Fixing The College Football Playoff… Again

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The current playoff system was a step in the right direction and now needs improvement

There are, as of Sunday morning, a total of eight teams in the Power Five conferences with one or fewer losses on the season. Add in Notre Dame and you have, essentially, the sum total of who is still in contention for the College Football Playoff. Central Florida, South Florida, and Memphis have been deemed ineligible because they play in a conference that does not measure up. How do we know that? Just trust us.

Assuming there are no more huge upsets, the playoff will come together as follows:

  • Either Oklahoma or TCU will be eliminated in the Big XII championship game.
  • Notre Dame is likely in if it beats Miami next week and out if it loses.
  • The Canes might be able to overcome losing to Notre Dame if they beat Clemson in the ACC championship game.
  • Washington is likely in the playoffs if it wins out.
  • Wisconsin has garnered little respect so far, but if it remains undefeated should get a spot.

The committee can throw everything into chaos by choosing a one-loss loser of the SEC championship game.

What if there are upsets? Of the nine teams discussed above, four are undefeated. Of those, Miami and Wisconsin have not been shown much respect by the committee, so one loss might do them in. Suppose Washington and Wisconsin lose their conference title games. That would mean two conference champions with two losses. What if Notre Dame defeats Miami, then loses to Stanford? What if Clemson loses to South Carolina, then beats Miami? You can suddenly see a scenario in which the committee is choosing from half a dozen or more two-loss teams for the final playoff spot. That still won’t help Central Florida, South Florida, or Memphis. Just trust us.

After this weekend’s results, the consensus seems to be that the Big Ten will suffer at the hands of the committee because only Wisconsin has fewer than two losses. That thinking neglects to consider the possibility that the lack of teams with sterling records results not from the lack of great teams but from the presence of a multitude of really good ones. It bears mentioning that Iowa, the team that beat Ohio State Saturday, also beat Iowa State, the team that beat both Oklahoma and TCU. It is entirely possible that a two-loss team from one conference is better than an undefeated team from another conference. Unless they play each other, we don’t know.

I’ll mention once again the inherent corruption that this system breeds. Aside from the prestige associated with having a team in the playoff, each conference stands to make millions of dollars if one of its teams is chosen. There is a huge incentive in the Pac-12 and Big Ten for Washington and Wisconsin to win the rest of their games. Similarly, if Clemson, Miami, Oklahoma, or TCU lose before the end of the regular season, it could result in those conferences being shut out of the playoff completely. If the results of the first week mean anything, the committee would rather take the loser of the SEC championship game than a two-loss conference champion. These incentives will surely be part of the conversation if any of these teams win a game on a controversial call.

There’s only one way to fix this: restrict the playoff to conference champions. I’ll go a step further and say that the NCAA should realign the Power Five conferences to create a better playoff system. You say they’ll never go for that? Well, at least one of them is looking at being shut out of the playoff completely. That tends to make you more amenable to other options. That, after all, is the premise behind at least six reality shows.

Here’s my proposal: take the top eighty college teams, ranked by attendance. Split them into eight conferences of ten teams each. Do it geographically; stop pretending that Missouri is in the Southeast or that Louisville and Pittsburgh are on the Atlantic coast. Everyone plays a complete round-robin in its conference, plus three out of conference games. At the end of the season, the eight conference winners advance to the playoff.

Here’s a twist. We’ll borrow the Euro soccer concept of relegation. Except instead of basing it on won-loss record, we’ll use attendance. If in any five-year period, a school not currently in the top eighty outdraws a school in the top eighty, the two schools trade places. That makes sure that schools actually try to build their program, rather than simply cash the checks that they get for being part of a conference.

Here’s one way that eighty schools could be divided to create a college football playoff:

  • Southeastern Conference: Florida, Florida State, Miami, Central Florida, South Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Alabama, Auburn, Vanderbilt
  • ACC: North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, Wake Forest, East Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Clemson, South Carolina, Tennessee
  • Big East: Maryland, Rutgers, Pitt, Penn State, Navy, Army, Boston College, Syracuse, Temple, Connecticut
  • Big Ten: West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State, Cincinnati, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame
  • Pac 10: San Diego State, USC, UCLA, Stanford, California, Oregon. Oregon State, Washington, Washington State, Boise State,
  • Gulf Coast: Texas, Texas Tech, TCU, Texas A&M, Baylor, Houston, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Southern Mississippi
  • Big 8: Wisconsin, Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Memphis
  • Southwest: Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, BYU, Colorado, Colorado State, Air Force, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State

This list includes everyone currently in a Power Five conference except for Kansas. You can argue whether the tradition of Kansas merits inclusion ahead of some other schools, but when you average fewer than 26,000 fans per game, as Kansas did last year, it’s obvious that your tradition doesn’t matter to your fans. Since that’s the case, why should anyone else worry about it? It’s possible that Kansas would make the cut if a five-year average was used, but that information isn’t readily available.

This arrangement disrupts some traditional conferences, but that has been happening for 20 years, so it’s not as though we are messing with something sacred. It keeps most of the rivalry games (Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State) and restores a few that had been lost to prior realignments (Pitt-Penn State, Texas-Texas A&M) as well as putting natural rivals in the same conference (Clemson-South Carolina, Florida-Florida State, Kentucky-Louisville). Because of the geographical proximity, 10 years from now this will feel like the natural state of affairs, whereas West Virginia in the Big XII won’t feel right if it lasts a hundred years. All in all, there is less travel, and each team will play everyone else in its conference, so you get rid of the odd circumstance where powerhouse teams from the same conference can go four years without playing each other.

By now you’re asking yourself if this is so simple, why doesn’t it happen? Mostly because, even though the reality of conferences has been bastardized beyond recognition over the past decade, the idea of conferences is still something that athletic directors and presidents hold up as a sacred tradition that makes college football something other than a callous business. That façade gets chipped away a little more all the time, either by big money deals that enrich coaches and administrators while ignoring the athletes or by scandals that arise when some folks want a bigger share of those deals. Eventually, probably soon, there will be no façade, and college football will either left as a cesspool of hypocrisy that drowns in its own filth, or it will embrace reality and just make as much money for as many people as it can. When it gets to that point, this will be what it looks like.

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