Hey, that was a really cool college football season, wasn’t it? Sure, it ended with literally the most boring outcome possible — Alabama won a national title, water is wet, the sun will explode some day — but even that was fun as heck. When a college football season can manage to make Alabama winning a national title entertaining and enjoyable, you know it was a good year.
But this season and the national champions both had an inherent flaw: Alabama making it to the Playoff in the first place was kind of controversial. Take yourself back to the day we learned about the field of four teams, remember how weird it was that the Crimson Tide made it in? Yes, they were super good. They also did not win their conference. They did not win their division. The team that won their division went on to lose in the SEC title game to a team that punched a ticket to the Playoff as the 3-seed. Of course, they didn’t lose 55-24 to Iowa, but at least Ohio State had a conference title upon which they could hang their hats. The point here is that no one knows what matters in college football anymore.
Do you know what would have rendered this whole debate thing obsolete? That’s right, you’re reading another column about how college football needs to expand its playoff. The thing is, I do not care the extent to which the playoff is expanded — it could be eight teams, it could be 16 teams, it could be 64 teams, we can let every Division One team in (both FBS and FCS) alongside the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the six-best high school teams from Texas, I do not care.
What I do care about is that we as fans get to consume as much college football as we possibly can. The act of crowning a champion is cool and what not, but guess what? All roads lead to doing that. Let’s take a little longer to getting to that point, because that means we get to watch more games between the best teams, more opportunities to watch the ludicrous stuff that seems to happen when big games happen in this delightfully stupid sport.
How would it happen? I don’t know! I do not get paid to make those decisions. My job is to sit here and make the argument for it. My argument stems from the simple fact that I like watching college football and I like when I get to consume as much of the game as possible. I hope you agree with this from your perspective.
There’s also the general fact that, as Washington State coach Mike Leach explained, it is legitimately crazy that literally every other level of football has figured out a way to have a large, comprehensive playoff. The NFL has 12 teams. FCS has 24 teams. Division II has 28, and Division III has 32. High school playoffs nationwide has a bunch. Really, the only levels I can think of where four teams are considered satisfactory are FBS and Tri Valley Pop Warner in Central New York, which I played in in fourth grade. This is extremely lame, because four teams does not a tournament make.
Determining a champion is literally the reason why we do team sports. Only giving four teams the chance to play for a championship is too restrictive. Letting more teams would not make a mockery of the process of determining a champion or devalue what it means to compete for a championship, it means that the pathway to winning a title is harder, which is inherently a good thing.
The argument against more teams that I always hear is that “The fifth team is mad now, just like the 17th or 33rd or 65th team would be in other setups.” That’s not true! The fifth-best team has a much stronger argument for being a championship-caliber squad than team No. 33. If you’re going to start excluding squads, do it farther down the food chain rather than right at the top. I feel pretty comfortable saying Ohio State or UCF could possibly win a title. I feel even more comfortable say that a team like Duke, which was 65th in S&P+ this year, could not.
The other argument is that you can’t have players that aren’t getting paid go through a 12-game regular season, then a conference championship game, then a playoff that might tack another 4-6 games onto the end of the year. This is a good and completely valid concern, and one that I hope would be addressed in addition to an expanded playoff. Reduce schedules to 10 games and even get rid of conference championship games if you’re feeling really frisky.
Don’t let teams schedule FCS opponents as part of their two non-conference games before jumping into an 8-game conference slate. Then, go to a playoff. To give players more rest, start the playoff during Thanksgiving weekend and give teams two weeks to prepare and heal up for each game. All of this can be adjusted based on how many teams are in, but with a 16-team tournament, for instance, the season can start during the first weekend of September, give teams a bye and one week between the end of the season and the start of the playoff before kicking things off Thanksgiving weekend and wrapping up during the first Monday of January like we do now.
I don’t know the answer for how an expanded playoff would work. For whatever reason, college football television and bowl contracts were signed in blood and notarized by a dark magician who will bring famine and death upon humanity if they are ever broken or something. But let’s say the College Football Playoff made this happen, and suddenly, we get an 8-team tournament to determine a champion. That would be great, right? Wouldn’t you enjoy this…
1 Clemson vs. 8 USC
2 Oklahoma vs. 7 Auburn
3 Georgia vs. 6 Wisconsin
4 Alabama vs. 5 Ohio State
Maybe you’d want to get UCF in there for Auburn because you have a soul, or maybe you’d want to replace Wisconsin (kinda boring!) with Penn State (fun!) or Miami (also fun!) or something. Or maybe you’d want to do a 32-team playoff! That would look like this, based on S&P+…
1 Alabama vs. 32 Stanford
2 Ohio State vs. 31 Troy
3 Georgia vs. 30 Toledo
4 Penn State vs. 29 Virginia Tech
5 Washington vs. 28 Mississippi State
6 Wisconsin vs. 27 Michigan
7 Central Florida vs. 26 USC
8 Clemson vs. 25 Arkansas State
9 Oklahoma vs. 24 Fresno State
10 Auburn vs. 23 Boise State
11 Florida Atlantic vs. 22 Ohio
12 Oklahoma State vs. 21 LSU
13 Notre Dame vs. 20 Memphis
14 TCU vs. 19 Michigan State
15 South Florida vs. 18 Appalachian State
16 Louisville vs. 17 Miami (FL)
The point is that this is more fun than watching the committee agonize over four teams, especially in a year like this where there were no great teams and a whole bunch of pretty good teams. The whole “five conference champs with three at-large selections” thing is fine. The “let’s just get the best 8/16/32/64/128 teams in there” thing is also fine.
The big thing is that we’ve determined that the bar for what the committee views as important changes every year. This is totally cool! This is absolutely not a problem. Sports are fluid, and sometimes, you have to go outside the rigidness that is “WE VALUE CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS” or whatever barrier for entry the playoff committee claims teams have to pass.
That fluidity is easier when there are more spots available. Who cares if a 1-seed Alabama would truck a 16-seed Louisville or a 32-seed Stanford? Every year, come the third week of March, college basketball fans watch Duke/Villanova/the rest of the teams that are always 1 and 2-seeds suit up against hapless 15 and 16 seeds, because maybe — just maybe! — the game won’t end with a 50-point margin of victory. And we always sit back and enjoy it, because it is college basketball, and even if the games are blowouts, it’s fun because we’re all sitting back and taking them in. We’re all tweeting about them and going to bars and watching with friends, engaging in the communal experience of fandom, which is a delightful experience.
It’s something college football can stand to replicate. This is possible with an expanded playoff, and the sooner that happens, the better.