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The Curious Case of College Football Playoff Expansion

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NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Four teams? Eight teams? Sixty-eight teams? College football playoff expansion is the question that has a number of possibilities but no simple solution all at the same time. Every college football fan seems to have an opinion on the ideal solution, but does such a solution even exist? Let’s try to figure this out.

To adequately discuss a new format for the current playoff system, let’s take a quick look at the current format. Simply put, the four “best” teams in the country play in a mini-bracket, where the semifinals are considered bowl games and the winners move on to play in the championship. About halfway through the season, the playoff selection committee releases their rankings for who might qualify to be in this mini-bracket, similar to the old BCS format. Of course, that format carried it’s fair share of drama, and so far the new system isn’t able to escape its own share of scrutiny. Similar to the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) format, the CFP (College Football Playoff) strikes fans as an imperfect way of finding out who the best college football team is. The BCS relied more on computer stats and polls whereas the CFP is a 13-member committee who chooses the qualifiers based on a number of different factors. To sum it up, the new CFP format is essentially just adding two national championship-eligible teams to what the BCS was already doing. The idea was that it would cut down on controversy and snubs; so far, it seems to have almost increased that.

So where do we go from here? For the people that just wanted more meaningful games and more teams who have a chance to play for a national championship, the CFP is certainly a step in the right direction. With that though comes the temptation to add more teams and more of these playoff-type games that will seemingly produce a more organic and true national champion. To take a deeper look at what expansion can create it is easy to compare the college football postseason with the college basketball postseason. March Madness is as ingrained in the American sports culture as much as the Super Bowl, and that is hardly an exaggeration. Millions of people fill out March Madness brackets, and with 68 teams in the field it creates a deeper interest for more people because essentially every team has a chance. The idea that more teams in the CFP would decrease the amount of snubs is probably inaccurate, given that even in the 68-team field of college basketball there is always a handful of teams that get snubbed from the Dance. I mean, is it really even a Selection Sunday if Dick Vitale doesn’t go on a five-minute rant about a 12-loss Creighton getting in over a 6-loss Monmouth team? Point being, March Madness has created a system in which literally every single Division 1 program has a chance to compete for a national title. Given the rule that every conference tournament champion gets into the field of 68, some argue that this rule dilutes the regular season for college basketball, especially for one-bid leagues like many of the smaller conferences in the south, midwest and northeast. This is realistically one of the few reasons that college football wants to keep their playoff to four teams, for the mere fact that every game in college football is season-altering.

To continue using college basketball as a measuring stick to how college football could expand, it is important to note how college basketball keeps it’s regular season games meaningful. College basketball has gone preseason tournament crazy, and it is really helping smaller schools get a shot to boost their resumes come March. While basketball programs are still able to schedule the majority of their non-conference schedules, preseason tournaments give smaller schools the chance to play big-time opponents that would otherwise never schedule them for a regular game. This is something that is really causing the biggest division in college football, where Power 5 schools will rarely schedule games against Group of 5 schools like UCF, Boise State or Houston. Teams like Alabama or Ohio State find scheduling these strong mid-major programs as useless because they just become giant trap games where the harm of losing far outweighs the reward for winning. This gives an overwhelming disadvantage to Group of 5 schools because they are constantly being told that they play weak schedules, when in reality they are handcuffed due to Power 5 schools lack of interest in scheduling them.

The CFP was supposed to be inclusive to Group of 5 schools, opening up two extra slots for them to potentially have a chance to compete for a national championship. The University of Central Florida has completely called the committee’s bluff on this, as in 2017 they finished the season undefeated but were on the outside looking in. Granted, they were given the spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game, a game that does give a Group of 5 school a chance to compete against a nationally ranked Power 5 school. If the committee doesn’t have any real interest in putting a Group of 5 team in, some suggest that these conferences should create their own playoff. Now, before that happens it’s likely that these conferences will wait to see if the CFP gets expanded, given that some Power 5 conferences are also unhappy with the current system. The biggest opponents of the current system bring up the most relevant and troublesome problem facing this issue. The College Football Playoff isn’t actually a playoff at all. It is an invitational, ran by a group of people who ultimately help create a national champion.

It is no secret that college basketball has pretty much figured out how to create a fair, inclusive, and exciting bracket. Given the physicality of the sport, college football will never have a giant field of teams in their playoff, but there are ways to amend the system that ultimately will satisfy more teams and fans. The new and improved system (let’s hope they fix this someday) will likely be structured to support two main things: money, and a straightforward, committee-less champion. More games will mean more money, and getting the most viewership and notoriety for these potential extra or “new” games will be vastly important to the top brass of college football. These added games would also satisfy fans who yearn for an actual playoff, where there is a set criteria for making the playoff, ultimately creating the most real national champion. The following paragraphs will illustrate the two most popular solutions to fixing the CFP, and how the NCAA and it’s programs could adjust to make them a reality.

Solution 1- The 6-Team Playoff

This idea is probably the most feasible of any solution to alter the current format. It is extremely straightforward, and wouldn’t cause a lot of change to the current system. The six teams would consist of the five Power 5 conference winners, with the sixth spot given to the highest ranked Group of 5 team, who also must be a conference champion. Automatically, the main complaint with this format is that not all Power 5 conferences deserve a spot. Think of last year’s playoff, where two SEC teams were represented while the Big Ten and Pac-12 were not represented. While that is valid, this format would actually increase the seriousness of the regular season and conference championship games. For instance, last year’s national champion, Alabama, would actually have not even made the playoff in this format. Now that might cause concern for college football, but this six-team system does lay out the exact criteria and road to the playoff. If you want be in, you must play well in your conference and win the conference championship. Similar to other sports who use division or conference winners as a means for playoff bids, there is no secret or special formula to get in. It is extremely cut and dry, win and get in.

The supporters of this format point to its simplicity as the best and biggest component of the plan. It actually closely resembles the NFL’s playoff format, where the top two seeds receive byes and and the first round of CFP would contain home games for the higher seeded teams. While it does bring forth a very straightforward approach, I believe this system actually might cause more harm than good. There are three particular reasons why this format might actually be detrimental to college football, with the first reason being the obsolescence of polls. The vaunted top-25 poll has long been the measuring stick for college football teams, where high-profile games and upsets are all reliant upon a team’s ranking in the poll. The six-team format gives the poll little use, where it’s only practical use would be to determine the highest-rated Group of 5 team and to help determine other, non-playoff bowl matchups. Of course, the top-25 poll would still be used as a way of selling and predicting games and outcomes, but it’s real use would be severely lessened.

The second reason this format has issues is due to the drama and lack of perceived fairness that it could potentially create. Let’s say for instance that in a down year, Oregon State wins a PAC-12 championship with a 9-4 record. In that same season, Auburn goes 12-1, with their only loss coming in the SEC championship game. In terms of the polls, Auburn would likely be top 5, while Oregon State would be a fringe top-25 team. In the six-team scenario, the Beavers are playing for a national title, while the Tigers would be passed off to a non-playoff bowl game. Now, Auburn was given the same chance for a playoff spot as Oregon State, but it is hard to say that the Beavers are a better or more deserving team. Similar versions of this have happened in the NFL’s playoff, where in 2008 the 8-8 San Diego Chargers won a historically weak AFC West Division and received a home playoff game against the 12-4 Indianapolis Colts. The Colts (despite winning four more games in a much tougher division) had to travel cross-country and play a road game in a hostile environment, a game in which they would eventually lose. Colts fans were upset that their team was put in such a tough position despite having a great regular season record. The NFL contains much more parity than college football, and in this hypothetical (yet possible) scenario, Auburn would be a much, much stronger and better team than Oregon State. This scenario would likely play out in some form every year, and it could hurt the chances of producing the truest and most deserving national champion. Lastly, the biggest issue this format might create is weak scheduling by some of college football’s blue blood programs. Teams like Alabama and Ohio State are often criticized for scheduling a few “cupcake” games per year, and this format would only encourage that. Given that the only meaningful games come in conference play, highly ranked teams have absolutely zero incentive to schedule any major non-conference games. Any decent FBS program would be inclined to schedule multiple games against FCS opponents or bottom-feeder FBS programs. Not only would this create a very dull September for college football, it would also potentially eliminate some of college football’s best rivalry games. USC and Notre Dame, Florida State and Florida and BYU and Utah are just a few big games that would all be in jeopardy of ceasing to exist in lieu of scheduling easier games. Granted, losing these non-conference rivalry games wouldn’t necessarily hurt a team’s chance at making the playoff, but it would make the games far less meaningful and would encourage coaches to schedule easier games to pad their team’s record, avoid injuries, and take hard minutes off of starters. With all things considered, this format does create a better opportunity for all teams, but it could also take away from some of college football’s tradition could hurt early-season viewership.

Solution 2- The 8-Team Playoff

Ah, the 8-team playoff. Take a quick tour around social media or flip on a sports radio show, and it seems the 8-team playoff is the darling of all possible expansion scenarios for fans across the country. It includes all the necessary pieces that can actually attempt to make all 130 FBS schools happy. With that being said, it still isn’t without it’s imperfections or potential drama-causers.

The 8-team playoff format actually piggybacks off of what the 6-team format has in mind. With that in mind, this format adds two more teams, teams that essentially will be “at-large” bids into the playoff. This is a very small scale version of what college basketball does, where conference tournament winners get automatic bids and there are extra slots for the next best teams who don’t win their conference. This format aims to correct the major slip up that the 6-team format causes, where a really good team that gets upset in their conference championship game is left out of the playoff. If you are a Power 5 team whose only loss is in the conference championship game, chances are you’ll still be in the playoff. Seeds 1-5 would consist of the five conference winners, seed 6 would be the top Group of 5 finisher (who also wins their conference title) and seeds 7 and 8 would be the “at-large” teams, or the teams who are the highest ranked teams who were not conference winners. The ideal bracket would give the top four seeds byes, and the 5 and 8 seeds and 6 and 7 seeds would play the first round, with the highest seed hosting the game at their stadium. The winners of those games would play the following week at the home stadium of the 3 and 4 seeds, while the 1 and 2 seeds would essentially receive a two-week bye, similar to the top seeds in the NFL’s format. The final four teams would then follow a format similar to the one in place, where the semifinals and championship games would be played at a pre-chosen neutral site. In all games, the playoff would follow normal bracket procedures where the top seeds would always play the lowest seed remaining.

This format seems like a dream, but the first major concern is the amount of games a team might end up playing. The two teams who make the championship games could potentially end up playing 16 or 17 games, a few more than the normal 13 or 14 that some teams currently play. In reality, this is the only issue that this format could cause. A simple solution to this is something that has already been talked about in college football, which is shortening the regular season. Most teams play 12 regular season games, but virtually every FBS school plays at least one FCS school per year. Simply put, those games need to be removed. Outside of the rare upset, those games generally end up as extremely lopsided victories that provide little excitement to fans. This isn’t a knock on the FCS, as they use these games as a chance to receive payouts and national exposure. With that being said, the FCS has a good playoff system and leaving them off of FBS schedules is probably best for college football as a whole. This will be one less game of wear-and-tear on players and might actually create some more exciting non-conference games amongst FBS schools, given that they will not be allowed to schedule opponents that are normally far below the level of FBS competition. Additionally, top FCS programs like James Madison and North Dakota State are probably headed for the FBS eventually anyway, so this change might eventually help them as well.

Other than just creating a scenario where every team in the country has a chance at a national title, the 8-team format might have a deeper, more valuable effect on college football. For example, recruiting might become a more even playing field, given that every FBS coach can pitch to a recruit that they could play on a national stage for a championship. This could end up creating more parity amongst programs, something that the majority of schools would appreciate. Furthermore , if you are a fan of a Group of 5 team (or even a fan of fun non-conference games) this format could make the college season even more interesting. Because there is only one spot reserved for a Group of 5 team, it is very realistic to assume that top Group of 5 programs would schedule non-conference games against one another to get a leg up on the one postseason spot. For instance, we could see a team like Boise State go after a team like UCF, knowing that they might be the stiffest competition for the one playoff spot. These games would attract a national audience, and would give further exposure to teams that are extremely competitive and talented but sometimes fly under the radar due to conference affiliation.

Ultimately, college football is going to need to adjust the current playoff system, and one of these two formats need to be the answer. If the NCAA and all the FBS programs are able to figure how to slightly adjust some of the regular season scheduling, either of these scenarios could make for an even better version of college football as a whole.