How to Fix the College Football Playoffs: A G5 Fan Perspective
Why expansion is the only way to provide an equitable system for all of FBS
This year in college football, absolutely nothing was normal. Some conferences started late, some played a full schedule, and yet, we still saw 3 familiar faces in the College Football Playoffs in the form of Ohio State, Alabama, and Clemson. Even in a pandemic year, the highest we saw a Group of Five school climb in the rankings before bowl games began was to #6 in the country per the AP, and #7 in the country per the CFP Rankings, an impressive feat for a G5 school. Unfortunately, they had to be undefeated in order to do so, and even lost 2 spots the final 3 weeks, being leapfrogged by 2 loss Iowa State and Georgia in the CFP Rankings. Yes, undefeated Cincinnati was punished and pushed out of a chance at reaching the College Football Playoff, despite doing everything the Committee deemed necessary to get there. They won their games, they won the conference, and beat multiple ranked opponents along the way. The current system is broken, and needs to be fixed for the sake of college football.
As it stands right now, the NCAA completely disenfranchises Group of Five conferences from having a legitimate shot at winning the College Football Playoff championship. Each of the Group of Five Schools have the same metric of making the playoff as the Power Five Schools: Selected as one of the Top 4 teams overall by the CFP Selection Committee, in which case the team will play in a CFP national semifinal. Not sure how that removes the Group of 5 from consideration? As of right now, we had one conference championship runner up from the ACC (Notre Dame) who played in the semifinals this year. A non-conference champion made the semi-finals after losing their conference title game by three scores... yet they still made it in.
Why does this matter?
The status quo dictates that an undefeated Cincinnati team, who beat two ranked programs throughout the course of the season, can’t even get ranked above three-loss Iowa State, all because of their perceived strength of schedule. (Never mind that ISU lost by 17 to SBC foe Louisiana at home...)
“Tell them to schedule harder teams!”
Ohio State just last season scheduled a home and home with Georgia for 2034-2035. How good will either of them be in fifteen years? We have no idea, we can assume both will be decent opponents for each other based on history, but we truly have no idea. These athletic departments schedule these games out well in advance, even before some of the players who will play these matchups are out of diapers. Sure, some filler games get scheduled within 3-4 years, but still, if you want a lot of the marquee match-ups, you need to schedule them YEARS in advance.
“Join a better conference!”
Jumping from one conference to another isn’t as easy as it seems, especially from a Group of Five to a Power Five Conference. Not impossible, but even the Group of Five king Boise State couldn’t get it done. Cincinnati was actually in the former Big East, who also hosted Louisville, Syracuse, Pitt and Rutgers, all happily sitting in a P5 conference today. The dissolvement of the Big East wasn't their fault, but making a conference switch just isn't that easy unless the powers that be realign. Trickle down conference economics can play kingmaker as in Rutgers or Louisville's case, or banish you to irrelevance like SMU or Tulane.
“Recruit better and win more!”
Are you telling me if a kid has the chance to go to Alabama, Michigan or Oregon, they will choose to go to Colorado State over those schools? Not when they know they have a real chance to compete for a National Championship, or even be in the conversation to compete for one. A G5 program, as of now, cannot recruit top talent to a team with an insignificant statistical probability of making the Playoff. Recruiting will continue to be a game of haves and have nots.
I write all this to say that the current system in place greatly affects the Group of Five champions far more than any other Power Five Champion.
What can we do? Well, we can start by looking at every other model in modern sports. The College Baseball World Series, College Volleyball playoff tournament, men's and women's College Basketball championship tournaments, College Football's FCS division, as well as Division's II & III, the NAIA division of College Football, and the NFL all award the division or conference champion an automatic bid to their respective final tournaments, usually with non-champions earning at-large bids and the right to play for the title as well. First and foremost, the College Football Playoff is just that: a championship tournament. Establishing that, we can look at further details on how to make this equilateral and fair for all teams involved.
Establish a bigger bracket. I’ve seen arguments for an eight-team expansion, and a sixteen-team expansion, however, very little on a twelve-team expansion. Suggesting a twelve team playoff seems weird until you consider the following: one automatic bid for each conference champion, two at large bids for non-conference champions. That has been the matrix for a guaranteed bid for every other league. Want to make the playoffs? Win your conference. Don’t win? Schedule a solid non-conference slate.
How does this fix things?
1. It encourages teams to play only FBS opponents, and not late season FCS opponents such as Western Carolina and Wofford. (Looking at you, Clemson and Bama.) And, it puts more emphasis on winning your conference. Okay, so what if you don't win your conference? Then you need to have a great non-conference schedule, starting by scheduling programs from at least your own division.
2. It balances the recruiting game a little bit more. No, it doesn’t mean a 5 star recruit is going to go running to Appalachian State or UL Monroe, but it does give the smaller schools a chance to recruit when they can say, “We have made the College Football Playoffs two out of the last three seasons" or "winning our conference has earned us the chance to play elite competition on the game's biggest stage" Kids will eat that up. A 4 Star might consider the likes of a Toledo or San Diego State if it means they will have a shot at the playoffs and START rather than sit for 3 years and get 8 games of playing time. It creates recruiting parity.
3. Someone will break through. This isn’t about telling you all that a Mountain West team is going to win the National Championship. This is about merely affording them the opportunity to do so. UMBC beat heavy favorite and #1 overall seed Virginia in college basketball a few years ago. The New York Giants upset every favorite on their way to beating the then 18-0 New England Patriots in the Super Bowl in 2007. Will it happen every year? Of course not. But given the chance, we could see Boise State take down Oklahoma in the National Championship game, similar to how they did in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
4. It would be great for smaller fan bases. Smaller college towns like Bowling Green, Ohio, have very little around them besides arch rival Toledo sitting 20 miles to the north. If Bowling Green wins the MAC and makes the CFP, you can bet that there will be plenty of Falcon faithful there to support their team. The bars would be packed with anxious fans who would actually be watching their university have the chance to compete for a National Championship in something other than ice hockey.
5. You enjoy watching the same 5-6 teams year-in and year-out beat each other up? At least with more conferences being invited to the party, you would get some brands of football people weren't aware of, and maybe even eventually begin to enjoy. There is some exciting football being played in the G5 conferences, yet they don't get the attention they deserve. Sure there will be blowouts, but it's not like it hasn't happened already in the playoffs to Power 5 teams like Washington and Michigan State. That's a consistently made argument and would be valid if blowouts weren't a yearly occurrence already.
6. Group of Five champions aren't as repetitive as Power Five champions. In fact, just in the MAC alone, we have seen 6 different conference champions in the last 6 seasons. This brings a new player and a new contender to the table far more often than the current system does. One year, you could see Toledo make the playoffs. The next, Western Michigan. Oh, and by the way, Georgia Southern took the Sun Belt and are cruising. Not to mention Hawaii won the Mountain West! It would be a party!!
7. It would be fantastic for revenue streams for college football. Smaller teams start to become the hopeful underdog, become nationally known, and the extra games bring in more money for the schools, conferences and all of college football as a whole. Revenue sharing would allow for conferences to help their schools to upgrade facilities, increase capacity, make changes that bring more national relevance to the program, a big thing for some recruits that might want to stay closer to home.
How would we set this up? Well, you start with a bracket of twelve teams, the top four teams earning byes. While this has its inherent flaws, it rewards at least four teams with a first round bye. The bottom eight teams all play each other, similar to that of the NFL. But here’s the best part: have those first round games as campus games, awarding the home site to the higher seeded team. If you don’t like that (ahem, traditionalist Athletic Directors), use a rotating schedule of bowl game sites and bring revenue and fans to those areas.
So here is how the teams would be seeded for this season if my system were implemented:
1. Alabama (SEC)
2. Clemson (ACC)
3. Ohio State (B1G)
4. Oklahoma (Big XII)
5. Cincinnati (AAC)
6. Coastal Carolina (SBC)
7. USC (PAC-12)
8. San Jose State (MWC) 9. Ball State (MAC)
10. Marshall (C-USA)
And two at large teams, currently the highest rated being:
Come on, Notre Dame and TAMU might be ranked below Cincy this season, but the others? Give them a break! They had a shot at a break. Part of the penalty for not winning your conference is being a lower seed
The bracket for the 2020-2021 12-team playoff would have looked like this:
Yes, we are adding two extra weeks of games. However, bowl season went from December 21st, and ends with the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on January 11th. That is 21 days of post season college football, all games that avoid a majority of university final exams. Twenty-one days is just 3 weeks. It would be easy to fit all of the playoff games in this time period just by shifting the final game a few days. Check it out:
First Round: December 23rd, various sites.
Second Round: December 30th, various sites.
Semi-finals: January 6th, various sites.
January 13th, CFP Championship game.
You could honestly even stretch it out and give them longer rest periods, starting the first round games at the beginning of the bowl season, and spreading the other rounds out over various days, giving them time to be with their families for the holidays, etc. Naturally, this would mean that the eventual National Champion would have to endure a 16-17 game season? Yes, that would be long indeed. But the team who wins the college basketball national championship plays upwards of 40 games depending on conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament, while the teams that miss the postseason might play 25-28 games. The projected football model allows for the same recovery time between rounds as they are allotted during the regular season and conference championship game.
With this model a few things change in terms of rankings. First, it gives the committee the power to rank the conference champions instead of deciding the top 4 teams, and it allows them to debate the at-large bids and where they should be seeded. Second, it forces teams to have a better non-conference schedule so that they CAN make the playoffs if they don’t win their conference, as I mentioned above. Saying a Cincinnati isn't deserving because they don’t play in a P5 conference doesn’t make sense when there are P5 teams considered who couldn't even beat a ranked opponent, or scheduled FCS opponents to fill gaps instead of playing FBS teams.
As it stands, FBS College Football is the only level of sports where a conference champion doesn’t get a guaranteed chance at winning their league's championship, and that is a major issue. We can talk all day about more deserving and whatever, but the fact remains that Group of Five schools do extremely well in New Year Six bowls, and that’s because of the tie-in as the highest rated G5 school. Let's peek a little closer and see.
2014-2015: #20 Boise State (11-2) beat #10 Arizona (10-3) in the Fiesta Bowl, 38-30.
2015-2016: #18 Houston (12-1) beat #9 Florida State (10-2) in the Peach Bowl, 38-24.
2016-2017: #8 Wisconsin (10-3) beat #15 Western Michigan (13-0) in the Cotton Bowl, 24-16
2017-2018: #12 UCF (12-0) beat #7 Auburn (10-3) in the Peach Bowl, 34-27
2018-2019: #11 LSU (9-3) beat #8 UCF (12-0) in the Fiesta Bowl, 40-32
2019-2020: #10 Penn State (10-2) Beat#17 Memphis (12-1) in the Cotton Bowl 53-39
2020-2021: #9 Georgia (7-2) beat #8 Cincinnati (9-0) in the Peach Bowl 24-21
In three out of seven appearances in the New Year's Six bowl games (so far), the G5 schools toppled the “superior conference” opponents. Admittedly, players from the P5 schools are skipping bowl games, getting ready for the draft, etc., but that’s no excuse. Both teams show up, they play, and there is a winner. The G5 schools hold their own on the biggest stages, and I would be willing to wager that if each conference champion were invited, at least one would make it to the semifinals, with the rare National Championship game appearance. It’s college football, stranger things have happened. Alabama-Northern Illinois, anyone?
If I am a football coach for any other division in college football, I can confidently get up every day and tell my kids, “You can win a National Championship this year. Let's go win the conference, and then let’s go take nationals!” Those kids will inevitably work harder because they know that they aren’t out of it before the season starts, and really, they aren’t out of it two weeks into the season. But in the FBS there are 59 teams eliminated immediately (total of G5 Schools) from playing for the National Championship, just because of their conference ties. A paltry 45.3% of FBS programs can only “hope” to make a New Year’s Six game, never even sniffing the College Football Playoff. with the current projection, 12 teams is still less than 10% of all eligible programs in the FBC subdivision who will qualify for the national championship tournament. the NFL invites 37.5% of teams to the playoffs, some even with losing seasons. A move to eight teams would be a step in the right direction, but if the CFP Committee really wants to look every college single football player in the face and tell them that they have a chance to win a National Championship, a much larger bracket is the way to go. Maybe it should be 8 teams, or 12 teams, maybe it’s 16. But as it stands now, four is not the answer. There needs to be a change.