The Problem with the College Football Playoff

As I watched Ohio State get a controversial first down and saw my girlfriend, a Michigan alum, chuck a pillow across the room, I knew Michigan’s chances at a playoff berth were crumbling before my eyes. The Buckeyes would win the game on the next play, secure their own bid to the College Football Playoff, and dash Michigan’s hopes.

Eight days later, the College Football Playoff committee, comprised of 12 athletic directors, former coaches and Condoleezza Rice, took the easy way out when they announced their four schools for this year’s playoff: zero-loss Alabama, and one-loss Clemson, Ohio State and Washington. Runners-up Penn State and Michigan had each lost twice and were subsequently left out.

If getting into the playoff was solely based on record, then the committee got it right. But according to the committee chairman Kirby Holcutt, their job was to select the four “best” teams.

“Fundamentally we kept in mind that our job is to determine who are the best teams," he told ESPN. "That is what we did."

Actually, it seems like what they did was select the teams with the best records (we’ll get to undefeated Western Michigan later). Comparing records is misleading because teams don’t play the same opponents. A team with two losses can be better than a team with one.

Penn State’s argument was that they won the Big Ten Conference Championship and beat Ohio State head to head. They beat a team in the playoff and won the title of the highest ranked conference! Their two losses came against Michigan and a Pittsburgh team that also beat number-two Clemson. But alas, two losses became a convenient disqualifier for the committee.

For Michigan, a controversial defeat on the road against Ohio State in double overtime surely proved they were at least on the same level as the Buckeyes. And for most of the season they looked like the second-best team in the country based on the eye test. But they fell by one point to Iowa to total two losses on the season, so they’re out, even though they may be the only team that could hang with Alabama.

One-loss Washington, on the other hand, played the second weakest non-conference schedule in the country, getting cupcake wins over Rutgers, Idaho, and Division IAA opponent Portland State. Should Penn State have played a weaker non-conference schedule to avoid a second loss? Is Washington being rewarded for evading potential losses early in the season?

The committee is sending a mixed message here. They tolerated Washington’s scared scheduling, but then credited Ohio State for playing at Oklahoma and winning. Any program wondering whether or not it should play a difficult non-conference schedule is left without a clear answer.

Then to the conference championship games. Ohio State didn’t even qualify for the Big Ten title game, and is the first team to make the four-team playoff without a conference title. Penn State beat Wisconsin in the championship game and beat Ohio State in the regular season but is left out. What again is the point of the conference championship game?

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby wants answers to that question. The Big 12 recently voted to add a conference championship game starting in 2017 to make their league more competitive for bids to the national playoff.

“We've always heard that conference championships matter and division championships matter, and now it's confusing," he said.

If you’re confused, that’s OK. There was a clear top six, but deciphering which four of those six teams are the best is ultimately subjective.

What’s comical is that there’s no need for all the handwringing. The NCAA could easily go to an eight-team system. There are five power conferences in the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac 12. Give each conference an automatic bid. Not necessarily the conference champion, though typically that will be one and the same. Then have three at-large bids. This year you’d have the four who got in: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington. You add Penn State and Michigan to get to six teams. Then you add Big 12 champion Oklahoma to get to seven and satisfy the rule that all five power conferences get at least one bid.

At this point all two-loss teams are in. Give the final spot to 13-0 mid-major Western Michigan. Remember when undefeated Boise State got their shot against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and won?

With eight bids, all the contenders are in, and no serious doubt is left as to whether or not the best teams are competing for a national championship.

The only potential wrench in this plan is the added round to the playoffs. That means one more game and a higher toll on the players’ bodies. But the current semifinals aren’t until New Year’s Eve. Teams’ last games will have been December 3rd, giving players almost four full weeks of rest. They are used to playing every week. Can’t the NCAA find one weekend in a month for an extra round?

And don’t give me the argument that players need time off for final exams. It’s a convenient narrative to suddenly act as if the NCAA is prioritizing academics. Even if you buy that, then play the quarterfinals on December 24th, well after the semester is over.

I enjoyed debating which four teams deserved to get in as much as the next analyst. But that’s selfish. There are players from Penn State, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Western Michigan who don’t get an opportunity to play for a title. Let’s fix that.