The CFB Playoff Only Needs One Small Change

It's that time of year again where the first college football playoff rankings are released. People start losing their minds about different scenarios, airing grievances about past issues and discussing why the playoff needs to expand up to as high as 64 teams. Most of our issues could be fixed with the smallest of adjustments.

Understanding The Problem

The big issue that comes around every year since the BCS and now the CFP were created is the notion of putting in the "best" teams. The problem is that best is relative.

If we transport ourselves back to the magical year 2006, you'll see the "best" example of the problem with this notion. Ohio State and Michigan were ranked atop the polls weeks before their annual end of the year rivalry game. The build up started very early on and hype, being what it is, eventually transformed into people discussing whether or not they could have a rematch in the BCS Championship game for all the marbles.

Let it sink in for a quick second. Two teams...who just played a game to determine which one of them is better, should be given the opportunity to have a rematch because people believed they were the two "best" teams. Perception of "best" doesn't depend on victory on the field. It rests entirely in your own mind and that is why the actual results don't change your view.

The reason that this is the "best of the best" example of this insanity is that tOSU and Michigan did not have a rematch. Ohio State went to the title game while Michigan sauntered off to the Rose Bowl. Want to guess what happened? They both lost. Badly. Florida dismantled Ohio State 41-14 and Southern Cal embarrassed Michigan 32-18 (15 of those 18 points came in the 4th quarter). The only thing that made these two teams the "best" was ESPN's marketing department.

Further examples include the horrendous Alabama vs LSU title game rematch after LSU had beaten Alabama on the road during the regular season. Alabama didn't even win their division, but was given a shot at the BCS Championship and eventually won because of this idea that they were the "best". LSU should have been playing an excellent Oklahoma State team who's only loss came after a midweek plane crash took the lives of two women's basketball coaches.

Solving the Problem

The root of both situations was that "best" really meant "best...in the conference." If you don't have to play other conferences...you don't actually know who is the best.

There are 129 teams in FBS. There are 4 playoff spots. That means 3.1% of the league makes the playoff. There are 65 teams in the Power 5 if you include Notre Dame, meaning 6.1% of the field can make the playoff. Contrast that with the NFL where 40% of the league makes the playoffs and it puts into context just how much of a waste rematches are in such a limited field.

The simple rule: No conference can have more than one team represented in the playoff. Period. Your conference of 10-14 teams had the entire season to work out who the best team was...there is no justification for extending that into a 4 team playoff.

There are a number of different ways to implement that rule from the simplest form, where the committee still gets full control to pick a representative from a conference or where hard requirements come with it. Do we require that the conference championship determines the representative or maybe do we limit the options to only participants in those conference championships?

There are good cases for both. On the one hand, requiring your conference championship to be eligible for the playoff effectively expands the playoff by default. It leaves everything on the field and then the committee has a lot less to do in order to work out who the 4 participants will be.

At the same time, there are situations like Auburn last year that might merit consideration. Auburn defeated Georgia during the regular season. They also beat Alabama to make it to the SEC championship game against Georgia for a rematch. During the game against Bama, Auburn lost one of their star players to an injury and without him, lost the next week to Georgia in the rematch.

There was a strong case to be made that selecting Auburn in that situation would be justifiable due to the circumstances. Most of that case went out the window when they lost to Central Florida. As long as our single team limit is in place, this becomes a moot point because UGA would be the representative from the SEC.

Selecting Alabama for the 4th spot, over Auburn, defies any sense of rationality beyond opinion. It completely discounts what happened on the field and rewards Alabama with an extra week off to rest. Auburn was penalized for beating Alabama, meaning Alabama was rewarded for losing. That dog don't hunt.

The Playoff Doesn't Need to Expand

If for any reason the playoff expands beyond 4 teams, you're going to be rewarded with more rematches. Teams who just played in their conference championship games are going to end up in pointless rematches a month later. The conference championship games should be that first round, creating a filter that limits the selection committee's choices to champions and highly ranked independents.

It's not about "best", it's about "earned." Earned is settled on the field. Best is settled in the marketing department until the games are played.

Let's look at what the participants would have been in the playoffs to this point if the rule had been in place for the committee's selections.

Year 1 Seed 2 Seed 3 Seed 4 Seed
2014-15 Alabama Oregon Florida State Ohio State
no change
2015-16 Clemson Alabama Michigan State Oklahoma
no change
2016-17 Alabama Clemson Ohio State Washington
change: Alabama Clemson Washington Penn State
2017-18 Clemson Oklahoma Georgia Alabama
change: Clemson Oklahoma Georgia Ohio State

These minor changes lead to a more diverse field and broader competition.

Logistical Issues with Playoff Expansion

Conference championships are already regionally scheduled, which is better for fan travel. As a Clemson fan who's been lucky enough to have his team in three of these playoffs, let me express how exhausting and expensive the travel is for fans. Each playoff game costs a fortune, but planning the trips on a week's notice, taking time off of work, etc gets expensive. Fans end up staying home to try to save money in case they make it to the championship.

Most other leagues that have a playoff allow the higher seeded teams to host the lower seeds or they alternate hosting in a multigame series. Here is the travel schedule that Clemson fans have had for the last three years if they've attended each game.

Month 2015-2016 2016-2017 2017-2018
December Charlotte, NC Orlando, FL Charlotte, NC
December Miami, FL Glendale, AZ New Orleans, LA
January Glendale, AZ Tampa, FL

Charlotte, Orlando and Tampa were reasonable drives from South Carolina. Miami, Glendale and New Orleans, however, were not. Flights into Glendale for the 20015-2016 Championship game were going for $2,500 each. We ended up flying to Las Vegas and then driving a rental car 4 hours to the game. On the return trip the next year for the game against Ohio State, the stadium was 75% full of Ohio State fans because so many of ours decided to stay home to save for the championship in Tampa.

Nobody really benefits from adding another game to the playoff itself, rather than using the Championships as a qualifier. It's just some additional TV inventory for people watching at home while creating a headache for the actual fans of the teams involved.

If you make the conference championships a qualifier and expand the playoff, you'll effectively turn the conference championship games into automatic qualifiers. If at any point those game become automatic qualifiers, then out of conference games no longer matter. Can you imagine if Thanksgiving weekend, if teams involved with out of conference rivalries opted to rest their starters in those games? Clemson vs SC. Florida vs FSU. Georgia vs GT.

What if teams just started playing cupcakes out of conference because their strength of schedule no longer mattered for whether or not they got in? You'd end up with a stagnant schedule that repeated itself almost exactly every single year.

Variety is important to college football. Rematches are not.

What makes the college football regular season the best of any sport is the finality that comes with each game. Every game has playoff stakes. You lose, you're probably out of contention for either the playoff or your conference championship. That LSU vs Alabama game during the 2013 season was billed and televised as if it was the biggest game in history. It almost was...until the rematch made it irrelevant.

At the end of the day, it's a big field with a few spots. The simplest way to expand the playoff with minimal changes is by essentially making those conference championship games a part of it.

But there is no justification outside of a league marketing department to allow more than one team from a single conference into a 4 team playoff.

None.

About Me

My name is Barry Jones and Brightball is my consulting company. We help business leaders understand the long term effects of their technical decisions as well as navigating the process of interviewing software developers.

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