What Would an 8-Team College Football Playoff Race Look Like This Season?
Would an eight-team playoff really be better for college football?
Heading into last week's initial unveiling of the 2016 College Football Playoff rankings, it was widely assumed that the made-for-TV reveal would have all of the drama of the presidential election, with Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Washington supposedly playing equal parts of Hillary Clinton (...aaaand that sounds kind of gross).
Instead, the selection committee threw us a bit of a curveball at the No. 4 spot, inserting a Texas A&M Aggie squad whose one loss was a 33-14 defeat at the hands of the top-ranked Crimson Tide. So we radio folk got a talking point out of the first set of rankings! If A&M and undefeated Washington both win out, WHO MAKES THE PLAYOFF?!?! [insert GASP emoji here]
Well, that storyline lasted all of one week, as the Aggies, who still have Ole Miss and LSU on the schedule, decided to get the disappointment for their fan base out of the way early, losing to a fairly horrific Mississippi State team by a score of 35-28, and losing their starting QB, Trevor Knight, to injury in the process.
So, unless the College Football Playoff selection committee has another swerve up its collective sleeve, my guess is we will get our long-awaited, consensus top four come 6 p.m. Central Time tomorrow:
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1. Alabama (9-0)
2. Clemson (9-0)
3. Michigan (9-0)
4. Washington (9-0)
Outside of those four, I would say we have three other teams that control their own destiny (rankings are their current AP ranking):
6. Ohio State (8-1)
7. Wisconsin (7-2)
8. Auburn (7-2)
In other words, if those three teams win out, including their conference title game, they will be in the four-team playoff. And for chaos to occur, we likely need a) one of the blemished "destiny controllers" to win out and take their conference as a one-loss or two-loss team, b) to have Washington lose a game somewhere along the way, or c) to have Clemson lose in the ACC title game to, say, North Carolina.
Any of those scenarios would open the door for one-loss (a six-point loss at Clemson) Louisville to get in as an at-large team. Louisville is probably the only other team in the mix at this point, aside from the seven "control your own destiny" teams.
So with the club of teams in the playoff mix down to just eight candidates with four weeks left in the regular season, and with one ENTIRE Power Five Conference (the Big XII) on the outside looking in almost assuredly, this all raises the question — what would the landscape look like if we had an eight-team playoff, rather than a four-team playoff? How much more exciting would this home stretch be?
Great question, Sean! Let's examine this, shall we?
Now, the landscape partially depends on what the structure of an eight-team playoff would look like, so how about we go with my preferred structure, which is as follows:
1. All Power Five conference champions would get an automatic bid, and the other three at-large teams, as well as overall playoff seeding, would be determined by the selection committee.
This makes the conference titles all matter for something more than a souped-down title ring and the unconvincing rhetoric from coaches about how MEANINGFUL conference titles are. Now, with this playoff structure, they really ARE meaningful! This also keeps the selection committee intact, so the people in the nice suits and ties can still feel important.
2. The conference title games would be replaced with the extra round of playoff games, and be played in the second weekend of December (the week AFTER the conference title games are now played) on the campuses of the top four seeds.
The first person I saw online proposing something like this was FOX's Clay Travis, and I like this idea. Previously, I liked keeping the conference title games intact and having them feed the Power Five champions into the eight-team playoff, but I've soured on that for three reasons. First, the conference title games would be yet another game these kids would have to play and put their bodies through for free. Second, eliminating the conference title games and replacing them with playoff games eliminates the excuse that the athletes will "miss more school." There will actually be FEWER teams playing that weekend and half of those teams won't even have to leave campus. Third, look at some of the teams that have a chance of playing in the conference title games this season — Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, USC...do these teams really deserve a shot at an automatic bid? I say no. Also, putting the games in the SECOND week of December gives the players a chance to heal for one extra week.
3. The four quarterfinal winners would go play in the two New Year's Six bowl games determined as the semifinals, as they would now anyway, and the losers of the quarterfinal games would all be inserted somewhere into the remaining New Year's Six Bowl games.
Once the four quarterfinal games are played, it's business as usual — two semifinals on New Year's Day (NOT New Year's Eve!) and four more big bowl games spread out over two days. This would give the kids who played in the quarterfinals a few weeks to take finals, heal, practice and then go play. The two semifinal winners would play in a title game seven to ten days later, as they do now.
4. The Group of Five conferences would NOT be given an automatic playoff spot, but would be eligible for the playoffs if they had a worthy season. (Think the track UH was on before the bottom fell out against Navy.) They would retain their automatic New Year's Six bowl slot.
Sorry, Group of Five schools, no automatic bid for you guys, but you are most definitely eligible for the playoff as an at-large participant. This gives schools like Houston (and a handful of others) a path with a slim margin for error. Complain if you like, but under the eight-team playoff, UH almost assuredly makes it this season if they go undefeated. The key would be scheduling some good Power Five teams (as Houston did this season with OU and Louisville), and with three at-large spots available, scheduling becomes important for everybody, so the Group of Five folks shouldn't have problems finding equity-building opponents.
So with this structure in mind, what would the ripple effect be, for this season and in the big picture?
1. This likely eliminates any conference realignment for the foreseeable future.
If the five Power Five conferences are all guaranteed a playoff bid to their conference champions, then we probably see the last (for a long time, at least) of Power Five schools changing conferences. The Big XII likely stabilizes since, if the TV money is in the same neighborhood, why would Texas or Oklahoma leave for a more difficult conference, like the SEC or Big Ten, where they aren't "king"? Also, this probably solidifies the wall for any outside schools (other than Notre Dame) getting into a Power Five conference for football. (Again, sorry, UH.)
2. The "Big XII sucks" conversation this season wouldn't be nearly as acute.
Part of the reason the Big XII is a punchline — and trust me, there are many, many reasons — is that the conference was essentially eliminated from the playoff conversation before November got here. (I mean, don't look now, but Oklahoma is ninth in the AP poll! Anybody notice that?) Anyway, the Big XII would probably fall to the back of any ranking of the five power conferences this season, but it wouldn't be nearly the talking point it's been all year. (And before you say, "Well, the play on the field has nothing to do with how they botched expansion!"...the Big XII wouldn't have even been looking at expansion if the conference had an automatic playoff bid. No way.)
3. Scheduling "up" out of conference becomes even more prevalent.
With the five conference champions getting automatic bids, and with three at-large bids, the margin for error to get into the playoff is reduced, so you'd likely see more big matchups for teams outside of their conference. My rationale is this — winning those high-profile out-of-conference games would help any at-large résumé, while losing them is not a death sentence for the eight-team playoff, since winning your conference is another path to the playoff. One big argument from the current playoff power brokers is that having four teams in the playoff keeps the regular season relevant, but I would argue eight teams under THIS structure not only keeps the regular season relevant, but creates the likelihood of MORE intriguing non-conference matchups we don't normally get to see.
4. The following pecking order would be in place for 2016, assuming teams played the same schedules they're playing this season. (Obviously, with no divisions, or with divisions at least de-emphasized, scheduling in conference may look different, but let's keep this easy for now.)
CONTROL THEIR OWN DESTINY (AP ranking in parentheses):
SEC: No. 1 Alabama, No. 8 Auburn
ACC: No. 2 Clemson
Big Ten: No. 3 Michigan, No. 6 Ohio State
Pac-12: No. 4 Washington, No. 23 Washington State
Big XII: No. 9 Oklahoma, No. 17 Oklahoma State
(NOTE: Holy smokes, look at how meaningful the Iron Bowl, Michigan-Ohio State, the Apple Cup and Bedlam would be this season! De facto, play-in games! Are you looking, Bill Hancock?)
(Somewhat reasonably) IN THE MIX, CONFERENCE TITLE:
Big Ten: No. 12 Penn State
Pac-12: No. 16 Colorado, No. 26 USC, No. 13 Utah
Big XII: No. 11 West Virginia
IN THE MIX, AT-LARGE:
SEC: No. 10 Texas A&M, No. 19 LSU
ACC: No. 5 Louisville
Big Ten: No. 7 Wisconsin, No. 12 Penn State
Pac-12: No. 13 Utah, No. 16 Colorado
BIG XII: No. 11 West Virginia
So the bottom line is, the eight-team format (with all five Power Five champions getting automatic bid) brings the number of relevant teams with one month to go from EIGHT total under the four-team format to a total of EIGHTEEN. It also makes a bunch more games down the stretch highly relevant without really making any of the already-relevant games less material. Hell, it probably makes four HUGE rivalry games into de facto play-in games!
I have gone back and forth on four teams or eight teams for the playoff. I've now convinced myself, after typing all of these words for you, that eight teams under this playoff system is the way to go.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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