools solving those little matters in an instant.
This year, it would be Notre Dame at Clemson, Ohio State at Alabama, Stanford at Michigan State, and Iowa at Oklahoma.
Sound like games you’d like to see?
Keep rotating the semifinals through the New Year’s Six bowls, but play them only on Jan. 1, not New Year’s Eve.
Keep the championship game on the second Monday in January.
There is one tradeoff.
Those same New Year’s Six bowls, including the Sugar, would suffer in their nonsemifinal years because four highly ranked teams would be taken from their potential polls to be in quarterfinals.
But the bowls will survive because schools like to send their teams to them, even, as we’ve seen this year, ones with losing records.
The conference commissioners who run the CPF have said they want to let the four-team playoff run thought its full 12-year contract expressly to avoid pressure to expand.
But now that they’ve seen how well things went last year, they’ve got to rethinking things.
As Athletic Director Scott Stricklin of Mississippi State, whose team finished eighth in last year’s standings, said before this season began: “It was a lot of fun being in the conversation until late in the season last year. I’d like to double the number of fan bases that be part of it.”
Sounds like a someone ready to explore the idea.
There’s a look-in with ESPN after the 2019 season that would provide the perfect opportunity for expansion. But contracts can be modified at any time.
College football has always been a gloriously flawed sport.
But nothing is followed with more passion.
Why not make it better?