Improving The Playoff By Not Changing A Thing

Ahhh College Football Playoff selection day, what a wonderful time of year. Almost as good as Kickoff Week, the start of conference play, and Rivalry Week all together. Maybe even as exciting as my favorite day of college football of the year, “Upset Saturday” (tm), when inexplicably yet inevitably, half of the top 25 gets beaten by someone ranked lower than themselves, or in the case of this year, numbers 2, 3, and 4 all lose within hours of each other.

Selection day though is its own sort of special. Strength of schedule, head to head, style points, the eye test, conference championships, our guys beat team X by 3 touchdowns but your guys only beat team X on a last second field goal! The arguments for and against your favorite team or hated rival become more and more complicated and convoluted the closer you come to that razor’s edge between the last team in and the first team out.

But the razor nobody talks about when it comes to the playoff is Occam’s. And based on that, the committee got it right because if you look past everything else, you will notice that not a single undefeated or 1-loss power 5 team was left out of the playoff. Meanwhile, every power 5 team that was left out had at least one more loss than the playoff teams. The criteria the committee followed was the simplest of them all: Lose fewer games than the other guys.

But the real joy of the selection is of course the arguments about who should have, could have, and would have made it in if but not for… whatever. And of course the inevitable follow up discussion of how can it be improved.

Some say we need eight teams, some say six, some say even more. But like this year’s selections, I think the college football powers have it correct the way it is with four teams. That said, with a few tweaks you could keep it at the nice, manageable four while eliminating a bit of the heartache and hurt egos of teams being left out despite having a complicated, convoluted, and contortionist-like case that was tragically ignored by the committee.

The simplest way to keep our four official teams but potentially give 10 or more teams a legitimate opportunity to prove they should be in the playoff is by eliminating divisions in the conferences and arranging it so the two best teams in the conference are the ones that play each other. That would turn potentially fraught Championship games into much more straightforward affairs, adding a sort of de facto extra round to the playoff.

As it is now the best team in the conference could lose one game to the wrong team and be out of the conference championship ala Ohio St this year. Other issues that have arisen are when the two best teams in the conference are in the same division like in 2011/12 when LSU and Alabama played a rematch of their regular season game in the national championship. Then of course there is always the problem of the 2012 ACC championship with a 4-loss team playing. Without divisions, the two best teams just play, and it eliminates a number of potential issues.

For instance this year it would have given Ohio State and Penn State a forum to prove who really was more deserving of the selection.

I am sure the Michigan fans are cursing me now, wondering why I am only talking about the 2nd and 3rd best Big10 teams in this years hypothetical game and that brings me to one exception to this system. I would suggest that when it comes to end of season rivalry games you cannot have a rematch. As fun as Michigan vs. Ohio State was, seeing it again the next week would not double the enjoyment but rather halve it for each game. So your Auburn-Alabama, Michigan-Ohio St, Oklahoma-Oklahoma St, type games would effectively be an even earlier round playoff game in those years in which the two rivalry teams were the best in their conference. It would also add even greater heaps of drama to the once a year ONLY rivalry games when both teams are good.

Another possible exception, if a conference has one 1-loss or undefeated team and the rest all have 3 or more losses, is to perhaps allow for a non-power 5 team to fill that slot. So for instance if Oklahoma has 1 loss and the rest of the Big12 has 3 or more losses, then OU plays an undefeated Boise St. or whoever is the best power 5 team out there that is still undefeated or has 1 loss. The conference might not love it but OU might prefer playing the best team in Conference USA instead of say, TCU again.

You could probably have a similar exception for Notre Dame and the ACC. If ND is better than than the 2nd best ACC team, then they get that slot. Maybe ND could qualify that way for Big10 and Pac10 too depending on the year since they play multiple teams from each of those conferences every year.

Ultimately though no matter how you tweak the system, college football will conspire to present us with some completely unanticipated chaos that throws a wrench into the entire works and leaves yet another team on the outside looking in. That is why we love it, that is why it drives us crazy, and that is why we will never be satisfied even if we go to a 128 team playoff because one of those years Alabama will lose to Texas State and everyone will then want to figure out a way to prevent THAT from happening again… Without realizing the answer is simple: Don’t lose the games.