A Simple Solution for the College Football Playoff Problem


All indications point to a four-team playoff coming to college football. So how does a format with four teams have seemingly dozens of possibilities? And that’s just from the Big Ten.

With reporters as their intermediaries, conference brass lobs grenades of passive aggression at one another. Each believes its suggestion to be the right one. The Pac-12 wants entry limited to conference champions. The SEC does not want to exclude quality teams that failed to win their leagues — and why not, considering the conference’s regular season No. 2 is the reigning national champion?

There’s validity to every argument, but all have flaws.

There’s just one right playoff proposal. It’s this one.

First, let’s throw out the four-team format. The new system is starting in a bad place immediately, a troubling development. Traditionalists (of which I consider myself to be, to an extent) fear an overly expansive field. That said, four is too exclusive if the new system is truly meant to crown the most worthwhile champion.

Take 2008. The season ended with a single undefeated, Utah. The Utes defeated ranked foes in Oregon State, TCU, BYU and Alabama on its way to a 13-0 finish. The ‘Bama victory in the Sugar Bowl was a statement win, suggesting UU was worthy of the premiere prize in the game. Yet, in a four-team system, the Utes would have been left out.

Similarly, Boise State would have been out of the championship fray despite beating the eventual Pac-10 champion and proving itself a top four team in the Fiesta Bowl. A four-team format isn’t going to solve the championship dilemma, only exacerbate it.

Eight is a nice, round number, but historically, the difference between Nos. 1 and 8 is more stark than 1 and 6. So with a six-team format as our jumping off point, here’s the proposal.

  • Establish a transparent method for determining rankings

No system for ranking teams will ever be fail safe. Every March when the NCAA tournament is announced, there is guaranteed bellyaching. However, bear in mind that Craig James was a Harris Poll voter. James seemed to use his ballot in much the same way he used PR firms and ESPN broadcasts, as an outlet for airing grievances.

Computers and mathematics can only capture so much of the story. Combining the analytic with a rational human touch is the best method, but the human side needs accountability. You can’t have a worthwhile tournament when a Craig James is voting Georgia No. 11, and Boise State No. 24 (BSU of course beat UGa in the latter’s backyard).

Voters need to be vetted, and any equations to determine strength of schedule, quality of wins, etc. must be clearly defined.

  • Set a definitive tournament size with a concrete agreement to avoid expansion for long as possible

Implementation of a playoff poses a chief concern for those who appreciate the bowl system: expansion. Sure, it may be four now. But without contractual limitations to when and/or how the tournament grows, precedent proves it will swell. The FCS is moving to 24, just three years after expanding to 20. The NCAA tournament grew to 68, and there was no shortage of talk about it going to 96. Even the most tradition-obsessed of sports, Major League Baseball, is expanding its postseason.

Playoffs grow. It’s a fact. That’s not a bad thing — to a point. Yes, eight isn’t much different from six. But 12 isn’t that much different from 8. And 16 isn’t too much larger than 12. And so on, and so on. These things happen mostly incrementally.

Ultimately, a playoff that grows beyond the elite and threatens the bowls not only harms the game’s history, it doesn’t benefit the majority of programs or student-athletes.

There are some who completely scoff at any concept of bowls. I saw on Twitter some post that no one cared about the Rose Bowl Game, an absurd sentiment at best. Such profound lack of understanding the history and spirit of the game makes me wonder why these people supposedly care about college football. I can direct these folks to some fine YouTubes of cat antics to occupy their time.

For the more reasonable, there are a few points in defense of maintaining a refurbished version of the bowl system. History is a subjective thing that appeals to emotion, so let’s talk logic.

The bowls could be eliminated altogether, but that would be predicated on expanding the playoff field. Otherwise, you risk leaving over 100 teams out of the lurch come postseason. And that lends itself to a diminished product, as teams with nothing to play for will pack it in early.

However, the problem with an overly expansive playoff is the significance of the regular season is lessened. Each Saturday of the regular season is equally important (or Friday, as Oklahoma State can attest). National interest in college basketball has waned, partially due to the regular season’s lessened significance.

Playing for seeding would certainly provide incentive, but No. 32 having equal claim to the title as No. 1 by regular season’s end does strike a blow to the regular season. I’ve heard the argument before that in football, getting hot and riding momentum to the title as eighth place Big East basketbal finisher UConn did in 2011 is much more difficult in football. A valid point to be sure, and a truthful one. And, more fodder against an expansive field.

If the last quarter of teams in the playoff have no shot of winning, why bother allowing them entry? I know the same can be said of No. 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament, but these teams are from lower tier conferences and are earning the lion’s share of their athletic budget simply making the field.

And in that same vein, the bowl system allows for similarly positioned football programs, like those from the Sun Belt and MAC, opportunities to establish national credibility.

For the fan, maintaining the bowls alongside a logical playoff means more football. That’s a good thing. It’s a better thing when the football is of a higher quality, which brings us to the next point.

  • Increase bowl eligibility standards from five wins against Bowl Subdivision opponents, to six.

The tidbit to emerge from Big Ten meetings that most piqued my interest was suggestion of 7-5 bowl game minimum for its bowl eligible teams. A primary and valid gripe against the bowl system is that it’s diluted. When UCLA is limping to remedy .500 Illinois’ six-game losing streak, there’s a problem.

Merely finishing 7-5 isn’t enough, though. The basement should be six wins against the FBS. That means no bowling at 7-5, but with two wins against the Championship Subdivision.

A few lower level bowls will go extinct. So long as opportunities are not sacrificed for programs like Louisiana-Lafayette and Ohio, 2011 bowl game winners, it’s a worthwhile move. Integrity of the system is preserved, and only serves to improve what is already the best regular season in sports.

  • The top four conference champions receive bids.

Four conferences have positioned themselves as power brokers: SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten. That said, the four conference championship bids are not locked into any particular conference.

Using the 2010 season as an example, the final rankings had SEC champion Auburn, Pac-10 champion Oregon and Big Ten champion Wisconsin at the top of the polls. Alongside them was Mountain West champion TCU. Under this proposal, TCU would earn one of the four bids by virtue of finish higher than other league champions like Virginia Tech, Connecticut *snicker* and even Nevada.

However, the four conference championship bids are not necessarily Nos. 1-4.

  • The top two conference champions receive first round byes. 

The 2011 season was anomaly, but it’s worth addressing. Virtually any season, Nos. 1 and 2 will be  conference champions. However in a year like ’11, this rewards a team for doing what a competitor couldn’t. Oklahoma State came out of a tough Big 12 No. 1. That should account for something.

  • Seeds three through six face at on-campus sites.

This presents some intriguing possibilities. Imagine Stanford traveling to Alabama, or the epic Rose Bowl pitting Oregon and Wisconsin playing out at Autzen Field. Other seasons could have offered an SEC team moving to Big Ten country. Such are dream scenarios for fans across the nation.

  • The two remaining berths are awarded to the top two teams, regardless of conference.

These bids are not necessarily off-limits to a conference champion. Take the 2009 season, when five teams finished with perfect records and league titles: Alabama, Texas, TCU, Boise State and Cincinnati. One of the five gets an at-large bid, with the second at-large likely going to Florida.

  • Teams from the same conference will not meet in the first round

Should Nos. 3 and 6 or 4 and 5 be from the same conference, the bracket shifts. This clause would have been enacted in 2011, with Stanford and Oregon ending the regular season at 4 and 5.

  • Rotating locations for the semifinals and championship 

The Final Four is on a regular rotation of destinations; the football championship should follow a similar pattern. Three cities in locations geographically separate enough to give unique flavor, but accommodating of football fans would fit the bill. However, it’s crucial these locations not replace historically significant bowl games. They could supplement these games, though.

A rotation that includes Los Angeles (Rose Bowl), Dallas (Cowboys Stadium) and Atlanta (Georgia Dome) would span the nation. All three venues have proven to be reliable for major events. These locations are less necessary to the overall plan than other concepts, though. The rotation could be six, or nine, rotating in a similar fashion to the Final Four.