The Playbook

Building Greatness: 3 Years Later, A Better College Football Playoff

Two years before Y2K, computers crashed college football.


After a surprise upset loss in their conference championship, the 1998 Kansas State Wildcats (then ranked #3) were snubbed from a primetime bowl game against #4 Ohio State. Their replacement? The #8 ranked Texas A&M. As Texas A&M lost a two-score game in front of thousands, fans and coaches scratched their heads: how could a lower rank ever mean better opportunities?



In its very first year, the Bowl Championship Series (or BCS) brought heartbreak and frustration to thousands. The next 16 seasons would only bring more: 2006 Boise State; 2007 Mizzou; the 2006 Florida Gators earning a berth by “.0101” BCS points. The examples are many and notorious.


Rather than let teams compete head-to-head, embracing the unpredictable drama that causes us to watch sports in the first place, a “black box” at BCS headquarters assigned each team a numerical value independent of their rank in the polls. The BCS computer tried to, in effect, quantify an athlete’s potential based on ambiguous variables like “strength of schedule.” On paper, this created fairer judgments than historically-biased coaches’ polls. However, unless the BCS’ programmers disclosed how they weighted a schedule, the bias was just as present.


In short: the BCS selection process hid the blame for poor picks, crowning a deeply-dissatisfying “champion” through a model that betrayed both fans and players alike.


Just imagine telling a star quarterback who recovered from injury to lead his team’s turnaround that a computer said he couldn’t even try for a playoff spot. Change was needed, and fast.


Finally, in 2013, the college football world came to its senses. That year, the BCS was discontinued in favor of the College Football Playoff (CFP), a four-team playoff that would bring (gasp) unpredictable, head-to-head competition back to the world’s most exciting bowl games. Instead of a weighted-average chance of success, the CFP promised opportunity.


Opportunity means underdogs.


Opportunity means Cinderella stories.


Opportunity means a 9-7 can prove they belong in the Super Bowl.


Pure and simple, human opportunity is why we watch sports. Look to this past weekend’s historic upsets as a prime example. So, as we approach the third annual College Football Playoff this holiday, one question remains: where’s the opportunity we were promised?


To be clear, no one’s suggesting a return to the BCS. Ohio State’s 2015 championship run was an upset for the ages, but the fact that the current playoff structure limits the drama to three teams and Alabama signals a need for change. Instead, the third anniversary of the College Football Playoff presents opportunity of a different kind: the opportunity to improve the system itself.



In my mind, the best way to realistically improve the CFP is an eight-team playoff. These eight teams wouldn’t be determined by polls or spreadsheets, but by good, honest football. Each Power 5 conference champion and the best team from the Group of 5 would each earn a playoff berth, with the 2 remaining seats filled by Wild Cards. Higher-polling teams would have home field advantage in early rounds, still recognizing the importance of earned rank in case of a No. 20 seed winning a surprise upset title game as before.


The Wild Card seats would also present a clear solution to cries of “SEC bias” in polls deciding spots 7 and 8. While the SEC West would probably end up with its fair share of spots each year, building in space for the rest of the country would only bring out the best in others. This system would reward elite teams, foster improvement, and create the opportunity for legendary head-to-head upsets without unfairly favoring certain conferences. 



Look to the now-formidable Big 10 as an example: instead of rolling over in the face of competition, Ohio State and Michigan both turned around their programs by bringing in the right talent, working hard, and playing better football. In a mere five years, the B1G has gone from occasional New Year’s bowl to Top 10 factory. College football as a whole is better for it.


While expanding the CFP to eight teams seems like an inevitable improvement, there are three valid arguments against expansion we need to hear out.


First, an eight-team playoff means every team involved plays an extra game. At the end of an exhausting season, that extra game may mean the difference between injury and health for a battered skill player.


Second, expanding the season by one week means potential conflicts with players’ well-deserved winter holiday breaks. If the Championship stays put in the second week of January, the first round of a three round playoff would hurt players’ ability to spend the winter holiday with family. Even if the NCAA rightfully compensated athletes for the revenues they create (you can guess my feelings on this), asking young kids to leave their family gatherings just doesn’t sit right.


Finally, if the Championship moves to the third week of January, the same networks that air the CFP may be forced to choose between NFL playoff coverage. You can bet how that broadcast contract negotiation would go over with the college conferences.


Thankfully, there’s an easy solution: cut one game from the regular college football season to make room for the extra round of playoffs. The regular season would stop at Thanksgiving, December would be playoffs month, and the CFP Championship could even stay put on the schedule. Not only would this allow a more equitable playoff, but it would also create, in my opinion, a more exciting season.


Concerns over schedule bloat have grown louder as major college programs schedule more and more “creampuff” games (where Division II opponents are often paid to get beat up on) to pad their schedules in advance of ranked matchups. In fact, some of college football’s most prominent coaches have already called for shorter seasons. With the potential of a better CFP hanging in the balance, perhaps it’s time to listen.


While we’ve come a long way since the heartbreak and frustration of the BCS era, there is still work to be done. An eight-team CFP consisting of champions and Wild Cards wouldn’t just mean a fairer shot at the title among top programs, but a return to why we watch sports in the first place. The drama, the glory, the once-in-a-lifetime moments that define us for years to come: an expanded playoff would bring all the potential of the CFP to life.