NFL Style Playoff for College Football

This has been promoted to the front page from the fan shot section.

It has always been curious to me that college football has not developed a playoff.  Almost every sport that doesn't use empirical data to compare athletes/teams to each other (like track or weightlifting) has instituted a playoff to decide a champion through direct competition.  While most reasonable people have concluded that the NCAA should have a playoff many still disagree on which type playoff system should be used. 

After years of research. I have decided that the best playoff model is a modified NFL style playoff.  Now, I do not claim full credit for this idea, originally I read the majority of this proposal on a message board years ago but didn't put much thought into it at the time.  It was only after I began contemplating this idea a couple years later did I discover that this was (in my opinion) the best option for college football for a multitude of reasons.  However, for me to illustrate WHY this is the best system one must understand the other post season proposals and their flaws.

The Current system for BCS Bowls and the Nation Championship Game (two team playoff)

This puts ten teams into 5 elite bowls with pundits and computers selecting the top 2 that play for a national title.

  • 6 Automatic Qualifying (AQ) Conference Champions (Big East, Pac 10, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, and SEC) receive automatic bids
  • 1 Non AQ team (from CUSA, MAC, MWC, Sun Belt, and WAC) will receive an automatic bid if in the top 12 or 16 if ranked higher that an AQ champ
  • Notre Dame gets automatic bid if in top 8
  • Top 2 teams are automatically in the BCS NCG
  • The BCS number 3 gets a spot if they are from an AQ conference and if there is still room
  • If number 3 rule wasn't necessary the number 4 team will receive a bid if they are from an AQ conference and there are spots left.
  • After all automatics have been filled the at large selection can begin, these teams are chosen by the bowls among top 14 teams with 9 or more wins.
  • Only 2 teams from the same conference can play in the BCS bowls.

Criticisms: NCG and BCS games are biased to big AQ schools, many schools go undefeated and have no chance to participate, the BCS bowls normally take the most profitable teams and not always the best top ranked teams, some years multiple schools from the same conference deserve and chance to play.

Other playoff proposals

The Plus One model (4 team playoff)

Take the top 4 teams in the BCS and stage a four team playoff using the bowl system.

Criticisms: mostly the same as the current system just now we argue over top 4 instead of two.  An undefeated Ball St or Tulsa would never have a chance, and Boise St up until recently wouldn't have either, this system also wouldn't have solved the 2008 Big 12 three way tie or when there were 5 undefeated teams in 2009.

The Obama straight 8 model (8 team playoff)

Take the top 8 teams in the BCS and stage an eight team playoff using the bowl system and possibly a mixture of home games.

Criticisms: While this system would solve most years where there are multiple undefeated teams or a three way tie at the top, it would still exclude other smaller schools that will never make the top eight like Ball St or Tulsa.  Also (politically speaking) the 8 seed would be large enough that the AQ conferences would try to force their champs into the playoff system even though that would defeat most of the benefits to this system that I listed above.

The Dan Wetzel model (16 team playoff)

Take ALL 11 conference champions and seed the remaining 5 at large spots with the highest remaining teams in the BCS ranking.  Use home games before moving the semi-finals and finals to the bowls.

Criticisms: While this system would solve all current complaints against the BCS it still does deserve some criticism.  A 16 team model is too inclusive; there are not many years where 16 teams deserve a chance to play for a national championship and in many years a few conference champs do not deserve they right to play for a national championship.  The 2010 Sun Belt Champ is a 6-6 FIU, the 2008 MAC Champ was an 8-5 Buffalo and the 2007 & 2006 Sun Belt Champs were Troy and Florida Atlantic who both also had 5 losses, do these schools really deserve a playoff spot with five or six losses?

 Other General Playoff Criticism:

Risk of Injury- This argument is a favorite of the anti-playoff crowd.  These unpaid student athletes can't play that many games without exponentially increasing their risk of injury.....yeah right.  This may have had some merit until these schools and conferences took the 10 game regular season plus a bowl game and expanded the schedule to a 12 game regular season plus a conference championship game and a bowl game.  Did you know that most post season injuries occur due an decease in an athlete's flexibility that can be directly contributed to the down time that occurs between the final week of games and the beginning of bowl practice, Alabama and Texas in 2009 finished their regular seasons on December 5th and could not resume practicing until the 16th, that down time can be dangerous if athletes don't continue to stretch and workout during the break.  So by actually allowing playoff teams to continue to practice, without the large break in-between, it would keep the athletes in better shape and reduce the chance of tears, pulls, and sprains.  I mean Texas high school football teams play 17 games if they make it to the state championships and the NFL plays a 17 game regular season, so why can't colligate athletes play 17 games to determine its champion?  The answer simply is that they can and most would want to if it meant they had a chance to be the national champs.

Less Time for School- This year the regular season runs until December 4th (excluding the Army/Navy game) and the bowl season begins on December 18th and end on January 10th which gives the students plenty of time to finish their studying for the fall semester and end the post-season before spring class begin.  Do you know how many weekends fall between December 18th and January 10th? Four....which is the exact number of rounds it would take to complete a 12 or 16 round playoff.  There is no way that a playoff would interfere with these athletes studies anymore than the bowl system does.  The teams that play in the bowl game on December 18th transition from the regular season to bowl practice without a break for class, if they can do it then why can't the possible national champions?  Compared to other sports like basketball and baseball, football players miss the least amount of school and typically have more time to study than the others due to less mid-week game and fewer away game trips.

Maintaining the Integrity of the Regular Season-

Part 1- A playoff wouldn't reduce the scheduling of great out of conference (OOC) games anymore than it currently does, at the moment one loss can end your national title dreams but with a playoff 1 loss may not be the end of your season and scheduling better OOC game may get you better seeding.  Normally halfway through the regular season we know who are the likely top 6 contenders for the national title, so why watch any other games if that is all we care about?  If there was still a chance that any one loss team or conference champion could make the playoffs, imagine how many more games people would be interested in. 

Part 2-Some people think that once teams have secured their playoff/conference championship bid they would conserve their players in order to prepare for the playoffs.  That concern is valid (see the 2009 NFL Colts), therefore in a good playoff system the top ranked teams should be rewarded for playing a tough schedule and having fewer losses.  So to solve this dilemma a good playoff system should incentivize teams with not just better seeds which give them an easier win, but also home games and bye weeks.  This can make a huge difference competitively to the teams by allowing more rest and home field advantage which is also monetarily beneficial to the schools and communities.

A playoff and the bowl system cannot coexist, or a playoff would kill the bowl system- This is a false choice, obviously they can co-exist, just use a hybrid of the two post season models, take the top teams in the playoff and allow the other bowl eligible teams to fill the bowls.

A playoff would kill all of interest in the bowls because people would only care about the elite teams in the playoffs- I say there already is a difference in national interest between the BCS and non BCS bowls in the current system, so by moving the top teams from the BCS bowls to a playoff would only transfer that interest but not destroy all interest in rest of the bowls. I would even argue that a playoff would add more interest to the post season because certain bowls, like the Rose Bowl and or the Cotton Bowl, will always have national interest regardless of what teams play in them.  People could and would watch both the bowls and the Playoff just like they watch the BCS and non-BCS games now.

A playoff would destroy the mid-major or "little guys' bowls"-umm....yeah it would, by taking the top teams into a playoff system, it would allow other teams to move up to the higher bowls which would tickle down to the mid-majors.  Instead of playing and vacationing in the Boise, Mobile, Detroit, or Albuquerque in December/January they could upgrade to bowls in Texas, California, or Florida.  If we don't establish a playoff system because it would hurt the Bowl then this system is extremely more than corrupt we thought.

Now that we've gone through the basics, without further adieu...

The NFL playoff model (12 team playoff)

  • All 11 conference champs who have 2 or less losses receive an automatic spot in the playoffs, so If all champs have 2 losses then there is only 1 at large spot, a conference champ with more than 2 losses may still make the playoff if they qualify for an at large selection.
  • As an exclusionary rule, playing two FCS (D1-AA) teams in one year will count as a loss, so if 2 of a conference champ's wins were against FCS teams they will not receive an automatic bid if they have more than 1 loss, however they may still qualify for at large selection (this rule is similar to the current bowl eligibility rule that only counts one FCS win towards bowl eligibility).
  • The remaining playoff spots are filled with at large teams selected by taking highest teams in the BCS rankings.
  • There is no limit on number of teams from any conference.
  • Seed the playoff by using the BCS rankings, if the team is not ranked (like a 2 loss Buffalo or Troy) use their BCS computer rankings to determine the seeding (in rare situations).
  • The top 4 teams in the BCS ranking will receive 1st week byes
  • 5-12 play each other at the home field of the teams with the highest BCS ranking
    • 12 will play at 5, 11 will play at 6, 10 will play at 7, and 9 will play at 8
  • For the 2nd week, 1-4 will host the winners from the 1st week at their home stadiums
    • 8/9 will play at 1, 7/10 will play at 2, 6/11 will play at 3, and 5/12 will play at 4
  • The semi-finals (week 3) can be played at 2 of the elite the bowl stadiums which would be separate from the bowl games (i.e. the 2011 Fiesta Bowl and the 2011 BCS NCG at Glendale).
  • The National Championship Game (week 4 final) will occur just like it does now.

Why not include all conference champions?  If you think a 6 loss FUI or a 5 loss Buffalo should be in a playoff then you definitely don't get why people think a playoff would ruin the importance of the regular season.

Why a two loss cap why not a three loss cap for the automatic bids?  Well, the BCS has never allowed a three loss team to play for the NCG, it seems only logical to use similar parameters.  While this could be pushed to three losses that would great weaken this system.

Why not count wins instead of losses?  Valid argument, however with conference championship games and the Hawaii 13th game rule this would be harder to standardize.  This may be slightly biased toward conferences without CCGs however they must WIN those games to be considered for an automatic bid so a loss hurts them no matter what I set the cap at.

Why not keep the current 2 teams from one conference rule?  Well, this system would be the most beneficial to the mid-major conferences, so without this rule why would the SEC or Big12 consider changing to this system?  This proposal also solves the dilemma about having more than two legitimate national title contenders with in a conference (i.e. the Texas-Oklahoma-Texas Tech 3 way tie of 2008).

Bye weeks/home game are not fair to the other playoff teams.  True but this an incentive to play a good OOC schedule and try to stay highly ranked throughout the season, and without these incentives a team could just quit once it had been declared a conference champion. 


Now that I have explained my version of the NFL style playoff, I will put it into practice using the last four years.


Champs with auto bids (8)

ACC-Virginia Tech, Big12-Oklahoma, Big East-West Virginia, Big Ten-Ohio St, MWC-BYU, PAC10-USC, SEC-LSU, and WAC-Hawaii

At larges (4)

Kansas, Arizona St (Co-Champ), Georgia and Mizzou

Notables left out (6)

Big East (Co-Champ)-UConn (3 losses), CUSA-UCF (3 losses), MAC-Central Michigan (5 losses), Sun Belt (Co-Champs)-FAU and Troy (5 and 4 losses), and #12 Florida (3 losses)

This includes the top 11 teams in the BCS plus #17 BYU, #12 Florida wouldn't be happy about this but tough luck Gators.  If one really wanted you could fight for a 3 loss UCF at the expense of #11 Arizona St but I think that is a little farfetched.


Champs with auto bids (7)

Big12-Oklahoma, Big East-Cinncy, Big Ten-Penn St, MWC-Utah, PAC10-USC, SEC-Florida, and WAC-Boise St

At larges (5)

Texas, Alabama, Texas Tech, Ohio St, and TCU

Notables left out (6)

Sun Belt-Troy (3 losses), ACC-Virginia Tech (4 losses), CUSA-ECSU (4 losses), MAC-Buffalo (5 losses), Ball St (1 loss to Buffalo in the MAC CCG), and BYU (2 losses)

This year sucked for Ball St but had they won the MAC CCG they would have been included at the expense of #11 TCU (since #12 Cinncy won the Big East), this year include all top 12 of the BCS ranked team in the playoff, sorry #15 BYU.  Also note the exclusion of the ACC proving this system doesn't care if the conference is "AQ" or not, and this solves the threeway tie in the Big12 South.


Champs with auto bids (9)

ACC-Georgia Tech, Big12-Texas, Big East-Cinncy, Big Ten-Ohio St, MAC-Central Michigan, MWC-TCU, PAC10-Oregon, SEC-Alabama, and WAC-Boise St

At larges (3)

Florida, Iowa, and Virginia Tech

Notables left out (4)

Sun Belt-Troy (3 losses), CUSA-ECSU (4 losses), #12 LSU (3 losses), and BYU (2 losses)

A 3 loss Virginia Tech barley makes the cut, the playoff is the top eleven plus Central Michigan.


Champs with auto bids (7)

ACC-Virginia Tech, Big12-Oklahoma, Big Ten-Wisconsin, MWC-TCU, PAC10-Oregon, SEC-Auburn and WAC-Nevada

At larges (5)

Stanford, Ohio St, Arkansas, Michigan St, and Boise St

Notables left out (11)

Big East(Co-Champs)-UConn/WV/Pitt (4/3/5 losses), CUSA-UCF (3 losses), WAC(Co-Champ)-Hawaii (3 losses), MAC-Miami OH (4 losses), Sun Belt-FIU/Troy (6/5 losses), #11 LSU, #12 Mizzou, and Northern Illinois who would have made it had they won the MWC CCG at the expense of Boise St.

If this was to happen this year it would work out like this...

First Round 1-4 get byes (Auburn, Oregon, TCU, and Stanford)

These "wild card" games are played at 5-8's home stadiums

5. Wisconsin v 12. Nevada @ Madison  6. Ohio St v 11. Virginia Tech @ Columbus

7. Arkansas v 10. Boise St @ Fayetteville  8. Oklahoma v 9. Michigan St @ Norman

Next round at 1-4's home stadiums

1.  Auburn v 8/9 OU/Mich St @ Auburn  2.  Oregon v 7/10 Ark/BSU @ Eugene

3. TCU v 6/11 tOSU/VT @ Fort Worth  4. Stanford v 5/12UWM/UNR @ Stanford

Semi-Finals can be played at the bowls that rotate

1/8/9 v 4/5/12 at Fiesta or Orange

2/7/10 v 3/6/11 at Sugar or Cotton

Finals can also rotate for now lets just say it was played at the Rose Bowl...

Well that's it, if I have convinced you that this is the best playoff system then great if not then I am a failure....

In all seriousness though, if we ever get to the point where we are debating which type of playoff is best then we have already won war....

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