How to Revitalize the College Football World: The 2020 Playoff We Could Have Had

Mike Weppler
Global Perspectives on Today and Tomorrow
12 min readDec 29, 2020

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Following up on the first post, this applies the 7-part framework to the final 2020 College Football Playoff rankings. Further reasons and passionate appeals are given for taking this route, as well as addressing the recent report recommending the elite teams leave the NCAA. Finally, the 8-team playoff we could have had is revealed and celebrated.

I recently wrote a piece citing why the FBS college football playoff needs to be changed, and proposed a new system that benefits everyone (except perhaps SEC teams not named Alabama).

With the release of final playoff rankings on Sunday, it has become abundantly clear that change is necessary for the good of the game, and for everyone who loves college football.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask ESPN sports writers Bill Connelly and Andrea Adelson, ESPN lead Gameday analyst Kirk Herbstreit, or many others who have begun to boldly share their opinions. Each has held their tongue until now, giving the system a chance to prove it can work. After 7 years, they are doing so no longer.

In Their Words

Bill Connelly: “The playoff once again cleared the acceptability bar,” which means the committee has gotten it right so far — at least within the confines of the system they have been asked to officiate. “The college football playoff subcommittee… has constantly failed and undersold the Group of 5’s capabilities… rendering college football’s Football Bowl Subdivision virtually the only sport/association/subdivision that gives half of its members no path to a championship.”

Andrea Adelson: “The top four were so predictable, it made the entire process stale and boring and so filled with an utter lack of meaningful debate… because we all saw the way this was going to unfold. This speaks to a system that was set up to favor teams in the Power 5 conferences… From the beginning, the same teams… have dominated the top four.

“…The only way any possible expansion fixes the issues is if there are guaranteed spots for each Power 5 champion plus the highest-ranked Group of 5 team. But in years such as this, where unranked Oregon upsets previously undefeated USC, that format would also get blasted. We have seen this four-team playoff in action for seven years now, and it has never been more predictable. That is a shame not only for the teams that deserve more consideration or inclusion, but for the sport itself.”

Kirk Herbstreit: “Our postseason is as bad as there is, and we have to figure out a system that opens up opportunities. The season ends January 12, and I can already tell you that in 2021 Ohio State’s coming out of the Big Ten, Clemson’s coming out of the ACC, and Alabama’s coming out of the SEC. If that’s where we are, is that right? Is that healthy for the sport when 98 or 99 percent of the participants realize they don’t have a chance before the season starts? We’ve got to look at this 2020 year and realize that we have to tweak the system for the betterment of the sport. We’re at a fork in the road right now… and we’ve got to look at some potential changes.”

In My Words: Why It’s a Failure

Not convinced yet?

*Important: If you want to skip to the fun part, scroll down past my continued case for a CFP remodel and case against the recent Knight Commission report, to the next section — The College Football Playoff That Never Was.

If you’re still reading this section, you must care about this as I do. Thank you. Before overflowing with the joy of “what-ifs” by revealing what this year’s playoff field would look like under a better system, here is why the current system is unacceptable for each major college football playoff stakeholder.

First and foremost, the players and programs are the sport. Those who do not have a real shot, know it. They can feel it. At least those in other subdivisions of college football know they can win their FCS, Division II, or Division III championship. Group of 5 programs and their players know their ceiling under the current system, which will never include a championship outside of their conference. For Power 5 programs and their players, especially those few perennial playoff teams, regular playoff berths means they will experience less thrilling emotional highs, only setting new marks and standing out if they do not reach the same heights. Both Group of 5 and Power 5 programs lose.

Second, as fans, we want to see our teams win. But as humans, we care even more about the joy of the sport, and about the stories. The same teams in the playoff every year makes the stories far less compelling, and therefore less interesting and less exciting. As a native of Columbus, do I want Ohio State to win every game? Of course. But there is a part of me that wants to root for Indiana to go undefeated next year just to upset the status quo, making for a great story!

Finally, the universities, as well as other institutions and organizations, have a financial stake in the success of college football. A repetitive storyline gets stale, which means people lose interest. Think of a company that makes a revolutionary product and changes the industry, but then fails to adapt. Companies who play the short-game make a lot of money and then go out of business. Or a musical one-hit-wonder. They accumulate fame and perhaps wealth today, but it is gone tomorrow. Perpetuating the status quo in college football may reinforce top-tier programs’ hold on power and money, but they are increasing their stake in a pie that will shrink if it does not adapt.

One proposed response came from the Knight Commission, consulting on how to address this challenge. It made a strong argument that the “blue bloods” of college football should reform into a new subdivision outside the NCAA. Essentially promoting the top-tier programs to their own league would solidify their hold on the majority of power and money in the college football world, by “cropping out” the other teams. Additionally, this may address present inequities in the football bowl subdivision. However, there are four problems with this approach:

· It would not actually create equity, since no one would pay attention to what is left of the FBS, draining attention and funding from all of those programs.

· It would permanently damage the essence of college football, both for the players and the fans. While the NFL is about conquering the world of football, college football is about the journey of competition, camaraderie, and the self-discovery that occurs when young men embark on this journey. As a broad statement that reaches beyond football, we need to be realistic, but we should never allow ourselves to abandon our ideals. What is college football, and why does it matter so much to us (and to other stakeholders)?

· While it may create more parity within the new subdivision, many fans would still likely lose interest, reducing the size of the financial pie. Imagine 30 football programs competing every year only among themselves for a championship. Sound familiar? It’s called the NFL. As described in the second point, the NFL appeals to a different drive in us, and therefore occupies a different share of attention than does college football. The Knight Commission proposal would reduce the differentiation between the NFL and premier college football. As a result, both leagues would fill the same need, reducing each fan’s desire to consume both. Many people would ultimately choose which one to fill that need, and significantly reduce their consumption of the other. (Then they would look to other sources to satisfy the other need — other sports, lower divisions of college football including what is left of the FBS, or other pursuits altogether.)

· Drawing another line between tiers of teams may have other, unexplored implications. For example, it may require a choice between paying players who now face more daunting competition each week, or shortening the season as respite from this. It would also mean fewer Cinderella stories. These have ramifications on each stakeholder group.

Therefore, what is needed is not making the divide between FBS teams permanent, but rather healing that divide by injecting some equity into the system through opportunity that embraces the spirit of the game.

The 2020 College Football Playoff that Never Was

Still not convinced? Here is the fun part!

Here is where all the stories unfold — all the stories that will never be realized, witnessed, or told.

Congratulations to all the teams who finished in the final CFP rankings of 2020. You had a great year. A special congratulations to a few teams that do not receive further consideration below: San Jose State, who may have been ranked much higher had they had a full slate of games in a wacky 2020 season. BYU, who even with their one loss could have finished higher with their typical slate of Power 5 opponents. Louisiana, who may have replaced Coastal Carolina as everyone’s favorite Cinderella this year if the Sun Belt championship game had been played. And Iowa, who was a few points in their first two games from going undefeated and having a shot at Ohio State and the playoff. In a more “normal” season, each of these teams could have made it an even more interesting CFP debate.

Using the first two guidelines proposed in my previous piece, 13 teams are initially eligible for the inaugural 8-team playoff in 2020, based on final CFP rankings: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Cincinnati, Iowa State, Indiana, Coastal Carolina, and Oregon.

These criteria include only teams that are either:

1. Ranked in the top 12

2. A Power 5 conference champion

3. The highest ranked Group of 5 conference champion

Two of these teams are moved to the back of the 13-team selection field based on the conference parity guideline (#3): Teams that did not win their conference must be one of the two highest ranked teams from its conference, even if it finishes in the top 12. Florida, who has three losses and is the third team from the SEC. And Georgia, who has two losses, no top-25 wins, and is the fourth team from the SEC. Given the SEC’s status as the “best” conference in college football, I admit it is the most likely to have otherwise-deserving teams miss selection through this system.

However, a) The line has to be drawn somewhere in order to create opportunity for others, and b) No one outside the southeastern US wants to see a playoff that consists of intra-conference rematches.

Guideline #4 guarantees that the first four teams always receive automatic bids, as the top four seeds. This year, these include: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Notre Dame. Each of these teams will play at their home stadium in the national quarterfinal round.

Two other teams receive automatic bids, based on guidelines #5 and 6: Oklahoma, as the fourth highest ranked champion of a Power 5 conference, and Cincinnati as the highest ranked Group of 5 conference champion within the top 12.

Further, guideline #5 also differentiates the lowest-ranked Power 5 champion. Therefore, while Oregon remains eligible, it does not receive an automatic bid, because it is both the lowest ranked Power 5 conference champion and is ranked outside the top 12. This provision addresses Andrea Adelson’s concern above, about significant upsets in conference championship games.

The final guideline (#7) states that the remaining eligible teams will be awarded a spot in order of ranking. As a result, the next spot goes to Texas A&M, which is the highest ranked team remaining.

Now let me tell you a story. Coastal Carolina has won their conference, even as a de facto co-champion due to COVID. It has gone 11–0, including wins over the #16 and #19 teams in the country. In a world with this playoff system, would the Chanticleers be moved in front of an Indiana team that only played seven games, and that does not have a (current) top-25 win, despite their close match with Ohio State? As much as I respect Indiana, I think the committee would consider these tie-breakers more closely and give Coastal the edge. Interestingly, the ensuing comparison between the Chanticleers and Iowa State would determine the final spot in the playoff. Coastal Carolina’s resume above, would be compared to Iowa State’s large margins of victory, along with their three losses, lack of a conference championship, and 17-point loss to a Louisiana team that Coastal Carolina defeated. Result? Final spot to Coastal Carolina!

This may sound like a stretch, but I believe (or at least would like to believe) the playoff committee would be this reasonable. And I think that’s the story most college football fans, and programs, would love to see as well.

Seeded by ranking, the final playoff scenario for 2020 is as follows:

The Revival, the Stories, and the Choice

This playoff scenario represents a revival of the essence of college football, which also reflects the human and American spirit within us. It presents uncapped opportunity for achievement through competition and a formative journey for the development of young men inspired by what they can achieve.

It is a win for players and programs, who get their shot. After Kirk Herbstreit shared his view about the need for change, another analyst presented his counterargument. The analyst suggested that, rather than changing the system, other teams that want the same opportunities need to beat the programs that have built themselves into perennial playoff contenders. While the competitive nature of this idea resonates, it misses the point: With only 4 playoff spots, and as major conferences reduce their number of non-conference games, most teams currently do not have that opportunity. How can you beat a team that you never have the chance to play?

Even if they did play, limited playoff access to the few teams that can meet the playoff criteria only reinforces those teams’ fortified power and success by attracting the best recruits every year, which makes beating them an increasingly tall order. If premier college football is essentially just a necessary stepping stone to the NFL, then all of this is OK. However, if it is something more, as I described above, then we must instead do something to give the other 125 FBS teams at least a shot at college football’s version of the American dream.

Expanding playoff access, without over-extending the season, provides this opportunity to crown a champion through competition rather than through pedigree. Further, it gives prospective players more options and smaller programs more recruiting sway, by providing a clear path that decisively declares: Champions can be made from any starting ground.

This playoff is also a win for fans, who get to see much more interesting marquee matchups. Is there any red-blooded college football fan who would not want to see Notre Dame against Texas A&M this year, or Ohio State against a red-hot Oklahoma team? Perhaps Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina would be overmatched by Clemson and Alabama, but they would jump at the shot.

Additionally, quarterfinal pairings could easily have been more favorable for a Cinderella run to the championship. For example, if Florida had beaten Alabama in the SEC championship (which it almost did), you could be looking at Cincinnati against Ohio State in the battle of Ohio, and then a really good Cincinnati team with a potentially winnable matchup against Florida or Oklahoma in the semifinal.

Perhaps just as intriguing is what this proposed playoff arrangement would have meant for conference championship weekend. The games would have meant more, making the stories more intriguing and exciting. The SEC title game would have been unphased: Alabama trying to maintain its seeding for a favorable matchup, while Florida attempts to play its way in. The Big Ten title game would have been more interesting, giving Northwestern a guaranteed playoff bid with a win. The Big 12 title game would have been a de facto qualifying match for a playoff spot, and USC would have been playing for a likely spot. The Sun Belt and AAC championships would have also been far more enticing, with teams competing to make their case for the playoff.

Raising the level of excitement for fans attracts more views, which elevates the short and long-term market share (or share of consumer attention) for college football. This translates to greater perpetual revenues for the third group — universities and other stakeholders with a financial stake in the game.

We as consumers, and those with proper authority to decide, are left with a choice.

This is the championship week, playoff, and array of stories we could have had. Instead, we have all-too-familiar playoff rematches between Clemson and Ohio State, Alabama and Notre Dame, and likely Clemson and Alabama.

I grew up in Columbus and went to school at Notre Dame, so I will still watch. Otherwise, perhaps I would be one of those red-blooded fans beginning to lose interest in a repetitive story that has gone stale…

Players, programs, fans, and the universe of college football need this upgraded system. And the time for this change is now.

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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