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My college football playoff system

We need a playoff system to see more games between great teams like Alabama and LSU.

If Friday (or sometimes Thursday) is rant day at Football Perspective, then perhaps the first Tuesday in December can be fantasy day. Since everyone else does it, allow me to describe to you my preferred college playoff system.

  • A modified 8-team playoff that’s actually a 10-team playoff with a four-team “play-in” round. A playoff system should not undermine the regular season, and my system places significant emphasis on success in the regular season: the most-accomplished teams get to clear the lowest hurdles due to byes, home-field, and weaker opponents.
  • Notre Dame and the conference champions from the SEC, B12, P12, B10, and ACC earn automatic berths to the playoffs but only if they finish in the top 14.
  • A selection committee (or a BCS-style ranking system) is used to select the remaining teams. There is a limit of 4 teams per conference. The “play-in” round and the first round of the playoffs are held at the higher seed’s location the week after the conference championship games (i.e., next weekend).

Therefore, Alabama (#2 in the BCS), Kansas State (#5), Stanford (#6), and Florida State (#12) would be guaranteed spots by virtue of being conference champions. Notre Dame (#1) is also guaranteed a slot.

That leaves five at-large selections:

— Florida (#3)
— Oregon (#4)
— two of Georgia (#7), LSU (#8), Texas A&M (#9), and South Carolina (#10)
— Oklahoma (#11)

Basically the only teams that could complain about this system are the leftover SEC teams, but I’m okay with that since they would be considered the 5th and 6th best teams from their conference. I suppose 12-1 MAC Champion Northern Illinois might be bothered, but they lost to Iowa and had a cupcake schedule. Had Nebraska defeated Wisconsin, or had Ohio State been eligible, Oklahoma or a 4th SEC team would have been left out.

For purposes of this post, I will say Georgia and A&M would be the committee’s picks.

Here’s how the playoff system would work. The three highest-ranked conference champions (Alabama, K-State, Stanford) get byes along with the next three highest-ranked teams — Notre Dame, Florida, and Oregon. The other four teams play at the site of the higher ranked team1 this Saturday (December 8th). So we would have:

Play-in round

#13 Florida State @ #7 Georgia
#11 Oklahoma @ #9 Texas A&M

— Had UGA beaten Alabama, the Bulldogs would have earned a bye followed by a home playoff game. By losing, they have to play a play-in game and then win a road playoff game. So the SEC Championship was a critical game — and there’s a good chance the committee would have simply selected LSU instead because of the loss.
— Had Florida State beaten Florida, they would have had likely received a bye and possibly a home playoff game. Now they have to win two road games. Of course, the ACC Championship Game, which no one cared about on Saturday night, would have been significantly more relevant.
— Ditto the Big 10 Championship Game, well, at least for the first half. Meanwhile, Oklahoma would have known they would have needed to run the table to get in after losing to Notre Dame. Instead of the season essentially being meaningless, think how much more exciting the Sooners last-second wins over West Virginia and Oklahoma State would have been?
— And of course, think how much more exciting the rest of the season for A&M and Johnny Manziel would have been if they had a chance to make the playoffs?

First round of the playoffs:

The three conference winners and the top-seeded at large receive home playoff games, which would be played on Saturday, December 15th:

#1 Notre Dame hosts the worst remaining seed (either FSU or the A&M/Oklahoma winner)
#2 Alabama hosts the 2nd worst seed remaining (Georgia or the A&M/Oklahoma winner).
#5 Kansas State hosts the 3rd worst seed remaining (Florida)
#6 Stanford hosts the 4th worst seed remaining (Oregon)

[Note: If you want to have the committee switch the bottom two games so that Stanford does not “have to beat Oregon again” I am fine with that. KSU-Oregon and Stanford-Florida are just as acceptable to me, and I am willing to do the same to avoid a UGA or A&M rematch with Alabama if events unfolded that way.]

Notre Dame and Alabama had the best two regular seasons, and look at their rewards: they get a bye, they get a home game, and they play a team coming off a play-in game.

KSU and Stanford both won their conferences, so they are rewarded with byes and home playoff games. Florida State won their conference but their lackluster regular season did not merit the same reward. Wisconsin won the Big 10 and got nothing. So the regular season remains vitally important. Oregon and Florida had great regular seasons, and thanks to a second bite at the apple (which is instead only reserved for Alabama this year), their seasons weren’t meaningless after one loss. And the lowest two seeds played their win into the playoff.

This playoff format makes the regular season much more meaningful for many more teams, while only slightly taking away from the value of certain games (admittedly, the Kansas State and Oregon upsets on November 17th would have been less meaningful in this format; I’m okay with that — the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.)

The Final Four

We now break until the first weekend of January. At this point, we have four very deserving teams. They would play in a four-team playoff, rotated among the bowl sites, as currently envisioned. We might see Notre Dame and Oregon in the Rose Bowl and Alabama and Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl. Or perhaps A&M and Oregon in the Cotton Bowl and Florida and Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. Who knows. The good news is that unless there are 11 deserving teams, everyone gets a shot (and even if all 5 autobids finish in the top 14, 4 non-conference champs are still eligible; no worthy undefeated team should get left out in this system).

  1. I would have the committee involved in this step of the process as well and instruct them to avoid rematches if possible. This year it is not an issue. []
  • Kibbles

    Your playoff formula works well with how things played out this season, but the big problem with a college football playoff is that the ideal format really varies from year to year.

    *If we have a season where one team finishes undefeated against a credible schedule, while every other team has at least two losses (think: 2007, if Ohio State had gone undefeated), just crown the champion. It seems ridiculous to put them on the field against one of those two loss competitors, since even if they lose, they’ll still have the strongest resume in college football.
    *If we have a season where two teams go undefeated and are clearly the class of college football (2005 Texas/USC, 2002 Miami/tOSU), have a one-off championship game to decide matters.
    *If we have a season with a clear top 4 (2006 tOSU/Michigan/Florida/USC), that’s tailor made for a 4-team playoff.
    *If we have a season like this one, with a whole mess of teams with very similar claims (Notre Dame, Alabama, Oregon, K-State, Florida, A&M, etc), then an 8 or 10 team playoff makes sense.
    *If we have a season with 3 teams clearly deserving a chance at the title (2004 USC/OU/Auburn)… well, then we’re just screwed.

    I’ve long maintained that the true best way to crown a champion would be flexible, identifying the situation that season and responding in the most appropriate manner. Of course, the bowls would never go for it, since they want certainty and predictability in their profits… but in terms of what is best and most fair, I think any “one size fits all” solution is going to fall short.

    • Chase Stuart

      Wouldn’t that hold true for the NFL and, well, just about every sports league?

  • Sunrise089

    Chase, why the super bonus for winning your conference? Getting in by being in the top 14 vs top 10 seems a good prize to me, why do they need home field and a bye too?

    • Chase Stuart

      It’s a fair question. I think subjectivity is good but I think you need some sort of check on resume vs. beauty pageant. I mean I can make fun of the Falcons for not being as good as their record but it doesn’t mean I don’t think they should get the 1 seed. In a poll, maybe they don’t.

      This year, Stanford would deserve a bonus over Oregon, IMO. I think it will also make more games more meaningful in the regular season.

  • I can dig it. Only minor quibble is that there really shouldn’t be a need for the “if they finish in the top 14” caveat regarding AQs. If am AQ conference champion doesn’t finish in the top 14, that conference should be relegated from AQ status the following year. Just take the 5 AQs (which is flexible given the relegation rule) + ND, add in the 4 (or 5 if no ND) at-large bids, and voila.

    • Chase Stuart

      I hear ya, but CFB changes too much from year to year for me to buy into that. For example, I don’t think the Big 10 should lose their AQ status for next year.

  • Richie

    admittedly, the Kansas State and Oregon upsets on November 17th would have been less meaningful in this format; I’m okay with that

    Me too. I like that great teams can have a slip-up and still be in a good position to win the championship.

    Why are you giving Notre Dame special treatment? All they have to do is be ranked top-14 to make the playoffs? Nobody else gets that privilege. I say that they just get thrown in with the other at-large selections.

  • Kibbles

    Yes, Chase, if the NFL’s goal was to make sure the best or most deserving team won the championship, their current system would be woeful. That’s not the NFL’s goal, though- they just want a fun, profitable tournament with a clear winner at the end- hence crowning the 6-loss Giants over the 1-loss Pats. I’ve always felt that college football was different- that the whole reason that the BCS was created was to make sure the best and most deserving team won the title, to give teams with similarly superlative resumes a chance to settle it on the field. Which calls for a different type of postseason than the ones that can crown teams like the .500 St. Louis Cardinals or 6th-seeded Giants (who split won the championship over New England despite splitting the season series).

    • Richie

      profitable tournament

      And the NCAA abhors profits!

    • Chase Stuart

      Fair enough. I think that’s a reasonable position to hold.

  • Kibbles

    Or, to put it another way…

    During the BCS era, what percentage of the time would you estimate the national champion was the best team in the country? What percentage of the time would you estimate it was the most deserving team in the country (as measured by overall resume)? What percentage of the time would you say the national champion ranked among the top 5 in quality and deservingness? Now, answer those questions for the NFL, the NBA, MLB, the NHL, NCAA Basketball, etc.

    Under your proposal, what would you estimate the odds that the best or most deserving team will win the national championship?

    • Chase Stuart

      I think the bigger problem is that in college football, we just don’t know who the best or most deserving teams are. I love the SRS, and I believe in its predictive power, but at the end of the day it is still just educated guesswork.

      Alabama has beaten just two teams this year that are ranked — Georgia and LSU. If the top 25 teams all played five or six games against each other, we would know a lot more. Unfortunately, there is just little separating these teams and we are forced to magnify the differences.

      If Louisville or Rutgers had gone undefeated, what would we know about them? Without more nonconference games between top teams, it really is all just guesswork. How do we know what to make of Kansas State? The Big 12 did very little out of conference this year. The issue to me is more about confidence levels regarding the best teams than identifying them. We’re much more blind in college football than other sports.

      • Kibbles

        I agree, but I think the solution isn’t a playoff, it’s nonconference scheduling rules. Every BCS conference school must play two OoC games against schools from other BCS conferences. Stage one halfway through the season and the second at the end of the season. Mandate that at least one of the opponents must have been bowl eligible within the two years before the matchup. A lot of schools are already halfway there thanks to traditional rivalries (UF/FSU, UGA/GaTech, and USC/Clemson have served to create a relatively high degree of connectedness between the SEC and ACC over the years, and Notre Dame gives good links between the Big10/12/14 and the Pac10/12), just make the laggards join in, too.

        I always say that I love playoffs. They’re like the steak of the sporting world. Steak is wonderful- there exist entire restaurants whose sole reason for existence is the preparation of steak. There are few things on this planet as good as a properly prepared steak. With that said, I don’t want to eat steak for every meal. Sometimes I’m in the mood for some Quesadillas, or Arroz con Pollo, or Chicken Parm, or Crab. Maybe a good jambalaya, or a chowder. Maybe some day I’m in the mood to go out and try Ethiopian. It seems like every league is serving me a massive playoff steak, and that’s great, there’s a reason it’s so popular… but when was it that we decided that, since steak was so good, everything had to be steak? Why can’t we just let some sporting league have a different postseason? Even if it’s not as good, why can’t we just appreciate the variety and, when we really want a playoff, content ourselves with every other major sporting league in the universe? What’s next- playoffs for Gymnastics? For Olympic Swimming and Diving? Playoffs for boxing and MMA? Where does it end?

  • Kibbles

    Richie, the NCAA surely likes profits, but I would contend that profit is not at all the motivation behind their method of selecting a champion. The bowl system naturally funnels the profits to the bowls, not the NCAA as an organization, and certainly not to its member institutions, who frequently wind up paying money for the “honor” of playing in a low-tier bowl game.