I changed my mind.
Last semester I wrote an editorial about how the College Football Playoff may prove to be the ultimate form of a college football postseason. I compared it to the system it replaced, the Bowl Championship Series, and praised it for allowing double the amount of teams into the playoff and for determining its rankings with a committee instead of a human poll combined with computer algorithms.
I still believe that it is a better solution than the BCS, but I made one critical yet simple mathematical error in my analysis: there are five power conferences in the nation, but only four spots in the playoff. At least one major conference champion is guaranteed to be left out of championship contention every single season. The ultimate college football postseason would not allow that to happen.
The first year of the college football playoff was mired in controversy over which team was most deserving of the final playoff spot. Alabama, Oregon and Florida State each controlled their own destinies as the season wound down – as long as they continued to win, they would be in the playoff.
This left Ohio State, Baylor and TCU fighting for the committee’s vote, each team having to state its case week after week despite all holding the same one-loss record. This meant that the championship landscape would once again be determined by popular opinion instead of being settled in the field, which is not ideal for a playoff system.
Ohio State, of the weakly perceived Big 10 Conference, was eventually chosen for the final spot while TCU and Baylor, both from the Big XII Conference, were left on the outside looking in. The Big XII, which is only ten members strong, is the only power five conference to not hold a championship game as the NCAA forbids conferences with fewer than twelve teams to do so.
In its decision, the committee made it clear that it values conference title game victories and, given a perceived tie between a Big XII champion and any other conference winner, would leave the Big XII out of the playoff.
At the time, the argument could certainly be made that Ohio State had the best resume of the three teams, in part due to the extra conference title game. However, they also easily had the worst loss – at home against Virginia Tech. For the record, I believe the committee got it right, evidenced by the fact that Ohio State advanced to the national title game by beating No. 1 Alabama and won its eighth national title with a 42-20 victory over Oregon.
Still, one can only speculate what TCU would have done in the playoff, as they crushed No. 9 Ole Miss in their bowl game 42-3. The fact that the committee was seemingly very close to leaving the eventual national champions out of the playoff shows that four teams is not enough.
I propose that the college football playoff expand to six teams. Each champion of the power five conferences would earn a spot in the bracket, along with the highest ranked greater five conference champion or independent team. This would allow every single power five team an equally fair chance at making it to the playoff, while also allowing the “lesser” conferences to represent.
The top two teams would earn a bye through the first round of the playoffs while the rest of the teams played each other the week after the conference title games. This allows the New Year’s Six Bowls to still host the playoff semifinals, so nothing after the first round changes. The losers of the first round games would also play each other in one of those bowls as their seasons are still definitely worthy of a New Year’s Six bowl despite the playoff loss. The first round games themselves would not be branded as bowl games, and I am undecided on whether they would be played at neutral sites or at the home stadiums of the higher-ranked teams.
The reason I would only allow conference champions into the playoff is simple: the playoff exists to determine the best team in college football. If a team is not its conference’s champion, then it is not even the best team in its own conference, and therefore cannot be the best team in the nation.
Detractors of this proposal may claim that having automatic bids could produce a situation where a conference sends a weak team to the playoff while a seemingly more worthy team is left out. However, that is just a consequence of not allowing opinions to determine the bracket, and a trade-off I would gladly accept.
In order for this to work, the Big XII would have to add two more teams and a conference title game so that each power five conference would have one true champion. One major reason for the controversy this year was the fact that Baylor beat TCU and should have been considered Big XII champion due to that tiebreaker. Instead, the Big XII awarded a co-championship to both schools, ironically ignoring their own “One True Champion” slogan.
The rankings would still be determined by the same committee but would have much less of an impact in deciding who actually makes it to the tournament.
However, the rankings would determine which teams would earn a first round bye as well as the greater five representative, so fan intrigue and debate would still be high. Finally, they would also have total control over which teams are sent to the remaining New Year’s Six bowls, which would give fans of teams out of the playoff hunt reason to care about the rankings.