A More Perfect College Football Playoff - New Playoff Format
New Playoff Format
…is needed to improve the quest for the national champion
On New Year’s Eve of 2017, the fourth edition of the College
Football Playoff will kick-off. Four teams will clash with each other
for the title of the national champion in a tournament that features two
semifinal matches and a championship game. The semifinals will be
hosted by Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl on December 31st 2017, and the
championship game will be held at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in
Atlanta on January 8th, 2018. The team that wins the championship
will be awarded a 35-pound trophy.
The task of selecting four participants rests with 13 members of the
selection committee that will examine the top 25 teams across the
nation. The committee creates their ranking through an incremental
process where several parameters such as relative head-to-head results,
the strength of schedule, and conference superiority are examined. The
four teams may come from any conference, and there are no limits to
how many teams can be chosen from each conference.
Since its inception in 2012, the College Football Playoff has evolved
into one of the most watched sporting events in the country. The
Chicago Tribune reported in 2017 that the latest championship game
between Clemson and Alabama drew more than 26 million viewers,
while the semifinals attracted close to 20 million viewers- an increase
of 24 percent from the prior year.
Nevertheless, many fans, coaches, and football administrators are
New Playoff Format 37
dissatisfied with the current format, mainly because it restricts the
playoff to just four teams. Some want to increase the number of eligible
teams to six, others want an eight-team tournament, yet others are
rooting for a 16-team bracket. The Washington State Cougars head
coach Mike Leach is even gunning for a 64-team playoff behemoth.
A comparison with the NFL would suggest that the playoff field
needs to be expanded. At the start of the season, 129 college teams are
vying for a theoretical chance to make the playoff. This is about four
times more than the number in the NFL (32). However, the NFL
playoffs feature three times as many team as the college playoff (12
versus 4). If the goal is to improve the profile of the championship
game, it makes sense to allow more than four teams into the playoff.
The College Football Playoff committee is made up of… humans
A second batch of criticisms is directed at the selection committee,
in particular the way they choose the final four teams. The current
process appears to be inconsistent and prone to bias, because members
of the committee have friends among the coaches and athletic directors
of the teams seeking a playoff spot. In that respect, the situation hasn't
changed much from the era when the champion was decided by a vote.
If you go back to 2012, you could easily see that Florida State didn't
deserve to be part of the playoff. They were barely able to squeeze by
in many of their games and eventually lost to Oregon by a score of 59-
38 A More Perfect College Football Playoff
20. Many people who watched that game thought that Florida State
were unable to put up a competitive display. Meanwhile, the #6-ranked
TCU blew out #9 Michigan by a score of 42-3. Objectively, Florida
State was not a better team than TCU, but the selection committee
decided otherwise, because TCU hadn't won a conference
Last year, the top four teams were Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State
and Washington. In one of the semifinals, Ohio State were defeated by
Clemson 31-0. However, in the Sugar Bowl the #7-ranked Oklahoma
defeated #14 Auburn 35-19, so the Sooners would have likely put up a
stronger fight against Clemson than the Buckeyes. The rumor is that
the selection committee had a bad opinion of Oklahoma’s defense.
Penn State deserved a spot in last year’s playoff even more. Not only
had they won the Big Ten conference championship, but they also beat
Ohio State 24-21, so it looks ridiculous that Ohio State got into the
playoff, while Penn State didn't. Since the Buckeyes weren’t even in
the Big 10 title game, their selection begged the question about the
relevance of a conference championship.
“The Ultimate 2017 College Football Road Trip” – Sports Illustrated
The biggest argument against increasing the size of the playoff
bracket is that it may reduce the importance of the regular season. The
regular season of college football has always been cherished for its
uniqueness among American sports, but when the playoff was
introduced, fans began to consider regular season games as mere
New Playoff Format 39
stepping stones to the playoff. Some reckoned that it was better to stay
at home in the regular season, so they could save up and make travel
plans for the playoff to be held later. Indeed, the Big 12 commissioner
Bob Bowlby suggested that expanding the playoff would reduce the
audience for the conference championship games.
Another argument against a bigger playoff may be that it is wrong to
subject college kids to the same punishing regimen as experienced by
the NFL professionals. If another round is added to the playoff, some
teams would have to play 16 games in a season. Such schedule would
not only affect the students’ academics, but also increase the physical
demands on their bodies. For instance, the 2016 defensive MVP Ben
"I would literally die if I were asked to play one more game".
Like with other controversies in college football, there is a lot of
money at stake here. The bowl games that host the semifinals have seen
an increase in the viewership, while mid-December bowls have
suffered. Former Director of the Foster Farm Bowl Gary Cavall blamed
the playoff format for diminishing the value of minor bowls.
The Power Five conferences are the elite of college football
The current playoff format guarantees that at least one Power Five
conference will not get an entry. For instance, USC will not be among
40 A More Perfect College Football Playoff
the final four this year, although the PAC-12 champions have some of
the most exciting players in the nation on their roster. If the goal of the
playoff is to find the best team, one can’t automatically assume that,
for example, SEC is a better conference than PAC-12. The regular
season doesn’t feature enough inter-conference games to determine the
ranking of conferences, and that is a real problem. A solution could be
to give all Power Five conference champions automatic berths in the
playoff, a view shared by the NCAA President Mark Emmert.
Here's another scenario: if all Power Five winners go undefeated in
the regular season, there would be no way to select the top four teams
among them. The chance of that happening is small, but it can't be ruled
In many ways, the current process of a committee selecting only four
teams for the playoff is not optimal- not for the teams and not for the
fans. So how can it be improved?
The rankings are an integral part of the postseason
First of all, it is important that we understand and keep the positives
that we got from the four-team playoff. College football had
traditionally been regionalized, until BCS (the precursor to CFP)
turned it into a national event. The weekly rankings of the selection
New Playoff Format 41
committee raise the profile of many games that would otherwise not
pull crowds; for example, see the Miami vs Virginia Tech contest
earlier this year. The college football rankings are a vital foundation
for the playoff and must be preserved.
In the format we are recommending, the Power Five conference
champions would automatically qualify for the playoff and be seeded
#1 through #5 based on their ranking. That is, if a team wins their
conference, they are guaranteed a chance to become national
champion. That would maximize the status of conference
championships, making them as relevant as they can be.
The Power Five winners would be supplemented by up to three
wildcard teams, selected from the ranking of the remaining teams by
the selection committee. If less than three wildcards are selected, some
the higher ranked Power Five champions would be given a bye. This
between-5-and-8 teams format would require an additional round of
quarterfinals, which would take place around Christmas Eve as part of
the bowl system and secure its future in the process.
How the 2017-18 College Football Playoff should look like
To get a better grasp of the proposed format, let’s illustrate how the
playoff should look like this year. According to the selection
committee, the ranking of the Power Five Champions is as follows:
Clemson (ACC) #1
Oklahoma (Big 12) #2
Georgia (SEC) #3
Ohio State (Big 10) #5
42 A More Perfect College Football Playoff
USC (PAC-12) #8
These teams would be seeded #1 through #5 in the same order as in
the ranking. The rest of the top eight teams are:
Since Alabama and Wisconsin are one-loss teams, but Auburn has
three losses, the only playoff-worthy teams would be Alabama and
Wisconsin. They would be given wildcards and seeded as #6 and #7,
respectively. Thus, the quarterfinals of the expanded 2017-18 College
Football Playoff should be:
USC vs Ohio State
Alabama vs Georgia
Wisconsin vs Oklahoma
Clemson – bye
In the second round, one of the semifinals would feature the lowest
seeded quarterfinal winner against Clemson, while the other semifinal
would be between the two remaining quarterfinal winners.
New Playoff Format 43
When the BCS was being replaced with the four-team CFP format,
there was a lot of resistance from the presidents of major conferences.
Everyone wanted the change, except the people who ran college
football. Although the sentiments have now changed, the changes were
adapted grudgingly and slowly. You can expect a similar situation if
the current format is ever to be expanded to a larger playoff.
As things stand, the consensus of the people who control college
football (coaches, players, TV executives, bowl executives, and
commissioners) is that the four-team format is doing well. They say
that in most departments, the format has met or even exceeded their
expectations. If the matter was left entirely up to them, we may not see
an expanded playoff anytime soon.
As it happens, we at SportFiction have a sophisticated college
football simulation engine at our disposal and decided to use it to
demonstrate the value of the expanded playoff. Without further ado,
we give you an Alternate Reality version of the 2017-18 College
Football Playoff that features Wisconsin, Alabama, USC, Georgia,
Oklahoma, and Clemson. Enjoy!