The Argument for and Against College Football Playoff Formats

With the 2019 football season winding down with the last game for most of the 130 teams in Div-1 FBS being announced for bowl season, it is that time of year where the argument surrounding the college football playoff system and how it operates comes under scrutiny for the way it is run. With each new complaint, another alternative is placed into the thoughts of the populace to ponder before we abruptly forget all the arguments, watch the games, and move on to either the NFL or whatever other sport we move along to.

But I believe a point should be made to discuss the college football playoff format for what it is, both good and bad, and ponder how we can make the sport we all love even better. As such, I have decided to sift through numerous comment sections and threads from various websites discussing the CFB playoffs, and compiled the more popular requests down below along with why they would be a good option, as well as the shortcomings of their format. I will also go into a little detail about my own personal opinion on the matter, though I will attempt to be as unbiased as possible.

1) 4 team – Ranked system

This is the current system the CFB playoffs operate under: the four highest ranked teams after conference championships are rewarded with a spot in the CFB playoff bracket. 1 plays 4, 2 plays 3, and the winners play in the National Title game. The format looks like below:

Obviously this format was far superior to the previous format, which was simply a voting system that decided which two teams were the best and that was it. In this format, the idea of wildcards and jockeying for position was implemented into the college landscape.

Aside from the fact that it added more football to the mix, one of the biggest benefits that has occurred from moving to this system is that strength of schedule has improved across the entire CFB landscape. More conversation and critique has been placed on what a team is doing outside of their respective conference play, and as a whole more promising and better matchups have occurred with the race for these coveted spots allowing for more teams to compete for spots for a longer period of time.

That being said, the system still has many flaws, which are apparent when looking at the numbers. For one, with only four spots allowed, this guarantees that one of the Power-5 conferences will be left out of the playoffs. Even two conferences have been left out, such as in 2017, when Alabama was allowed the 4th spot despite the fact they did not win their conference championship. This mainly stems from the fact that while the playoffs have expanded the number of teams that are allowed to play for the title, it did not change the way rankings and conference bias affects team opportunities. The closest a G5 conference team has ever come to being considered for the playoffs occurred in 2018 with UCF being ranked #8 in the nation going into bowl season. Before them, not one team in the G5 conferences (AAC, Mountain West, C-USA, MAC, & Sun Belt) ever even managed to finish in the top 10, or even be seriously considered for the playoffs.

While the strength of the American conference is primed to potentially force the CFP to change their format, as it stands a G5 team will never manage to be considered for a playoff spot.

2) 6 Team Playoffs

A very common alternative that is brought up is the expansion of the playoff format to a 6 team playoff that either revolves around the top 6 ranked teams, or the Power 5 conference champions and a wild card. Below is what the playoffs would look like in such a format:

In the case of the ranked format, Georgia would take the spot over Memphis as they would be #5 by the time of the playoffs’ final ranking. In the case of the Conference Champions and a wild card, the Wild Card is either described as the highest ranked team not in the playoffs, or the best team in the G5 conferences. In the case of the former, it would once again be Georgia as they are ranked #5, and in the case of the later, #17 Memphis would grace the playoffs.

I am a strong believer in the conference championship being the prerequisite for admission into the playoffs. For one, the argument against such a setup is the idea that the best teams in the nation should be the ones who are allowed into the college football playoffs, and sometimes the best teams are not the ones who end up winning their conference for whatever reason.

The issue I have with this argument is that to remain in such a format of ranks being extremely important further increases the power of conference bias. The SEC currently benefits the most from this, as they are the only conference who has ever managed to have two teams in the playoffs in the same season (2017). I am not arguing that some conferences are not stronger than others. Indeed, it would be foolish to think the MAC could possibly compete against the Big Ten, or C-USA somehow outperforming the Big XII. But what I do not like is the idea of conferences being meaningless to the playoff format. If a team can somehow lose their conference, but still take a spot from another who won theirs, then what is the actual point of conferences? In fact, why do the G5 conferences even buy into a system that does not actually regard their victories as legitimate against P5 conferences?

To be sure, the benefit of having a 6 team playoff system to be sure is the introduction of the wild card slot(s) into the mix. Adding 1 more week of games into the mix would not damage the product, and much like the transition to 4 teams boosted the competitive drive for the 3rd and 4th spot, the introduction of slots 5 and 6 will further push for a more competitive product, and potentially increase the importance of strength of schedule much like the 4 team change did in 2014.

3) 8 Team Playoffs

An 8 team playoff format occasionally comes up as an alternative, though it is not as popular an opinion than the 6 team playoff. Similar to the 6 team, the 8 team format could be organized based on rank or conference champs & Wild Cards. Below is what both would look like:

8-team playoff based on rank
8-team based on conference champions & wild cards

the benefit to the 8 team playoff is of course the inclusion of more teams without having to truly add anymore weeks to the end of the season. An 8-team playoff would still have 3 rounds like the 6-team, and based on rank or conferences could see a more fascinating playoff race outside of the Power 5 conferences. Representation is also a huge benefit to this format, as it all but guarantees that every P5 conference will be represented, as well as have enough space for a situation like UCF in 2018 to be entered into the playoffs based off the wild streak they had up to that point.

The downside to the 8 team playoff is the drop in importance for the 1st and 2nd seed. Where the 6-team format would allow a bye week to be rewarded to teams that have powered through the week, increasing the number to 8 would mean that seed would have little meaning outside of the basic point of making it in the first place. Basically once a team has clinched a spot, they may hunker down and do little to increase their placement. This could see the return to powerful conferences stacking low-tier opposition once again like in the BCS days since rank would mean little as long as you made it in.

Truth be told, the only reason to want an 8-team format is if you wish to see more G5 conference teams in the playoffs. If you do not, then 6-team is easily the superior of the two.

4) 12 Team Playoffs

The final alternative to the CFP is the NFL-esque 12-team format, either by rank or by conference champs and wild cards. What makes the 12-team format unique to all the other ideas presented is if the 12-team were to follow conference champions and wild cards, then every conference would be represented in the playoffs with two wild card spots to be fought over for the rest of the 120 teams. Below is what a 12-team format would look like:

12-team based on rank
12-team based on conference champs and wild cards

The 12-team format is easily the biggest shock to the system for college football because it would drastically alter the way the playoffs and even the ranking system works in CFB. In addition to just under half of the ranked teams making it into the playoffs every year, the playoff race would no longer be as cut throat for the teams at the top. In fact, powerhouses such as Alabama and Clemson would benefit greatly from this format since it would be almost impossible for such teams to lose their spots throughout the season. The change would come to the impact of the mid-tier teams who now have a viable option to enter the playoff picture from all conferences if the conference championship option would be adopted. Basically the entire landscape of the playoffs would not rest on stacked conferences such as the SEC or Big Ten, but rather the scrappy middle conferences such as the American and Mountain West.

The Benefit for this format is that with every conference represented, there would no longer need to be a strong basis of conjecture when dealing with strength of schedule and ranks. If the MAC’s champion manages to sustain as strong playoff run, the MAC as a whole would benefit almost overnight, while conferences such as the Big XII, who usually see swift exits, would have a lot to lose in a short period of time. This is both a benefit and a shortcoming in the fact that the format can create massive chaos in the world of football, which is exciting for football fans and those mid-to-low tier teams, but is the bane of top-tier teams’ existence. In addition to this, a benefit is that the road to the playoffs is clear for all teams with little confusion as to how any team can get in. In this case, win the conference and you are in the playoffs.

Another strong benefit for the whole of the football world is the potential for a shakeup to monopolies over top talent coming out of high school. Up to now, there is a strong point to be made with what recruiting and roster sizes have done to the competitive ability of finding talent across the nation. As is stands, teams benefit from grabbing the top talent and stockpiling them, thus increasing their entire roster size and talent, while also removing said talent from going to other teams. If a 12-team format were adopted, it opens up the floodgates for recruiting, as a top talent recruit could potentially get the same amount of coverage and scouting from a lower rank team such as Houston or Florida Atlantic as if they were to go to a Texas or Florida. It opens up the prospect of a QB maybe going to other schools and starting sooner, than jumping on as the 5th string QB for an Alabama.

The point to not forget with this is that it is unknown if the change to a 12-team format would even affect recruiting as strongly as written. There are many other factors that play into where a recruit goes than just straight media coverage, so whether is affects recruiting at all will always be hypothetical.

The first downside to discuss is the increase in number of games that players will play. As it stands, a national champion team will play a total of 15 games: 12 regular season, 1 conference championship, 1 playoff game, and 1 national title game. If the format increased to have twelve teams, the number of games would be increased from 15 to 16 or 17, depending if they earned the bye week or not. Wear and tear could potentially entice top draft prospects to skip the playoffs altogether if they were not sold on the team, or were ready to make the jump to the NFL.

A 12-team format could also render bowl season largely irrelevant. With all conferences being represented in the playoffs, the importance of bowl games would drop drastically as it would no longer be the viable option for conferences who did not make the cut, but rather would be nothing more than a symbolic reward for finishing the season above .500.

It is also impossible to talk about the downside to the format without mentioning the tantrums that will result for historic powerhouses who do not make it into the playoffs. It is almost guaranteed that a team in a Power-5 conference who did not make it into the 12-team format will argue that lesser conferences such as the MAC or C-USA do not deserve to have their champions represented for a few reasons: most common probably being strength of schedule, or how weak the conference as a whole is. On top of this, I can almost guarantee that just like how the football world criticizes the current 4-team format and the BCS before this, the 12-team will be criticized yearly because of the sheer number of teams who make it in, and how such positions are chosen. In fact, I would bet my entire fortune that out of all of the options presented for a change of tournament format, the 12-team would easily be the most criticized, especially if it is based on conference play, and not ranks.

5) BCS Championship Game

This is an opinion I hear the least of all the changes to the playoffs, but it has come up a few times on separate sites so I figured why not discuss it. The thought is to do away with the playoff format altogether and return to the previous way of deciding who plays for the national title: the teams that hold ranks #1 and #2 after conference championships will play against each other at the end of Bowl Season for the title. The argument to be made here is that this will do away with the unnecessary preliminary round and simply put the best teams against each other immediately.

I will not beat around the bush on this one; this is by far the worst option for a national championship format. For one, the political landscape of college football will revert back to the hell it originally was and all beneficial growth we have gained since the transition to a playoff would be lost. For one, strength of schedule would almost immediately die, as teams will revert back to the previous strategy of scheduling weak out-of-conference matchups, then go all-in on conference games. This would see the eventual death of the G5 conference competition as legitimate, as they would be scheduled by the Power-5 conferences as fodder to be outscored 77-10. Along side this, improvement across the college football landscape would be stunted almost immediately outside of the prestigious football programs, as their chances of getting to the national title game will all but die.

In all honesty, the main problem with reverting to BCS voting is that it is impossible to figure out who the two best teams are out of 130 with only twelve games and a conference championship to show for it. No two teams are exactly the same, and to figure out who is better based on who they have played when there is no connection to the teams on their schedule is a massive exercise in conjecture, politics, and logical bias. To point out the major flaw in this, here is a fact; There have been 16 seasons in which the BCS vote was used to determine the national championship game (from 1998-2013). Of those 16 games, 10 of them were one sided affairs. While history does showcase extremely entertaining matchups, such as the 2005 BCS title game between USC and Texas, or even 2013 when Florida State came back in the 4th quarter to defeat Auburn, the issue is that these are not the standard. Unlike the CFP, where a team would at least need to earn their spot by playing in the preliminary round, the BCS was simply one game, and whatever happened, happened.

Personal Opinion

From a personal standpoint, I would love to see the 12-team playoff based on conference championships, but a more realistic approach is backing the 6-team playoff format. Increasing the number of teams that can make it into the playoffs will undoubtedly boost the competition for the seeds, and inclusion of other conferences would greatly benefit the entire sport in the long run (looking at you American Conference). I also like the idea of seeds #1 and #2 getting an advantage over the others. It incentivizes teams to fight for those upper ranks, whereas a 12-team may see complacency with the middle ranks who simply want to maintain their seed and not fight for the top ranks.

The College Football Playoffs are easily much better than the BCS voting system that was in place, but I believe college football can build upon what they have, and expand the playoffs to boost the sport even further.

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