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How The College Football Playoff Should Work and Why

As the selection committee gets ready to release the 2015 semi-finalists, here's what they SHOULD be doing..and why

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines playoff (or more appropriately play-off according to them) as:  A series of games that is played after the end of the regular season in order to decide which player or team is the champion.  A secondary definition of:  A game or series of games that is played to decide the winner when people or teams are tied.

I've always felt it missed one important piece of criteria, that being an "agreed upon" method to determine the champion which has always been at the heart of the debate when it comes to college football.  Certainly, with the exception of the smallest number of purists who believe that all was right in the world prior to the BCS or it's predecessors, the Bowl Alliance and the Bowl Coalition or when #1 BYU battled unranked Michigan in the Holiday Bowl in 1984 to claim its national championship everyone agreed some sort of playoff system was required.

The "agreed upon" part, well therein lies the issue.  Are we better off with the current playoff system than anything previously? Undoubtedly yes, but it could be better and should be better.  So let's take a look at what the college football playoff system should look like and why as well as the unintended consequences which may occur by the decisions that are made on the format.

Precursors to the points to come

There is no right answer to this.

  • Anyone who believes there is a perfect system that everyone will agree on is crazy.  What I am trying to do here is balance out the fairest method for achieving this along with what is best for the fans.  It is very likely that some of you will like some piece of this and find fault with other parts.
  • Playoffs are an American concept.

  • In foreign countries where soccer is king, there is almost no concept of playoffs, except to compare disparate entities such as the UEFA Champions League. Teams play round robin games against all others in their league and whoever has the best record or most points wins.  The idea of then having playoffs or a championship game once you have completed a comparison of all teams against each other in round robin play (hello, Big 12) is unnecessary. You've already got your answer or in the case of a tie or multi-team tie, have put a set of rules in place to resolve that tie. Playoffs are required however in the case where you have entities that you cannot easily, fairly or completely compare.  Such is the case with college football, a regional sport played by 128 different institutions in Division I alone. Each team playing 127 games is clearly not an option, so there needs to be a way to compare that which otherwise cannot be compared.
  • How a team performed once in the playoff is not justification for their original inclusion in said playoff.

  • This is the Ohio State argument from last season.  "See, they got it right by including Ohio State because they won".  Hogwash.  I am not saying that including Ohio State was incorrect, an argument could be made for inclusion or exclusion, but what I will say is that the regular season and the playoff are two distinct and separate entities.  Was Ohio State one of the top four teams in the 2014 regular season, perhaps.  Was Ohio State the best team in a four team playoff format post season, absolutely.  But at that point you are asking and then answering two separate questions.  Virginia Commonwealth's trip to the Final Four in 2011 was a classic case of this, as would an argument asking who are the hottest teams in college football now vs who were the best over the season.
  • Performance of conferences in bowl games means zero.

  • And it probably means less and less each year.  In almost all cases, bowl games are glorified exhibition games.  For the vast majority of teams, they are looked at as rewards for good (or mediocre in this day and age) seasons.  There are events to attend and all sorts of fun to be had, but the results of most of the games are fairly meaningless outside of a few games and now of course the College Football Playoff.   More and more, we hear examples, some will say excuses, about how one team or the other, "didn't want to be there".  Alabama and Utah in the Sugar Bowl a few years ago, was a great example of that.  So much is now placed into the CFP, that the only true measurement of a conference in a given year, is how those teams perform in the playoff scenario.
  • The goals of this then are:

    • Compare disparate entities as best we can.  As discussed above, one of the reasons we have all of these debates is that college athletics in general, due to the sheer number of programs that participate and the regional nature of those programs, having all these teams play against each other is impossible. We need a way to best compare that which is not easily comparable.
    • Try to be fair.  I know that fair brings up images of everyone getting participant trophies, however, there is not another sport in the world where a team can go undefeated and not be included in a championship playoff, or be declared an outright champion and please no soccer analogies here...38 ties in the Premier League I know won't get it done either.
    • Avoid double jeopardy for conference champions.  If conferences put forward their champion, whether through regular season play or a championship game, we've already solved the comparing disparate entity question, so providing say Ohio State 2015 another chance at a title, when they didn't get out of their own conference, really does a disservice to keeping the regular season sacrosanct and to what either Iowa or Michigan State this year will accomplish.  Once again though, no system is perfect.

    So then let's ask the various questions of how the playoff would work.

    Question 1:  Why?

    • The question of why we need a college football playoff was one we started to answer above.  It is almost impossible to determine who the best team is when all teams don't have the opportunity to play against each other.  We think, we believe, we use metrics to make our points, but we can never quite be sure until they have a chance to compete against each other.  A playoff does though mean we are answering two distinct questions, who do we believe is best in the regular season and then who is best in a post season tournament.  With the limitations we have there is no other way to make it work.

    Question 2:  How Many ?

    • Perhaps no question is of more interest than just how many teams should be part of the playoff.  Now don't kid yourself, there has always been some sort of playoff in college football, it just wasn't called a playoff and definitely didn't have a format, but when Miami played Nebraska in the famous Orange Bowl game in 1983, that was a playoff.  Even in years when the teams in contention for a title didn't play against each other, the results of the bowl games they played in determined a champion.  A set of games in a tournament format structure is simply more accepted.
    • There are those who foolishly think adding more teams will quell the cries of teams which aren't included, but come on, we've seen this for years in the NCAA Basketball tournament. The argument will simply move from who should get the fourth spot, to who should get the eighth spot or the sixteenth spot or however many we choose to compete in the tournament.
    • Four is an improvement, but my ideal is eight.
    • Why eight?  It would best allow our disparate entities above to be compared.  What if Ohio State didn't blow out Wisconsin in the Big 10 title game last year, there is a chance they wouldn't have been in the playoff, but they ultimately won it.  With eight, we would be able to include all the champions in the major conferences and then allow them to be compared.  We also would have room for three at large teams.
    • Why not 16?  This goes to the worthiness of a team to be included in a playoff scenario.  It would result in more football and I am all for more football, but a look at the current Top 25, shows us that three of the Top 25 currently have three losses and that number could grow to five by the time the final rankings are released.  This isn't the NFL, there needs to be some break point where mediocrity is not rewarded and there is no sense in going to say 12 and having byes because we have already discussed the idea that a playoff answers a separate question than regular season games, so all teams at that point should start from scratch.
    • Also, the calendar becomes an issue by adding what would amount to a fourth week of the tournament.
    • The biggest issue I see with 8 vs 4 is the double jeopardy issue.  With eight, we would have non conference champions included and that goes against the philosophy of comparing disparate entities and knowing the answer from those comparisons.  As I've said though, no system will ever be perfect and I am simply viewing 8 as the best option because it limits access for non conference champions, while providing potential access for more non power five teams.
    • Never..I repeat never, should there be further expansion.  College football has the greatest regular season in all of sports and there is no need to even consider spoiling it with further expansion of the playoff.

    Question 3: Who?

    • The current playoff format states that there is a premium on conference championships and a team must unequivocally be one of the top four teams if they are not to be included. Maybe Alabama 2011, maybe Michigan 2006 are examples of those teams, but in general, only conference champions need apply, outside the Notre Dame dilemma.
    • In this format, all power 5 conference champions automatically qualify.  How a conference wishes to crown its champion is its own business. The greed of expansion and conference championship games then comes back to the conferences to manage.  I will argue, as I have above, that even conference championship games are actually answering a different question than a season long competition, namely which team was best on one day.
    • That leaves us with three at large spots.  Now this is where we go a bit against the original philosophy of avoiding double jeopardy.  First, we need to address how non power five programs can get in.  My thought is that any undefeated group of five champion who has at least one win over a power five program with a plus .500 record for the season, must be included in the playoff.  For those of you worried about there being a glut of these teams, the last one to be in this position, the 2009 TCU Horned Frogs and Boise State Broncos, who finished the regular each undefeated and then played each other in the Fiesta Bowl, with Boise State winning.  It is a rarity at best.
    • Then there are the independents, Notre Dame, BYU and Army. At that point, we would use the current committee justification of being unequivocally one of the eight best teams in the country.
    • Somehow should there be more non power five teams that are undefeated?  See below.

    Question 4:  How?

    • The concept of the CFP committee works just fine in this case, all they are now tasked to do in this scenario is to select the three best at large teams and seed them.  They would use the same criteria they currently use to select the three best non automatic qualifiers and would be tasked with separating out the non power five teams who may auto qualify if somehow that number went above the three at large spots.

    Question 5:  When?

    • There would be three rounds of playoff games, with the quarterfinal games being held on campus sites the Friday and Saturday after the conference championship games.  This would impact only the Army-Navy game, but as I've said before, there is no perfect system and either the service academies would have to move their game to the last weekend of the regular season (pre-conference championship) or decide, similar to what the Ivies do for football, that they do not wish to participate in the playoff format.
    • A single game would be held on Friday night, with three games on Saturday (noon, 4:00 and 8 PM) to allow all games to be seen by any one who wishes with no overlap.
    • This would also then not impact the vast majority of finals on the academic front.  The BC men's basketball team actually plays a game on December 13 this year, although I know that BC and I am sure others, actually have finals scheduled beginning December 12.  To make the argument it's impactful on some and not for others, just doesn't hold water.
    • Seeding would be done by the committee, although the three at large teams, if they were not conference champions (non power five) or in the case of the three independents, if not unequivocally one of the top four teams, could not be quarterfinal round hosts.
    • New Year's Day would serve as the semi final games, rotating as done in the current system.  No games would ever, ever, ever, be played on New Year's Eve.  Expanding college football into non traditional college football hotbeds like the Northeast needs to be on the radar and competing with traditional NYE activities is without a doubt the stupidest thing the current format does.
    • In a twist, the losers of the quarterfinal games will be slotted into two of the New Year's six games, based on seeding.  The two highest seeds would play in one and the two lowest seeds in the other. This then would mean a maximum of eight teams would play two post season games each, with two teams playing three.
    • The final would be held the Saturday following New Years, for instance in 2016 it would be January 9. Allow no less than six days between the semis and the title game.  Yes, Saturday and screw the NFL.  The NFL has the greatest feeder system of any league in the world in college football and Saturday is college football day, not a Monday night, when most of the free world has to get up to go to work the next day.  The NFL can host one playoff game on Saturday afternoon (1 PM) and three on Sunday and leave that Saturday night exclusively to the college football title game.  I am fairly certain that this could be negotiated between the two entities for the greater good of the game.  Let the NFL try having the Super Bowl on a Monday night. God Bless Saturday!

    Question 6:  What about the bowls?

    • So this isn't exactly about the playoff system, but it is an interesting thought all the same.  The bowls are broken right now, there are too many of them, games that don't matter and a lot of matchups that are unappealing.  Add to that the burden put on athletic departments to commit to tickets and many times bowl games actually cost programs money.  Here's how we can change that.
    • Allow as many bowls as you want.  If you want 64 bowls, enough for all 128 teams, knock yourself out.  Other than the playoff games, they are really just glorified exhibition games anyway. Each February, any one that wishes to host a bowl bids on it in terms of payouts available to each team. The games with the highest payout then are rewarded with the ability to host the college football playoff championship game and then all games are ranked from 1 to however many based on those payoffs.  If you are worried that a small bowl site might find a way to win the CFP final, well that's ok.  Free market economy and the teams involved will be rewarded financially.  No school will be forced to purchase any number of tickets, so all of this will be all profit to the athletic programs involved, that will limit the number of cities, stadiums and sponsors who will wish to bid on games.  Remember the days of the Mobil Cotton Bowl or even the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.  Now we are down to Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl. Corporate America has figured out bowls are losing propositions, this will further help the cause by thinning the herd and making the games that are played more meaningful and more coveted than they currently are.
    • The CFP committee then, much like the NCAA basketball committee will also have the responsibility of ranking the teams based on the number of bowls available that year.  Past the top eight that would play in the playoff then, 9 would play 10 in the largest payout game, 11 vs 12 in the second and so on and so forth.  No conference tie ins at all.  In the event the game would then be a rematch of a regular season game, the highest seeded team would stay in their slot and the next highest ranked team below them, who they have not played would be their opponent. If at the bottom of the bowls, there were rematches because they could not be avoided, so be it.  Reward success.

    Question 7:  Unintended consequences

    • So we are then left with unintended consequences.  What would happen due to this format that may not be what we intended when we started?
      • The regular season takes a hit.  With eight teams involved rather than four, some of the regular season games may not be quite as compelling.  Although I would argue that losing your conference championship game would still put you in peril of not making the playoff as well as arguing that for many teams, once you lose a single game now and certainly two games, your season can lose its luster as is.
      • The impact of injuries. Adding another tier to the playoff means a chance for greater and for more game impacting injuries. The number of key injuries seems to rise every season and we know already that there are concerns about whether adding further games is in the best interest of player safety
      • Army-Navy.  It would have to move to fit into the format.
      • The Rose Bowl. The dissenter that has caused us to have NYE games will have to alter its stance and play on NYE some years or the CFP games just need to be played around it
      • The bowls acknowledged as those glorified exhibition games.  People aren't stupid.  They understand that when you are going to a bowl game pitting two 6-6 teams, the game doesn't mean a lot. Attendance to the smaller bowl games, even the New Year's six, shows that.
      • More pressure on coaches?  If the bowl portion of the proposal were to go through and the thought of fewer bowl games actually came to pass, then getting to a bowl game will be harder and put more pressure on coaches.  I do already expect that if and when the conferences all go to nine league games with the likelihood of an additional loss being added to most teams every other year, that will already occur.

    So what do you think?  Love it just as presented?  Like it but needs a few tweaks?  Hate it..please don't mess with college football?  It isn't perfect, but nothing is.  At times, it seems to go against itself, but I think I've explained why. I've spent the past several years formulating it, so if there is something you think I missed, call it out..chances are I'll have a rational answer!