The Ideal College Football Playoff (CFP): 7 Guidelines for a Better System

Mike Weppler
Global Perspectives on Today and Tomorrow
11 min readNov 24, 2020


Addressing the debate about the College Football Playoff, this analyzes possible playoff systems and identifies the ideal path that continues to reward the best teams while also providing greater equality of representation and therefore opportunity.
Photo by John Torcasio on Unsplash

“Tonight’s first ever quarterfinal matchup features BYU playing at Notre Dame, and in tomorrow’s early game we’ll see Cincinnati play at Ohio State. I can feel the energy pumping through my veins. This is college football, the passion of the game, in which every team has a real shot. Finally, we got it right!”

I imagine Kirk Herbstreit proclaiming this from the bottom of his heart, standing in the announcer’s booth at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, just before kickoff on a Friday evening.

While the playoff system has been a blessing to college football, it still leaves us cringing every time a really great team is left out — especially if it’s a “non-Power-Five” school that we feel was never really considered. UCF in 2018. Georgia or Ohio State in that same year. Iowa or Ohio State in 2015. TCU or Baylor in 2014. What if these teams, especially in the case of UCF, actually… had… a shot. Win or lose, what would it mean to those teams — their players, coaches, universities, and fans — to know they have no glass ceiling?

In a crazy 2020 season, in which each football game is at risk of cancellation until kickoff, we have a special opportunity to ask unique and challenging questions. I propose we start with this one. Can we do this better? Can the most passionate league of America’s most popular sport — college football — also embody the American dream, in which any team that has made its way into the premier “FBS” division has a shot to win it all?

The Evolution of a Championship

Premier college football has come a long way. Its rules have improved, both in terms of the quality of the game, and in protecting players. And its system for crowning a champion has evolved from an awkward comparison of teams that probably never played one another, to a competition of elite teams on the gridiron.

But is today’s system really better?

Comparing the pre-1998 bowl system to the BCS, we must acknowledge the evolution from off-the-field comparison to on-the-field competition. It did effectively end any championship hopes for a team outside the top 2 rankings, which it previously could have accomplished through an excellent bowl performance and victory over a top team. However, champions must be determined on the field, which outweighs any other consideration, making the BCS a better system.

What about the BCS vs the CFP? The latter affirmed the value of on-the-field competition, while addressing the limitation of the BCS system — an opportunity for the next two teams to play their way into a championship. Perhaps a #3 or #4 ranked team would have won a national championship during the sixteen years of the BCS, though we will never know. We can, however, confirm the CFP is a better system by looking at which seeds have advanced to and won the championship in its six years. Lower seeds that would have been excluded from the BCS championship game, have won two of six CFP championships. Here are the results:

2014: #4 Ohio State defeated #2 Oregon

2015: #2 Alabama defeated #1 Clemson

2016: #2 Clemson defeated #1 Alabama

2017: #4 Alabama defeated #3 Georgia

2018: #2 Clemson defeated #1 Alabama

2019: #1 LSU defeated #3 Clemson

While the current system does add one game for each of the two teams who advance to the championship, I have no reservations in speaking for those teams: They would gladly exert the extra effort for the opportunity to win a championship.

Still, we should do more than just evaluate whether a system is better than those that came before it. We should ask whether it is better than other alternatives as well.

Is it the best for football, for the players, and for other stakeholders? Let’s address the obvious alternatives: A 6, 8, or 16 playoff.

A 16-team playoff would mean adding two more games for these teams, which is just too much for the players, who already play a 15-game season that includes the regular season, conference championship, and playoff games. Compensating by eliminating two regular season games just is not practical.

An 8-team playoff is intriguing, though it would mean adding an additional game for those teams that are selected and advance. (I will address this below.) Additionally, while some may argue it could dilute the meaning of regular season games, I would also suggest that the right system could actually increase their meaning.

For example, if conference championships are highly-valued in the selection process (such as an automatic bid), then even a team with two losses can rebound and may have a chance to play their way in. This is especially true for Group of Five Conference teams, if the system carved out a place for excellent and “over-achieving” teams from these conferences. Of course, we could ask whether a team with two (or three) losses is deserving of a playoff bid, even with a conference championship. Washington in 2019, for example. That is a fair argument, as I’m sure was made when the Division I college basketball tournament expanded to involve more teams (often with ten or fifteen losses). Yet, I (and many others) believe the increased meaning of regular season and championship games under this plan, as well as the addition of meaningful games to the playoff season, would be a win for teams and their fans.

As for a 6-team playoff, it would mirror the 8-team option in most respects, other than its first round “bye” for teams ranked #1 and #2. Its advantage is reducing the windows of eligibility and selection, which would raise the level of excellence in the playoff field. Its disadvantage is in the selection process and its effects. Whereas an 8-team field would allow for balanced priorities between national rankings and conference championships, a 6-team field would often present an either-or scenario in which more conference champions are left out — or teams on the cusp are leapfrogged by a clearly less “good” conference champion.

Certainly, this could happen in an 8-team field, but less often, and perhaps under other, more defensible, guidelines — such as a limitation on the number of teams selected from any single conference. While I would consider the 6-team option, I do believe the 8-team playoff provides for a clearer and more equitable system, which drives this search for a better system in the first place. Ultimately, it provides greater opportunity for any FBS team to rise to the top.

Leaping Hurdles

Having identified an ideal size for a playoff, we must of course address the potential challenges of such a change. There are three: Money, players, and implementation.

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room. Regardless of our highest and best motives, money matters. Universities need to fund programs; TV stations need viewers and ad revenue to stay in business; venues want to attract the most fans willing to pay the highest prices. As a result, money often drives these decisions, or at least is a major factor. Thankfully, this works for our aims. Bowls will still exist, be included in the playoff system, and hosts thousands of paying fans. TV stations will still have great games to drive viewers and more ad revenue, though perhaps even more so, as many games will take on greater meaning to viewers. Universities will have added incentive to improve their programs, both for pride and passion, and to aim for higher payouts by advancing in the playoff.

The business consultant in me is tempted to begin suggesting ideal payout levels to drive this forward. While I would happily undertake this as a consulting project, it distracts from the point: A better — more equitable and exciting — system is possible, and money is a matter of negotiation rather than a reason to stop moving toward the goal.

Secondly, players may lose when an even greater burden is placed on their shoulders, even if they benefit in other ways. In this case, another game means a greater physical burden, despite the emotional benefit of a more equitable road to the championship. We can acknowledge that this change would only affect eight teams — those that make the playoff. Teams in the championship would have three playoff games instead of two, and so on. Those who lose in the first round should be eligible for a non-playoff bowl game, which is another game (and is further support for the money argument above).

Eight teams or eighty, it still effects these young men. Therefore, this is the only argument that holds real weight (with me, at least) in maintaining the current system. We cannot fairly argue to reduce the season by one game, as this would affect all teams by cutting out 64 football games in order to add 4 games to benefit a few. Admittedly, I have no ideal solution for this aspect. Perhaps conference title games could be waived if one division champion has a two-game win-loss record advantage over the other division’s winner, which would benefit teams that have already proven through the regular season that they are best-in-conference.

Even if this cannot be addressed, I do not believe this is a reason to halt the conversation — or the shift — to an 8-team playoff. Players who leave for the NFL are already doing so a year early in many cases, which reduces their game total in college. And players who do not move on to the NFL may well want to milk the most out of their once-in-a-lifetime college football experience. In either case, it’s a small cost to pay in order to have a shot at the championship. A shot that does not exist today.

Finally, implementing the change would require some effort on the part of the NCAA and other stakeholders to reach agreements on payouts, scheduling, TV contracts, etc. While some will of course want to avoid this “extra work,” the extra effort of a few in the short-run will garner respect and create a better system for all.

A Proposal

What would an ideal system look like?

In addition to addressing the concerns above, I propose an FBS playoff system defined by seven bylaws. These will drive the selection process, with each bylaw applied in order:

I. Seeding and Location. The tournament will include eight teams, seeded according to CFP selection committee rankings. The committee shall have discretion to avoid in-conference rematches in the first round, for which it may adjust one team’s ranking by one place (up or down), if that team is not in the top 4, is not moved into the top 4, and it does not result in another in-conference rematch. Additionally, first round games will be held in the home stadium of the higher-seeded team. Semifinal and final round games will be held in pre-determined locations, according to a rotation among top-tier bowls as contracted and specified by the NCAA. (Currently, these include the Rose, Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, Cotton, and Peach Bowls). The highest-seeded team to make the second round may select where to play its semifinal game.

II. Eligibility. Teams eligible for selection include those ranked in the top 12, and any team that qualifies based on bylaw IV or V ranked outside the top 12.

III. Teams ranked #1 through #4 are automatically selected as the top four seeds, respectively.

IV. The four highest-ranked Power Five Conference champions will be automatically selected.

V. If the fifth Power Five Conference champion is ranked in the top 12, it is automatically selected. Likewise, if the highest ranked Group of Five Conference champion is ranked in the top 12, it is also selected. If both are in the top 12, but only one place remains, the team with the higher ranking is selected. If either team is outside the top 12, it is not selected at this time. However, it does remain eligible in case of additional playoff openings with no further eligible teams in the top 12.

VI. If playoff openings remain, selection must continue. To encourage conference parity, increase game novelty, and limit conference rematches, no conference may have more than two teams selected. Therefore, any team currently eligible, that is not the first or second highest ranked team from their conference, is now ineligible. Group of Five teams are considered according to their conference, not their status as a “Group of Five” team. E.g. If Marshall (Conference USA) were eligible based on above criteria, it would not be declared ineligible just because Cincinnati (AAC) and Coastal Carolina (Sun Belt) were ranked ahead of it.

VII. Any remaining playoff openings will be filled by eligible teams, in order of ranking.

Applying these bylaws to the current rankings* would look like this:

I. Pre-determined bowls would follow the current rotation. Therefore, semifinal games would be the Sugar and Rose Bowls, and the National Championship would be held in Miami, FL.

II. Eligible teams based on current rankings include the top 12 teams… and #14 Oklahoma, which is currently the highest ranked Big 12 team (since conference championships have not yet been played).

III. Current rankings would make Alabama the #1 seed, Notre Dame #2, Ohio State #3, and Clemson #4.

IV. Of the highest ranked teams from each Power Five Conference, three were already selected. The fourth team is #9 Oregon, who is therefore selected. (Note: By necessity, there will always be at least one team overlapping with the top four seeds. Often three or four will overlap.)

V. Based on current rankings, this would make #7 Cincinnati an automatic selection. (It also keeps #14 Oklahoma eligible.)

VI. Based on current rankings and conference affiliations, this would make #6 Florida, #10 Miami, and #12 Indiana no longer eligible. (Note: This is based on the anomaly of Notre Dame belonging to the ACC in 2020.)

VII. Current rankings would allocate the remaining playoff spots to #5 Texas A&M, and #8 BYU. The two other eligible teams would just miss the cut — #11 Northwestern and #14 Oklahoma. (Note: Mathematically, there will always be enough eligible teams to fill all playoff openings, even after bylaw VI. The exception would be if 7 of the top 12 teams come from one conference — unlikely in a system driven primarily by intra-conference games.)

(*This is preliminary, based on week 13 rankings. However, it would be a fun weekly exercise culminating in the final tournament selection process after conference championship weekend.)

As a result, these would be our projected matchups:

(8) Oregon at (1) Alabama

(7) BYU at (2) Notre Dame

(6) Cincinnati at (3) Ohio State

(5) Texas A&M at (4) Clemson

Is there anyone who wouldn’t want to see these matchups? The bracket would look like this:

Get the Party Started

This system increases conference parity, and therefore the quality of the game and the passion we all feel for it. The champion is still decided on the field, while more teams “staying alive” for the playoff means that more games retain their meaning for teams and their fans. The same (and likely more) money is distributed among teams, players milk the most out of their college football experience without going overboard, and implementation is swift, delayed only by a few negotiations. It ensures the most deserving teams all have a shot, while conference championships serve as both an elimination game and a screening for which 2–3 teams should be selected as wild-cards. More equity. More hope. More meaning. More excitement. (And more money.)

Having met the parameters for a better system, let’s get present to what this year’s playoff will look like — and could look like.

Will look like: A pick-three, involving three of the four teams who regularly make the playoff. This year, it appears those will be Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State (without Oklahoma). Note: The last five playoff fields have included three of these teams. A little parity please?

Could look like: The PAC-12, BYU, and Cincinnati get a shot. A potential Alabama-Clemson semifinal. A battle for Ohio. And an inaugural “real playoff” game in historic Notre Dame stadium.

In the face of COVID constraints that force us to adapt to the times, let us consider adapting to our opportunities as well as our problems. “BYU has a shot… they really have a shot. As does Cincinnati. This is what the game was meant to be. Let’s get this party started! Now down to the field for kickoff…”



Mike Weppler
Global Perspectives on Today and Tomorrow

To live a life worth imitating: Son, Husband, Father. Passion for developing leaders + elevating families, organizations, & the discourse of US/Global affairs