The College Football Playoff celebrated its fifth year in 2018. There have been ten semifinal games in its history. Only two have been decided by one possession.
Continuing college football’s annual tradition of being exactly what we thought it would be, Alabama and Clemson waltzed to easy victories in their semifinal matchups with Oklahoma and Notre Dame, respectively. The Tigers won their game 30-3 while the Tide beat Oklahoma 45-34 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. Now, Clemson and Alabama will meet in the College Football Playoff for the fourth consecutive season, and if you want a sense of their total domination over the sport, consider this: 10 of the last 11 College Football Playoff games have ended with either Clemson or Alabama on top.
And with this domination, the cries for an eight-team playoff to decide a champion are building, and they aren’t coming from the outside. In fact, some of the most powerful people inside college football seem to be willing to advance the discussion for playoff expansion as soon as 2020. The logistics are still being worked out, but it seems like this is going to happen, so let’s start off by looking at what that eight-team playoff would potentially look like.
In this scenario, it’s likely that there would be six automatic bids to the Playoff. Five of them would go to each Power 5 conference champion (including the Pac-12) and the sixth would go to the highest-ranked Group of Five team (UCF). The other two bids would be at-large berths, so you would almost certainly have a bracket that looks something like this:
- Alabama (SEC champion) vs 8. Washington (Pac-12 champion)
- Clemson (ACC champion) vs 7. UCF (highest-ranked Group of 5 team)
- Notre Dame (at-large) vs. 6. Ohio State (Big 10 Champion)
- Oklahoma (Big 12 Champion) vs. 5. Georgia (at-large)
The main critique of the four-team version of the Playoff is that it isn’t competitive enough. That is perfectly fair, and making the Playoff more competitive at this stage is a very difficult—if not impossible—task. And there are several fundamental problems with expanding it to eight teams that would suggest that doing so would not accomplish what we all want, which is competitive balance.
For one thing, Washington is not one of the eight best teams in the country, but they would get in as a result of winning the Pac-12. I think it’s pretty obvious that they would get annihilated by Alabama. Clemson would likely do the same to UCF, which isn’t an entirely fair judgment of the defending national champions because of the absence of star quarterback McKenzie Milton. In my view, Georgia would likely take down Oklahoma, which would set up a fascinating rematch of last year’s national title game. The only toss-up quarterfinal game, then, would probably be the Notre Dame-OSU tilt, but my gut says the Irish would come out on top.
But beyond looking at what it would look like this year, the big-picture question when it comes to an expanded Playoff is this:
Does it make the college football season more exciting while still rewarding the best teams in the sport? I would answer no on both counts.
First of all, I truly believe that even with an eight-team championship, you would still have the same national title game we have in real life. But that’s beside the point. The real problem with doubling the size of the Playoff would be that it would greatly diminish the importance of the regular season. College football may have the most important regular season because it is almost certain that if you want to contend for a national championship, you can only afford to lose one game. Even a 12-1 record does not guarantee a berth in the playoff (just ask this year’s Ohio State team).
Moreover, adding four more teams to the Playoff wouldn’t remove disputes over who should get the last spot in it. Currently, the argument is over who should be the fourth team in, but there will be seasons where two of the at-large spots will be disputed. It may be slightly less convoluted, but arguments will still exist in years where the two at-large teams are not nearly as obvious as they were this season.
There will also be years where the best eight teams don’t get in. One example of this would have been 2012, where an eight-team Playoff would have been, um, catastrophically bad:
Hypothetical 8-team CFP in 2012 with 5 P5 auto bids, 1 G5 auto bid and 2 at-large bids— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) December 22, 2018
1. Notre Dame
5. Kansas State
12. Florida State
15. Northern Illinois
9. Texas A&M
10. South Carolina
That’s not what you want to see.
My final qualm with going to an eight-team Playoff would be that it would prioritize automatic bids and “getting in” over being the best team that season. While the current Playoff does that to an extent, going to eight teams would not ensure that the nation’s best team is hoisting the trophy at the end of the season. In fact, it would turn the odds in the opposite direction. While everyone loves the NCAA Tournament (68 teams, chaotic first weekend, etc.), it is a fundamentally insane way to crown the “best team in the sport”, and more often than not, it fails in that regard. We would be heading in the wrong direction with the addition of more teams.