The College Football Playoff is a topic that is quite divisive in the minds of most NCAA football fans. There is one side that argues for the purity of the committee selected four-team system, and the opposite side that believes the playoff needs to expand to become more inclusive. When I look at what the committee has done in the past five years, it is hard not to argue that the system is broken.
The current system was introduced back in 2014, replacing the use of polls or computer rankings previously used to select the participants for the Bowl Championship Series. The inaugural game was won by Ohio State (13-1) defeating Oregon (13-1) in a convincing manner 42-20 in Arlington, Texas. Since then, Alabama has gone on to play in all four National Title games, winning two (defeating Clemson and Georgia) and losing two against Clemson both times.
This leads to the primary issue that this College Football Playoff system has created, a complete and utter lack of diversity. Four teams make the playoffs every year, meaning there has been a total of twenty teams selected by the committee. Alabama has five appearances, Clemson four, Oaklohoma three, Ohio State two, and Georgia, Oregon, Florida St, Michigan St, Notre Dame, and Washington all have one each.
At the FBS level, there are eleven conferences with a total of 130 different teams. Most of these conferences have conference championship games, but their winners still have little chance to be selected by the committee. In the last four years alone, Alabama and Clemson have accounted for half of all the teams selected! It is hard to ignore that there is an unhealthy concentration of power in a sport that has already been accused of corruption and hit a number of scandals.
How does the committee decide who out of all these “champions” gets a shot a winning the real title? The actual process is quite simple, but whenever thirteen football experts come together with concealed biases and ingrained opinions, the results are rarely unanimous. According to the committee, they weigh the following factors when making their choice: a team’s strength of schedule, conference championships, team records, head-to-head results, plus other points such as injuries and weather. This selection process’ glaring weakness was put on display in 2017 when the University of Central Florida went undefeated and still could not achieve a position in the playoff. College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock cited UCF’s strength of schedule as a reason to leave them out, but former UCF head coach Scott Frost said it best:
“It wasn’t right. I was watching [the selection show] every week, the committee sitting in a room and deciding that this two-loss team must be better than UCF because UCF is in the American, or this three-loss team must be better than UCF.
“It looked like a conscious effort to me to make sure that they didn’t have a problem if they put us too high and a couple of teams ahead of us lost. And oh no, now we have to put them in a playoff? But we just beat [Auburn], that beat two playoff teams and lost to another one by six points, and we beat them by seven.”
As Frost said, during the regular season UCF did defeat Auburn, who beat both Alabama and Georgia, the two teams who went on to play for the National Championship that year. Unfortunately, in the current format, the UCFs of the world are simply at a significant disadvantage unless they load up on quality non-conference, Power 5 opponents.
The commissioners who devised the system want the “four best” teams, but they will continue to diverge on how to distinguish them. George Schroder at USA Today perfectly encompassed how most NCAAF enthusiasts think:
“A sport that’s subjective by definition should lean on objective measurements whenever it can. Double the bracket to eight teams, with an automatic berth for each Power Five champion and either two or three at-large berths.”
It is hard to imagine that in the first five years of the CFP, there has only been one team from football hotbeds like Texas, California, or Florida. These regions represent the largest population centers of football loving fans but are continually being shunned for teams from the Midwest. It is an absolute travesty that we have had to endure teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, and Notre Dame who have combined for a total of three points in the playoffs in the last four years (a lonely field goal for Notre Dame against Clemson last year).
Expanding the playoff to eight teams would be the best way to start mending a broken system. When looking at the world of college sports, the excitement that the NCAA basketball tournament garners is nearly unmatched. March Madness sets the 68 “best” teams in the country against one another in a nearly month-long tournament. Granted, not all the first round matchups are very compelling, but the tournament is incredibly successful either way. College football needs to look at this model, and apply some of their aspects to their playoff system. A 68 team playoff wouldn’t work in football, but the concept of more inclusion could.
Expanding to an eight-team playoff would increase the season from twelve to sixteen games. This is a tough task when college players are already being put through grueling schedules with little compensation. That, combined with exam preparation makes a long season a challenging concept. There will never be a perfect scenario, but is it impossible to consider some form of compensation and exam modifications for students participating in a sport that brings in nearly 1.1 billion dollars of revenue annually?
At the end of the day, there are several problems with college football: enormous, unfair coaching salaries, bloated budgets, a system of systemic cheating and pay to play scandals, regional disadvantages, unfair scheduling (looking at you SEC), and the idea that tuition should count as a salary. Putting all of these issues aside, the one that can easily be fixed is the College Football Playoff. Expansion is inevitable, and with it will most likely come several new problems, but I am hard pressed to believe that they could be worse than what we have now. Besides, how could more football ever be considered a bad thing?