College football was born on a dirt and grass field in the swamps of New Jersey in 1869, and it took nearly a century and a half to deliver a proper playoff system to determine the sport’s annual national champion.
The college football playoff is great, but it can be better, and the logic behind it is very simple: If football is good, and more football is better, then it stands to reason that more good football is best.
Two teams was good. Four teams is better. Eight teams would be best.
This isn’t just stirring the college football pot for the sake of a good stir. And yes, this is said with the understanding it took six generations to go from Rutgers and Princeton playing rugby in a park and calling it football to the spectacle of Ohio State shocking Alabama and Oregon, and millions of fans, in last season’s playoff. So who are we then, to demand the system change so soon after inception?
Who are we to say nay to four teams for the right-and-round eight-team tournament we deserve? Let’s be thankful for what we have, yea?
Nay. Nay I say to those who say yea! Nay to four, as eight’s the way!
Put some horns behind that and we’ve got a fight song! There are currently eight teams in the top 25 rankings with one loss or less, seven of which stand within the top eight in both the Associated Press and Coaches polls for this week. When the college football playoff rankings are released on Tuesday, four of those teams will be controlling their own destinies as the calendar turns to conference championship week, while the other four—and another five or six after them—will wait and hope for chaos.
Ohio State is the defending national champion and lost one game this season, by five points, to a team that is one win away from locking up a spot in the final four. There are many who say the beauty of the college football regular season is that every game matters, and if Ohio State had been able to beat Michigan State—at home, let’s not forget—they would be the team in the top four from the Big Ten, not potentially the Spartans.
That’s sound logic, until the idea is extrapolated to other teams in the playoff mix, especially those from other conferences with schedules that have shown to be less daunting. Even within the same conference, undefeated Iowa did not have to face Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State yet this season. If Michigan State beats Iowa in the Big Ten title game, will Iowa be eliminated from the playoff with just one loss to Michigan State?
What does that say about Ohio State, who is left rooting for nothing but a whole bunch of chaos? Do the Buckeyes hope Michigan State wins or loses? Depending on what else happens, either result could see them in the semifinals for a second-straight year.
Ohio State needs North Carolina to defeat Clemson on December 5, and hope that win is unconvincing enough to leapfrog one-loss Iowa should the Hawkeyes lose to Michigan State, plus a one-loss Clemson and one-loss North Carolina, to get the Buckeyes back into the playoff. Or Iowa could win, and the rest of the top three could hold serve, putting Ohio State back in the tournament by way of the team that beat them for a spot in the Big Ten title game losing its way out of the dance.
That says nothing of Oklahoma, sitting third in last week’s rankings with one loss but without a Big XII title game to boost its resume. Oklahoma could suffer the same fate as both Big XII Conference contenders did last season. With five or six deserving teams, that could happen again this year.
Oklahoma’s loss is to Texas, a team that finished the season 4-7. North Carolina lost to South Carolina, which finished the season 3-9 after their head coach quit mid season to play golf and talk on television.
How are either of those losses better than Ohio State’s loss? Moreover, why are we stuck in a system where a selection committee has to decide which one-loss team’s quality wins supersede its bad loss?
More teams would be better.
More teams means more football. More football at that level means a better fan experience. Now, it’s clear the college football powers that be don’t care too much about that, what with the semifinals of this year’s playoffs taking place on New Year’s Eve, but the logic remains that fans of more teams will stay engaged in the playoff structure longer with more available slots, drawing more overall interest to teams later and later into the season (read: ratings), leading to increased revenue for said powers that be with an additional four nationally-televised playoff games in mid-to-late December.
That’s a lot to take in. In simpler terms, it’s more money, better football, more interest longer in the season.
Those seem like good reasons to go from four to eight teams. That’s not to forget the precedent in other American sports of being far more inclusive when it comes to playoff structures. College football has always been the outlier, and despite billions in television revenue, there’s more to be had for everyone associated with the game.
Both NCAA’s March Madness and the NCAA College World Series include more than 20 percent of participating teams in their playoff tournaments.
Major League Baseball—the guardians of the “old way”—recently expanded their playoff structure to include 33 percent of its teams, even if four are relegated to a de facto play-in game.
The NFL puts nearly 38 percent of its teams into the playoffs. The NHL and NBA both put in 53 percent of their teams, with all three leagues featuring teams with losing records in the past few seasons.
A one-loss team could be out of the college football playoff this year, but our professional leagues let teams in with losing records.
Major League Soccer did not have a team with a losing record in the playoff this season, but does feature 12 of its 20 franchises in the postseason. That’s 60 percent of its teams.
College football features three percent.
Well, technically 3.1 percent of college football teams are invited into the playoffs. Even doubling the number of teams would make college football the most exclusive major playoff structure in America by nearly triple. And contrary to what college football traditionalists think, adding four teams would not water down the regular season, if one simple rule were put in place.
First round playoff games should be held at campus locations of the higher seed.
Let’s say Clemson beats North Carolina and Alabama beats Florida. And let’s say Iowa beats Michigan State, and those three teams and Oklahoma make up the top four. That would put one-loss Ohio State in a group with two-loss Michigan State, Stanford, Notre Dame, Florida State, TCU, Baylor and two or three other contenders lobbying for the eighth spot. How is including four of those teams worse than watching them play meaningless bowl games in January? Do we need a reminder of TCU last season again this year?
Now, let’s say some chaos reigns and Clemson beats UNC and Alabama beats Florida but Iowa falls to Michigan State. Who gets the fourth spot after Oklahoma?
What if Florida wins? Does the SEC not get a team in the college football playoff? If the Tarheels beat Clemson, does the ACC fall out in favor of two Big Ten teams?
These are decisions that shouldn’t have to be made, and after the current television deal rolls to the point of renewal, these decisions won’t have to be made, because people in charge of making money will be smart enough to know that everyone wins with more better football. Look at this as less of a call to action and more of a friendly annual reminder of that fact.
The regular season wouldn’t be watered down any more with eight teams in a playoff because most of the teams in contention for the top four don’t play each other, which puts the teams that do at a stark disadvantage this time of year. With eight teams in the mix, games like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State might lose a bit of luster, but with how far the Cowboys dropped in the polls after falling to the Sooners, the game still would have been an elimination game. At the same time, eight teams making the playoffs would have put far more juice on games like Baylor-TCU or Florida-Florida State, which themselves would have become elimination games.
Stanford and Notre Dame would have been a play-in game just like Ohio State and Michigan State was this year, and the Buckeyes and Spartans would have mattered just as much if the winner was guaranteed a spot in the tournament and home field for the first round.
If two-loss Stanford takes home a national title after winning at Michigan State, then in neutral site games against Alabama and Clemson, how would they not be deemed worthy of the title?
How is that watered down?
There will never be a year where eight teams aren’t good enough to compete for the national title, even when two teams might be the most deserving of that opportunity. Heck, just this year proves the point of why four teams were needed, with undefeated Iowa from a power conference sitting fourth in the standings. Expanding to eight makes even more sense to give teams with one bad loss and 11 good wins a chance for something big.
There was a time, not long ago, when there was no national championship game. Teams would play their conference-affiliated bowl games and voters would decide who was the team most worthy of the biggest trophy.
In 1992, Sports Illustrated published an article by Austin Murphy called The Dream Game that told the story of Washington defeating Miami in the “battle of two No. 1’s” to determine the true national champion. I was a very confused 13 year-old boy reading that story, wondering why in the world a game of that magnitude wasn’t shown on television or covered by my local paper. I couldn’t believe Miami lost and nobody else was making a big deal about the game. Was it not sanctioned by the NCAA? Were there referees? Fans? Was it real?
No, it wasn’t real, merely a dream for what was to come. The Bowl Coalition began in ’92 and paved the way for the Bowl Alliance, which made way in 1998 for the Bowl Championship Series which, last season, made way for the first playoff system.
Nearly a century and a half since the first college snap and the sport has evolved immensely in the last quarter century. Adding four deserving teams is the logical next step, because more of a good thing will never not be better.