How To Playoff: The College Football Playoff is Fundamentally Broken

College Football is simply the greatest sport in America[citation needed]. It’s silly, wondrous, filled with passion, thrilling, riddled with scandal, “not for profit” wink wink, and occasionally has some of the greatest stories of raw, unadulterated pettiness that belongs in a yet-to-be-established Non-Fiction Hall of Shame.

And yet we as a civilized society cannot come to a consensus on how to figure out a champion.

Today is Sunday, December 20th, the year of our Lord 2020. A few hours ago, the shadow overlords of the College Football Playoff committee unveiled the 2020 playoff bracket:

– No. 1 Alabama (11-0) vs No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1) in the Rose Bowl Semifinal Game in Arlington, Texas.
– No. 2 Clemson (10-1) vs No. 3 Ohio State (6-0) in the Cotton Bowl

Yawn. Alabama and Clemson are as inevitable as Thanos. It would be their fourth meeting since the playoff started in 2014 should they get to the championship (hint: they will). Ohio State (for reasons mostly out of their control) played a fraction of their schedule. Notre Dame getting blown out on a national stage is meme-worthy.

Outside looking into the playoff are the undefeated AAC Champion Cincinnati Bearcats (9-0), the undefeated Sun Belt Champion Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (8-0), the undefeated Mountain West Champion San Jose State Spartans (7-0), and the Texas A&M Aggies (8-1).

I am not going to get into the “how did we get here” narrative of the playoff because we all know how it happen. Let us just agree that this largely unregulated sport controlled by an infinitesimal representation of power brokers let natural selection take place to their own detriment.

For crying out loud, NCAA division’s III, II, and I-AA have a successful more-than-four team playoff and have for a long time.

Now how the [censored] to we fix this [censored] [censored] [censored] [censored]?!

Expand. The. Damn. Playoff.

This is not debatable. And quite frankly, good luck finding anti-expansionist who do not have “Commissioner” or “Athletic Director” next to their name. The current four-team playoff of “the best” teams is not tenable. The same six or seven schools will always be in the top four. If you do not believe me, look at the latest recruiting class rankings. This is not interesting. This is not competitive.

The only thing it is is a guaranteed anti-trust congressional inquiry. Playoff teams make a ton of money, and the powers-to-be have created a system that has barred participants from a large revenue stream. If the commissioners and athletic directors do not blow the current system up, the Congress and the Justice Department will.

So we all agree; expand the playoff.

That is where agreement stops. Who should qualify for this playoff? One of the more popular alternatives is granting an automatic bid to the “Power 5” conference champions, an automatic bid to the highest ranked “Group of 5” team, and two remaining at-large teams. But that is not without its own issues. What if there’s no good G5 teams? What if a mediocre Power 5 team stumbles into their conference championship because of extenuating circumstances and somehow wins?

This is not so cut-and-dry. The good news is that we have two highly successful playoff models that we can draw the best parts from and create something really, really good: the NFL and College Basketball (aka, March Madness).

The NFL playoff format is the ultimate meritocracy practicing pure agnosticism. Before a single snap of the season is played, an extremely specific formula is established to determined the 12… er, 14… teams that will compete for the Lombardi Trophy. There’s no committee, no subjectivism, and no guessing. It is pure mathematics and merit. We know exactly what the playoff picture looks like week-to-week wholly because of on-field results. However, the professional league has two major distinguishing characteristics from college football: 1) the NFL only has 32 teams to the College Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)’s 130, and 2) the NFL has parity.

Any team not named the Jets can beat any other team on any other day. A sixth-seed wildcard AFC team can and has won the Super Bowl because the disparity of talent between teams is just so narrow compared to the collegiate level. A purely mathematical approach to college football would yield massive blowouts in the playoff and would not be interesting to fans of the sport, nor would the financial investment be worthwhile. This is why the sport has largely leaned on human selection to pick the championship contenders. Humans are much better than computers at identifying such disparities.

Now, what about March Madness? Arguably the greatest and most compelling athletic playoff is the NCAA Division I College Basketball tournament. You can argue that the World Cup is tops globally, but in America, March Madness is god-tier. Every game is appointment-viewing. The 64-… er, 68-team playoff is mostly human selected. However, 30 spots are reserved to any of the 300+ teams who win their conference tournament regardless of their record. The remaining 38 slots are filled with at-large teams. The human committee then seeds the teams, giving seed and location priority to the best teams, avoiding rematches, and pitting too many good teams too early in the bracket. Sure, every year there is debate on whether or not the NCAA selection committee “got it right”, but year after year the bracket is tremendously entertaining, and Final Four repeats are rare and exceedingly compelling.

How to Select Teams for the Expanded College Football Playoff

Look, I’m not an expert at this, but what I’m suggesting is simply better than what we have by a large degree. The challenge of the current playoff system is trying to select the “best teams”, but that entire notion is absurd. Sometimes the best teams can still lose a game. Sometimes a David can topple Goliath. That’s the playoffs, baby. If your objective is to put the best teams on a pedestal and shield them from lesser teams, then why even have a playoff at all?

My system rewards conference champions and regular season accomplishments, while recognizing that being perfect for even the bests teams is really really difficult. It provides intrigue, variety, and equity.

How many teams? Well the popular answer is eight, but I would argue that ten is better. Being in the Top 10 is a nice round accomplishment. Plus, a ten-team playoff means you could have two wildcard games around Christmastime. Think of the ratings! The number of teams is irrelevant, so long as there’s at least eight.

Here’s the selection rules, to be processed in order:

  1. A team must win eighty percent (80%) of their regular season schedule to qualify for the playoff. The exact percentage here is arbitrary and the specificity honestly doesn’t matter, but you have to have some qualifier to make the regular season mean something. You also have to make it so that one loss doesn’t devalue the remainder of the season. Eighty percent is just my suggestion.
  2. The conference champion from the Atlantic Coastal Conference, the Big 12 Conference, the Big Ten Conference, the Pac-12 Conference, and the Southeastern Conference shall be awarded an automatic bid. However, rule No. 1 still applies. If a conference champion did not win eighty percent of their regular season games, then that conference’s automatic bid is forfeited to the at-large pool.
  3. The remaining qualifying teams not receiving automatic bids shall be ranked by a composite poll of human and computer rankings. Yes, let’s bring back the BCS method of ranking teams! There was honestly nothing wrong with that system other than that there was no playoff.
  4. The highest composite-ranked team from the American Athletic Conference, the Conference-USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, and the Sun Belt Conference shall be awarded an automatic bid. Ahem, commissioners, this is how you can potentially avoid an anti-trust lawsuit. Like the “Power 5” teams, if no “Group of 5” team passes Rule No. 1 then this automatic bid is forfeited to the at-large pool. If the number of the teams is expanded further than ten, I suggest increasing the number of automatic bids to the “Group of 5” conferences.
  5. The remaining playoff positions shall be selected at-large from the highest composite-ranked teams in ascending order until all playoff positions are filled. We’ll probably need some kind of a tie-breaker method here.
  6. Qualifying conference champions are protected from playing in the wildcard round.
  7. The final pool of selected teams shall be ranked by a composite poll of human and computer rankings for the sole purposes of determining the number one seed.

That’s it, folks. Seed the playoff much like the college basketball selection committee does. Rule No. 7 exists so that the best team is guaranteed the No. 1 seed and that the final seeding is not the result of the rankings. For instances, if steadfast seedings meant that two inter-conference divisional foes would rematch in the first round, would it not make sense for human judgement to re-seed the lower team? I think so. Therefore the ranking only determines the 1-seed. The rest are seeded by committee and judgement.

All wildcard and quarter-final games are hosted at the home site of the higher-seeded team. The semi-final games can remain on a rotating basis with the “New Years Six” bowls to make them still feel important.

This is not a simple expansion; this is a reimagining of the College Football Playoff.

Simulating a Proper 2020 Playoff

Using my system above, let’s create a ten-team playoff for the most unusual year in modern college football history. Keep in mind that because of the unequal number of regular season games for any given teams in 2020, the results for this year might be a bit… weird. But this would still be an incredibly compelling playoff.

Rule No. 1 — The teams that would qualify for the playoffs: Alabama, Army, Ball State, Boise State, Buffalo, BYU, Clemson, Cincinnati, Colorado, Coastal Carolina, Florida, Liberty, Louisiana, Indiana, Iowa State, Miami (Fla.), Marshall, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Ohio State, San Jose State, Texas A&M, Tulsa, and USC.

Rule No. 2 — The automatic “Power 5” qualifiers are Clemson from the ACC, Ohio State from the Big Ten, and Alabama from the SEC. Neither Big 12 Champion Oklahoma (.777) nor Pac-12 Champion Oregon (.600) qualified under Rule No. 1. (Editor’s Note: Oklahoma being left out is reason enough this system would never, ever be endorsed by the Big 12.)

Rule No. 3 — Ideally, the qualifying teams would be ranked once they’re identified. For this exercise, I’m using a simple average of the human Associated Press (AP) poll and the Massey Composite Poll representing our digital overlords. Some teams did not appear in the AP poll so only their Massey ranking is used.

TeamAPMasseyAverage*Qualification
Alabama111Rules 2, 6, 7
Clemson232.5Rules 2, 6
Ohio State322.5Rules 2, 6
Texas A&M544.5At-Large
Notre Dame484.5At-Large
Florida1068At-Large
Indiana7108.5At-Large
Cincinnati6139.5Rules 4, 6
Iowa State121111.5At-Large
Northwestern151515At-Large
BYU132117
USC211819.5
Miami (Fla.)182320.5
San Jose State192723
Coastal Carolina93823.5
Tulsa223327.5
Louisiana164631
Colorado363736.5
Boise State4646
Liberty237750
Army277450.5
Buffalo287853
Marshall307954.5
Ball State7272

Rule No. 4 — Cincinnati is the highest composite-ranked team representing the “Group of 5” conferences and gets in automatically. They would be in regardless in this scenario since they’re composite-ranked eighth.

Rule No. 5 — Your playoff participants are Alabama, Clemson, Cincinnati, Florida, Notre Dame, Indiana, Iowa State, Ohio State, Northwestern, and Texas A&M.

Rule No. 6 — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Cincinnati are protected from playing in the wildcard round by virtue of winning their conference.

Rule No. 7 — Alabama is the No. 1 team.

Oh man, that’s really, really good. Now for some strategic seeding.

Wildcard: Monday, December 28th, 2020 (In a non-2020 year, this would be the first full week after the Army-Navy game)

  • No. 10 Iowa State at No. 7 Northwestern —Two really good “Power 5” teams that lost a competitive conference championship game.
  • No. 9 Indiana at No. 8 Florida – Both programs had really stand-out years that did not pan out in their favor.

Quarterfinals: Monday, January 4th, 2020 (In a non-2020 year, this would be around Christmas and non-competing with NFL games)

  • Lowest-seeded wildcard winner at No. 1 Alabama
  • Higher-seeded wildcard winner at No. 2 Clemson
  • No. 6 Cincinnati at No. 3 Texas A&M
  • No 5 Notre Dame at No. 4 Ohio State

If you’re shouting at your screen, “No way Texas A&M should be ranked higher than Ohio State,” remember that these are not rankings, they’re strategically placed seeds. If you swap those then Alabama and Texas A&M might rematch in the semifinals.

Come one, come all, tweet this to the athletic director at your fandom’s school, to your conference, hell, to your congressperson! Let’s get this accomplished.