The College Football Playoffs are a subjective business. Every ranking is based on a consensus of opinions. As such, the metrics by which teams are evaluated are not exactly scientific in nature. Of course, the committee factors in criteria like strength of schedule and conference championships, but more often than not, the top 4 is simply the result of an eye test analysis from football minds. Thus, the reputations and perceptions of different programs likely play a role in who is held in higher esteem. Moreover, the opinionated nature of the selection process naturally leads to controversy and disagreement every year.
Since its inception, the playoff has left teams on the outside feeling snubbed. First in 2014, it was Baylor and TCU on the outside looking in. Last year was it was Penn State, and this year it’s Ohio State. All of these teams and fanbases have felt they “deserved” to be in the top 4 for one reason or another. But as it stands, the current system is not about deserving it or earning it. Winning your conference championship or going undefeated may not be enough on its own to secure a playoff berth. Rather, making it in is all about passing the committee’s eye test . Obviously this format leaves room for bias. In the same vein, even the greatest football minds are regularly incorrect in their forecasts of who will win a given matchup. The supposed best team does not always win of course. That is what makes college football great, and that is why we play the games. But that idea begs the question: is the current format the best way to do things? In sports, playoffs and champions are typically decided on the field, not in a board room. An arbitrary ranking, based almost entirely on a group of people’s individual beliefs, will not always reward teams who have “earned it” throughout the year. Furthermore, the committee often has to split hairs to differentiate between teams ranked one through eight. Any number of the teams ranked four through eight might have similar resumes and legitimates chances at a national title. For example, Ohio State snuck into the playoffs in 2015 at number four and went on to win the whole thing. Imagine if the Buckeyes had been left out of the CFP picture. Limiting the playoffs to only four teams, out of the hundreds in the college football landscape, may be discounting plenty of potential champions. The move toward an eight team playoff could eliminate that possibility and afford all of these similar statured teams to decide everything on the field.
In fairness, there are pros and cons associated with expanding the playoff field. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine why NCAA wouldn’t be on board with adding more teams to the race. The first and perhaps most obvious advantage of an eight team bracket, is that consumers get more meaningful football games; which would likely translate to more revenue generated. Additionally, switching to an eight team field would likely alleviate some of the controversy surrounding the selection committee. Just a fews years removed from a two team BCS championship, any team outside of the top 8 would have no right to feel slighted. Similarly, this format would allow every conference champion to be included. As it stands, every year at least one conference will be left out or snubbed for a playoff spot. In fact, this year both the PAC 12 and Big Ten have been excluded. A move towards the representation of all conferences would certainly be preferable for all parties. The committee would not have to deal with the tough decisions or backlash of snubbing a power five conference champion, and of course each conference would have a chance to prove their worth. Lastly, an eight team field would allow for at least three at large bids. The last 3 spots could be used to account for good teams in a stacked conference, or for the undervalued non power five conference champions. For example, the current system essentially asks teams in the SEC West who have to play Alabama, LSU, and Auburn every year to lose no more than 1 game. That is not to say that a two loss SEC West team couldn’t hang with or beat the best teams in the country. Or on the other side of the coin, look at this year. It will be hard for UCF to reconcile being ranked thirteen this year despite going undefeated. The extra bids would allow for a small conference candidate to be included without excluding bigger programs.
Yet the committee still seems lukewarm on the idea of expanding the playoffs; and not without reason. Part of what makes college football special is that the games mean something every Saturday. That is something you don’t get with the NFL or any other sport. One loss could be a season ender. As such, every game has a must win feel. This only adds to the passion and electricity that is characteristic of the college game. Opening up the playoffs to four more teams could diminish some of this intensity. Teams would be able to afford to lose a game or two without any real concern of missing the playoffs. Expanding the playoffs may increase the excitement surrounding the post season, but at the expense of the regular season. In my estimation, college football has the most important and exciting regular season in all of sports. It is understandable that the NCAA might not want to interfere with that. Therefore i would propose the compromise of a six team playoff, with each of the top two seeds receiving first round byes. A six team field would allow the committee to bring every power five conference champion. More importantly, it would also not diminish the importance of the regular season, given that historically every top six team in the final rankings has had at most two losses. Another change worth considering has to do with the way conference champions are decided. In every other sport, conference champions are decided by overall record and not conference records. But for some reason college football is different. For example, in NBA basketball, conference standings are determined by a team’s record throughout the season, not by their record in conference. For that reason, teams that are clearly the class of a conference continue to be left out of conference championships (i.e. Ohio State 2016 and Alabama 2017). It is insane to allow a structural issue to prohibit the best team in a given conference from playing in their conference championship. A simple change in the rule would ensure an end to debates like whether Ohio State was more deserving than Penn State last year. A berth in the national championship should be based on your national record, not an in conference record.
One thing is for sure: something has to be done otherwise we will continue to see legitimate championship contenders left out year after year. In a sport as unpredictable and as difficult to analyze as college football, it is ludicrous that the committee decides that only four teams have a chance to win the national championship. The NCAA is literally asking the committee to to predict the unpredictable. Why not let the kids decide who is the best for a change?