I’ve gotten into it from time to time with other college football fans about the nature of championships in Division I-A (ahem, Bowl Championship Subdivision). The basic controversy is this: since teams are assigned to the four playoff berths by a committee, how should they evaluate the teams? Is it the best teams? Or the most deserving teams? To put it more concretely, should it be the teams who have the best chance of beating any other team at the end of the season? Or should it be the team that has put together the best resume over the course of the season?
Of course, the two characteristics are not mutually exclusive; Alabama this year is probably the best team, and has (so far) put together an undefeated record. Accordingly, they are ranked #1. However, they are about to play a team (Auburn) who, lately, have shown they are a threat to beat anybody at this point in the season, but earlier this year lost two games. Even after this game is played and there is a winner and a loser, who is to say the result didn’t hinge largely on luck? The committee may still find a way to put Alabama in the playoff even if they lose this game. And there are many other cases like this to consider.
Meanwhile, University of Central Florida is undefeated this season so far. If they continue, they will be their conference champions. However, for a combination of reasons they will never be considered for the playoff because
- They have no football pedigree or brand. Unlike Alabama or Ohio State, or even Pitt, they have no history of football success and have only recently begun playing at this level.
- Their opponents have been weaker so the team hasn’t yet been tested to the limits of their ability; however, a school of rising strength will consistently struggle to schedule stronger opponents because the stronger opponents don’t have any incentive to play them.
- Their opponents similarly have no pedigree, and thus Central Florida gets less credit for beating University of South Florida than they would for beating Tennessee, though Tennessee is undoubtedly weaker.
- When it gets right down to it, the College Football Playoff is about money, and Central Florida will never draw as much money as the blue-chip programs at Alabama, Texas, Notre Dame, and so on.
This is a fundamentally flawed system, because it relies on a “beauty contest”–a systematic beauty contest, but a beauty contest nonetheless. In other words, a team has to rely on the opinions of a handful of people to even get into the game–people who carry into the room their own preconceived notions and biases. This is anathema to American sports–a team can do everything right and still get left out.
I propose a simple system for an eight-team playoff that a) ensures that non-legacy teams (e.g. Utah, Central Florida, Boise State) have an avenue to compete for the championship, b) still allows for an advantage based on strength of schedule, and c) makes conference championships matter. Here is how it goes:
- There are eight playoff teams.
- Five of the teams will be the champions of the SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, and Pac-12, however the individual conferences decide to determine their champions.
- One of the teams will be the highest ranked undefeated conference champion from the group of all other conference (American, Mountain West, etc.) If no teams meet this criteria, this will be an at-large team (see next bullet).
- The other two teams will be selected by the committee at-large based on the committee’s assessment of the teams’ strength/deservedness.
- Finally, the seeding will be selected by the committee based on the committee’s assessment of team strength as well as considerations of matchups and bowl venues.
This year, what that might look like, assuming conference championships are won by the current frontrunners, would be (1) Alabama vs. (8) Central Florida, (2) Clemson vs. (7) Stanford, (3) Oklahoma vs. (6) Wisconsin, (4) Georgia vs. (5) Ohio State.
In this scenario, Alabama gets an “easy” first round game as reward for a great regular season and conference championship; UCF and Wisconsin get a shot at the title despite the apparent weakness in their schedules; highly talented teams that may have just had a hiccup get a second chance; and most importantly we get 6 or 7 high-stakes marquee matchups that college football fans would drool over to end the season.