A new, improved college football playoff system: how it works and why

Here are your 8 tournament teams if we had a sensible college playoff system.

The NCAA Football Selection Committee today will issue its final rankings, and in doing so they face some tough choices about who gets to play for the national title. This is because NCAAF, unlike every other sport, doesn’t allow everyone with a claim to settle it on the field. It isn’t enough to win your games (and some years, your conference), you have to win a PR battle.

The NCAA has been stumbling from one corrupt system to another for years. You just wish they were making more progress, don’t you?

Here’s how it will probably go down today, as The Committee decides who’s worthy enough for the top 4 playoff.

  • Alabama. Duh. Undefeated in the SEC, tough schedule, etc. Everybody is else is playing for the privilege of getting poleaxed in the championship by the most elite NFL minor league franchise in the nation. I hate the Tide and Nick Fucking Saban with every fiber of my soul, but facts is facts.
  • Ohio State. They didn’t win their conference. They didn’t win their division. They didn’t beat the team that did. And The Committee has made a big deal about how winning the conference is important. That’s how they justified keeping the Big 12 out of the dance a couple years ago. But the Buckeyes are a lock. (BTW, I’m trying to remember, who was the beneficiary of that conference title criterion in 2014? Anybody remember?)
  • Clemson. Won the ACC, 12-1, no real controversy here unless somehow they get excluded.
  • Washington. Won the PAC-12, and thumped my Buffs convincingly in the title game Friday night. This ought to be set in stone. Operative word: ought.

But who the hell knows. Penn State has a legit claim. They won the conference and beat Ohio State, so leaving them out makes clear that being the “best” team has nothing to do with, you know, winning. Money talks and bullshit walks, and Ohio State is cash in the bank.

Michigan fans also think they’re maybe the best team in the country despite a couple losses. One was the unforgiveable choke job vs Iowa, and it’s going to take a lot of Febreze to get that stench out of the unis. The other? Well, they lost in double OT to Ohio State. On the road. As a result of what was probably a blown fourth-down spot call by the zebras. There wasn’t a definitive camera angle to support overturning the challenge, but the angles we have suggest that once again, the Buckeyes caught a big break. Which happens a lot.

Southern Cal doesn’t have a claim, but in a world where criteria are moving targets and “best” has more to do with what deeply invested organization fixers decide to vote for, why shouldn’t “probably the second best team in the nation over the last couple months” be worth considering?

If only there were some way we could fix this system. If only there were a way of allowing all teams with legit claims to decide things on the field! I mean, let’s look at the first playoff champion, your 2014 Buckeyes. Under the system in place the previous season they wouldn’t have even been in the championship game. Only the top two teams, as dictated by deeply flawed system, were allowed to contend for the big trophy.

Yes Virginia, there is a way. And while I try to avoid oversimplifying when I can, this solution is really pretty straightforward.

The New, Improved College Football Playoff System

  • 8 teams qualify
  • All 5 power conference champions (ACC, B1G, Big 12, SEC, Pac 12) are in, with the slot being determined by the league championship game
  • 3 wildcards (yes, somebody gets to vote)
  • If a Group of 5 team (AAC, C-USA, MAC, MWC and the Sun Belt) goes undefeated, they automatically get one of the wildcards; The Committee can extend a bid to the top team (or two, or three) from the Go5 if they are deemed to be worthy, of course
  • Notre Dame gets no automatic bid no matter what; if they want an automatic spot let them join a damned conference

Why Wildcards?

You can’t restrict entry to teams that win the conference for a simple reason: non-conference games have to matter. If the only games that count toward making the playoff are the conference games, some top teams might see no value to going out there and risking getting beaten up by other national powers. They might decide to play those games because there’s big money in them, of course, but some coaches and ADs might instead say to hell with it and schedule nothing but Division I-AAs – excuse me, FCS teams – mid-major bottom feeders and local high schools so they can be healthy for the conference slate.

So there has to be a tangible competitive reason to include teams that didn’t win their conferences. Team A may have one loss – in the championship tilt against a team that lost three non-conference match-ups and a league game – while also having beaten three ranked powerhouses in the non-conference. We have to account for this.

Honestly, I’d be good with expanding to 12 or 16 teams and guaranteeing a spot to each Go5 champ, too, but that isn’t going to happen. An 8-team tournament almost certainly will eventually, though, so this conversation is about how best to structure it.

What 2016 Would Look Like Under This Proposal

Here are your 8 participants in a plausible guess seeding order. (This assumes that conference champs don’t automatically get the top 5 seeds; I’m open to doing that, too, though.)

  1. Alabama
  2. Ohio State
  3. Clemson
  4. Washington
  5. Penn State
  6. Michigan
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Western Michigan

Can we argue about that order in places? Sure. 1 and 8 seem obvious, but the rest might need a little shuffling.

So there it is. I think most people with informed opinions agree that the current system, like all NCAA systems, needs work. It’s hard to argue for excluding the fifth-best team given what almost happened in 2014, where eventual champion Ohio State was very nearly left out in favor of a Big 12 entry. It is the job of the system to, at a minimum, provide a level playing field for all teams that have demonstrated a legitimate case for themselves.

So it has to be 8. And like Western Michigan or don’t, there is something very uncomfortable about telling a team that hasn’t lost a game yet to go fuck themselves.

If we ever have a case where the 8 seed wins, then we have to talk about expanding to 12 or 16.

In the meantime, the best we can do is be glad that The Committee can’t just vote the trophy to Bama outright. Or perhaps THE Ohio State University.

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