The Solution to the College Football Playoff
Flash back to the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff in 2014. Entering the final week of the regular season, TCU was ranked third in the CFP rankings with its only loss coming in a classic shootout to No. 5 Baylor, 61-58. TCU subsequently won its final regular season game 55-3 over Iowa State, all but cementing itself into the first College Football Playoff.
But somehow, the selection committee inexplicably dropped TCU three spots to No. 6. Still, there could have been a perfectly logical explanation for this. After all, it would make sense for Baylor to secure the No. 4 spot over the Horned Frogs as a result of taking the head-to-head matchup earlier in the season. Nope. Baylor, finishing at No. 5, was also bypassed in favor of Ohio State, following the Buckeyes’ 59-0 thrashing of No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.
Back in 2014, the Big 12 did not yet have a conference championship game, meaning neither TCU nor Baylor could add that 13th data point that Ohio State did. The fact that Ohio State had the worst loss among those three teams didn’t matter. The committee had established this precedent: winning a conference championship is a necessity for inclusion into the playoff.
At least, that was the message until 2016, when Penn State won the Big Ten championship and the head-to-head matchup over Ohio State in the regular season, but the committee opted to include the Buckeyes instead. The reasoning this time was that Ohio State’s lone loss in State College made for a more impressive overall body of work than Penn State’s, which included losses to a mediocre Pitt team and a 49-10 trouncing at Michigan: a team that Ohio State beat.
The exact same thing happened the following year when Alabama, which failed to win its own division, was given the fourth seed over the Big Ten champion Ohio State. Also of note was undefeated UCF, which later won the Peach Bowl over the Auburn team that beat Alabama. The Knights were not even considered for a spot in the CFP because they do not belong to a Power Five conference.
The selection process has been made even murkier the last two seasons with Notre Dame vying for a spot in the top four, despite the fact that the Fighting Irish do not play in a conference.
So what is the true criteria for inclusion into the CFP? Is it about strength of schedule? Winning your conference? Going undefeated regardless of schedule? The reality is, while the goal of the CFP is to include the four best teams, the selection is highly subjective and is in dire need of refinement.
The solution requires the committee to expand the field to eight teams but not simply just to have a larger field.
The first step is to eliminate divisions, assign three or four permanent rivals to each team, and rotate the other conference members through the six remaining intraconference games (five for the SEC since its teams play only eight conference games).
This new format would allow for a relatively even battle in the conference championship, as the two best teams in each conference would face each other for the title. This would be far more interesting than the current divisional format, in which, often times, the best team from one division overmatches a far weaker opponent that just happens to be the top team from the opposite division (take 2018 Ohio State vs. Northwestern for example).
The Big 12 has already adopted this strategy, which allowed for a sequel to one of the best games of 2018, Oklahoma vs. Texas.
Who wouldn’t want to see a potential Oklahoma-Texas matchup twice a year? Or Ohio State-Michigan for a second time? Or Alabama-LSU? Even Alabama-Auburn?
Anyone would much rather see those than Ohio State vs. Northwestern, or Alabama vs. a Jim McElwain-led, nine-win Florida team.
Placing the two best teams from each conference in their respective conference championship games is the only way to determine which team from each conference is most deserving at the chance to play for a national title. As such, the winner of each of these conference championship games should then receive an automatic bid to the CFP.
Here is where the expansion-to-eight-teams factor comes in. There are five power conferences but only four slots in the current CFP format. An eight-team playoff is required to include the best team from each of the Power Five conferences. Simple math.
This new method would also allow for one Group of Five team, such as an undefeated UCF, to be included in the CFP.
Furthermore, it makes the selection process far less complicated in years where Notre Dame deserves consideration. In seasons like 2018, in which Notre Dame went undefeated, there is no argument one can make to exclude the Irish from the playoff. The problem with including Notre Dame in a four-team playoff is that only three of the five power conferences can be represented, meaning the best teams from two power conferences are left out. Again, simple math.
But in the eight-team playoff system, the five power conference champions and the top Group of Five team all automatically qualify for the playoff, leaving two at-large bids left over. Those two remaining slots could be allocated to Notre Dame and one or two of the best runners-up from the Power Five conferences.
The main obstacle for expanding to an eight-team playoff is the money factor, in that the two teams that play for the national championship would be playing three postseason games (four if you include the conference championships).
The vast majority of fans would not be able to afford traveling across the country three times to see their team play in three CFP games. The national championship game last year between Clemson and Alabama did not sell out for that very reason, combined with the fact that both of those teams appeared in the CFP the previous three years too, so there was a decreased urgency to make the trip.
The solution to this problem could be to award home-field advantage to the higher-seeded team in the quarterfinal matchup. The opposition to this idea would be understandable, as perhaps the higher-seeded team would have too much of an advantage, but did you know that the average margin of victory in CFP semifinal games is 21 points? Adding four more teams to the playoff would likely increase that average margin anyway, so why not give the higher-seeded team one more chance to play in front of its home crowd in the quarterfinals?
Many of the quarterfinal games would probably not be as competitive as most would hope for, but implementing this home-field advantage strategy would minimize the risk of fans not being able to afford traveling to the semifinal and championship games.
Additionally, the first team that has been left out of the CFP is a combined 1-for-5 in bowl games over the past five years, so it is highly unlikely that a team below the fourth seed will advance all the way to the national championship game. Therefore, with this strategy, each fanbase will most likely have to travel to a maximum of two playoff games. Even if a team seeded fifth through eighth somehow finds its way to the national championship, the prospect of an underdog run of that magnitude should be enough to attract fans to the title game regardless.
The CFP is eligible to expand to eight teams after next season, and fans everywhere have been calling for it to do so. Rather than just simply adding four more teams in the same arbitrary fashion that the committee does currently, this revised model could help find the greatest balance between those for and against expansion.
Will Desautelle is a senior majoring in journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.