We are just under two weeks away from the third year of the College Football Playoff and it is already clear that the playoff is a drastic improvement over the BCS system of yesteryear (Google “BCS Controversies” and try reading the Wikipedia page in a single sitting). When you’re coming from a system where you have a championship game, but can still have two teams declared National Champion (see LSU and USC, 2003), any sort of playoff will be seen as an upgrade. However, year three has revealed that there is a need for change if the Selection Committee wants to avoid the same negative reputation the BCS developed.
Fan bases from across the country are wondering aloud what it takes to get into the playoff. This starts with #5 Penn State. After an unexpected run from unranked in the preseason to Big Ten champion, even a birth in the Rose Bowl is a huge win for a program that some pundits (looking at you Stephen A.) said should cease to exist following their scandal that broke some five years ago. But many fans in Happy Valley have been left wanting more after the team won its last 9 games, including handing #3 Ohio State its only loss, and capped off the season as champions of this year’s toughest conference in football. The same cries are coming from the fans in Southern California where the #9 team in the country finished as one of the hottest teams in football. You’d be hard pressed to find four teams that were, without a doubt, better than USC at the end of the season. Even the fans in Norman, Oklahoma feel they have a case when you consider that they had a far superior strength of schedule to #4 Washington and went undefeated in conference play, taking home the Big 12 Championship.
The basis behind the outrage? The lack of clarity behind the rankings that was delivered by Kirby Hocutt, Chairman of the CFP Selection Committee, and his weekly soliloquies that often left America more frustrated than educated. The way I see it, the committee has three options to improve the system in future years:
- Option I: Keep the four-team playoff, but clarify the criteria
If the committee is concerned that adding teams to the playoff is going to diminish the product, then keeping four teams is a reasonable option, but there needs to be a better description given to fans about what qualifies a team for the playoff. The committee sent a message this year that winning your conference isn’t necessary to get into the playoff by keeping out conference champions Penn State and Oklahoma in favor of at-large Ohio State. It also sent a message that having a strong out of conference schedule isn’t as important as winning all of your games when Washington was included in the playoffs over the Nittany Lions and Sooners. Washington’s out of conference strength of schedule ranked 69th, while Penn State and Oklahoma ranked 9th and 1st respectively. If the committee has made the conscious decision that the four teams with the best record from Power 5 conferences (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12) get in to the playoff then so be it, but let the country know so teams can adjust their schedules moving forward.
- Option II: Move to a six team playoff where the top two seeds get a bye
If the committee wants to significantly reduce the backlash it receives when the final selection is made, they will increase the number of teams that make the playoff. The simple resolution here is each Power 5 conference champ gets in along with one wild card spot. With this year’s teams, Alabama and Clemson would get byes, while Washington, Penn State, Oklahoma, and Ohio State would play in the first round. It would be difficult to choose any team other than Ohio State for this hypothetical wild card. When you require a conference championship but leave room for one additional team to get in, the emphasis will shift from which teams get in to the games themselves.
- Option III: Say it with me. Eight. Team. Playoff.
The third option and my personal favorite, the eight team playoff. Five conference champions, three wild card teams. Can you imagine the drama when you have Alabama, Clemson, Washington, Penn State, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, and probably USC playing in an Elite Eight? Quarterfinals played on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Semifinals played on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. *Cue vine of Shia LeBeouf pleading “Just Do It”*
I don’t care how the committee chooses to improve their playoff moving forward as long as when week 10 concludes next season and the first CFP ranking is revealed, I don’t have to listen to Mr. Hocutt stroll onto ESPN and proclaim “we are here to select the four best teams in the country”. One more interview like that and I might just lose my shit.