I can remember proposals for (lower case) college football playoff schemes for literally decades. I have a copy of Death to the BCS on my bookshelf; it has a proposed 16-team playoff bracket on the back of the dust jacket. Published in 2010, it’s one of the more recent polemics on the topic.
I used to be in favor of a playoff of maybe six or eight, but I have since changed my mind. I think four is the correct number. Because I saw perhaps more talk of an eight-team playoff this year than any others in the College Football Playoff era, I feel the need to explain why.
I always hated the BCS, and I was not sad to see it go. It was a necessary transition for the instinctually conservative power brokers of the sport, but a two-team playoff with traditional tie-ins for non-championship games was never going to hold forever. There were too many times it fell down, from the No. 3 team Kansas State not even attending a BCS bowl in 1998, to Nebraska playing for the title in 2001 after losing the Big 12 title game 62-36, to the split national title in 2003, to the thing that eventually killed it, the Alabama-LSU rematch in 2011.
The inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014 is the only time the new system has perhaps been inadequate to its charge of finding the best team. Very good Baylor and TCU teams were left out in favor of an Ohio State team that didn’t have a definitively better claim on the No. 4 spot. The Buckeyes then going on to win the championship, not to mention Baylor losing its bowl, pretty much calmed the furor down.
Since then, the problem with the CFP hasn’t been deserving teams getting left out. It’s been undeserving teams getting in and then getting throttled.
The selection committee’s guidelines tell them to pick the four best teams for the playoff. Not the most deserving teams, but the best. There are then some factors that members are to consider when deciding who’s best, but the bottom line is this: four best.
Was 2015 Michigan State one of the four best teams? No, no it was not. It got in because it beat 11-1 Ohio State in bad weather, and Alabama dismissed the Spartans 38-0. OSU went on to blow out Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
Was 2018 Notre Dame one of the four best teams? Probably not, but the Irish got in because undefeated P5 teams (and Notre Dame) are basically guaranteed spots in the top four by custom regardless. The Irish lost 30-3 to Clemson.
And speaking of, both 2014 Baylor and TCU might’ve been better than Florida State, but see the previous paragraph about a zero in the loss column negating all objective analysis. Oregon destroyed the Seminoles 59-20.
And some of the teams that got into the playoff by actually being a top-four team had poor showings of it, worse than can be explained by having an off night. Throw ’14 FSU in here if you think they were a legit top four team. Same with the sad pizza Buckeyes of 2016 and their 31-0 loss to Clemson.
Then you get something like 2016 Washington, which was a top four team but clearly wasn’t equipped with the kind of roster Alabama had that year. The Huskies never legitimately challenged in their 24-7 loss. That it wasn’t worse was an act of mercy from — and a bid to limit potential injuries by — the superior Bama team.
The same thing would’ve happened this year if Utah had won the Pac-12. They did not, because in large part Oregon had the better horses.
This gets to the one major downside of staying at four: no Group of 5 team is likely to ever make it. I fell in love with Boise State in 2004, when it had a quarterback named Dinwiddie and a receiver named Gilligan and barely lost an epic Liberty Bowl against then-CUSA denizen Louisville with up-and-coming head coach Bobby Petrino. My mother is a UCF grad and I do still root for the Knights because of that, despite all the reasons why you want to tell me I shouldn’t. I have real affection for the non-P5 set.
But those teams don’t have the two-deeps to win three consecutive games against the top of the Power 5. One game? Definitely. Happens all the time. Two? That’s a stretch, given that even the limited P5 teams in such situations almost never pull it off. Three, in the rounds of eight, four, and two of a playoff? Not gonna happen. Four, in a 16-team bracket? Vanishingly unlikely.
If the 2015 Michigan States and 2016 Washingtons can’t do it, my beloved 2010 Boise State Broncos wouldn’t even if they had defeated Nevada. Football is not basketball, where one guy can catch fire and propel an otherwise non-elite team to the Final Four.
That’s the main point why I’m behind a four-team playoff, actually: football is not basketball.
It’s a brutal sport, and playing 30+ games a season can’t happen. Already now making the top teams play 14 or 15 is pushing what’s reasonable to ask from players only granted in-kind compensation. Every new round of the playoff would add another game for a handful of teams. They’d be asked to go as high as 16 a year in an eight-team configuration or 17 in a 16-team setup. That number of games creates enough wear and tear on a body that it’s routinely a major point of contention in NFL labor negotiations.
Besides, in college basketball, the culture of the sport says the team that wins the tournament is the champion, full stop. Fans may grumble but ultimately won’t revolt if a 7-seed beats an 8-seed for the title.
There are plenty of problems with the College Football Playoff as currently set up, but it nailed this much: the culture of college football really is about naming the best team the national champion. That’s what college football fans want, and they’ll endlessly litigate split titles (hi, LSU and USC) and fraudulent champs from decades past (Roll Tide) long after immediate relevance has passed.
There were significant noises about how maybe this year might trigger an eight-team playoff because it appeared one-loss Georgia would take the place of a one-loss Big 12 or Pac-12 champ if it won the SEC. LSU had such a resume built up that, after an Atlanta loss, dropping them below either of a pair of teams lacking anything like the run of dominant and quality wins the Tigers had would’ve been a farce. To which I’d respond: that’s the system working. Four. Best. Teams.
But UGA didn’t beat LSU. It didn’t have the playmakers on offense to keep up, and that had been evident for months. The Tigers smoked the Bulldogs, and now all the P5 champs with zero or one loss are in the semifinals. The apocalypse didn’t happen.
It almost never does. It’s extremely hard to go 13-0 or 12-1 or 11-1 in college football without a ton of luck or a suspect schedule. Those factors are easy to find, and the teams that take advantage of them don’t do so unnoticed. Sometimes we get a legit conundrum like Ohio State/Baylor/TCU in 2014. Most times, we don’t. More often we get a year like this one where it’d make more sense to figure out how to run a tournament with three teams than four. Sometimes like in 2005, two really is the right number and (heaven help me for saying this) the BCS could be sufficient in those years.
Because another round of playoffs is another round of punishment on some players’ bodies with scant additional compensation outside bowl gifts. Because another round of playoffs only delays the inevitable in a sport where true underdogs nearly always fall away. Because a team with no real claim to being the best someday breaking through (because probability works like that) would go against the culture of the sport.
Leave it at four.