College Football Needs an 8-Team Playoff

The Big Ten has nullified its requirement that you must play at least 6 regular season games in order to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game.

This was obviously done to accommodate Ohio State, who has only played 5 games after three of them were canceled due to Covid. Their game against Maryland was canceled because of a Covid outbreak on Maryland’s team, their game against Illinois was canceled because Ohio State had a Covid outbreak, and now this weekend’s scheduled game against rival Michigan was canceled because Michigan conveniently had a Covid outbreak. So Ohio State missed out on playing two games through no fault of their own.

(Yeah, I think Michigan was scared: they were 30-point underdogs coming into The Game. Plus, lots of people were wondering for weeks if Michigan would find a way to get out of The Game. It was just very predictable. A lot of people saw it coming. Michigan’s having a terrible season and they wanted to spare themselves their yearly reminder of how much better Ohio State is than them. Oh, look: an excuse not to get molly-whopped again!)

The Big Ten’s 6 game rule was arbitrarily implemented over the summer, and it was arbitrarily waived in a matter of days once news broke that the Ohio State-Michigan game was off.

The Big Ten obviously wants Ohio State in the Championship game because Ohio State is obviously the best team in the conference. The Big Ten also wants Ohio State in the College Football Playoff because it’s good for the conference, both financially and reputation-wise.

Plus, nobody doubts Ohio State would be 8-0 if they were able to play all their games this year. They were not going to lose to Maryland, Illinois and the worst Michigan team in years. And even had Ohio State somehow lost to Michigan, they still would’ve been in the Big Ten Championship Game anyway. Once the conference officials realized that, the decision was a no-brainer.

But assuming Ohio State wins the Big Ten, we’ve got some potential problems coming up in the next couple of weeks with regards to the College Football Playoff:

  • If Florida manages to beat Alabama in the SEC Championship, then 2 SEC teams will deserve to be in the playoff. Unless Florida just hammers Bama 45-14 or something like that, then even with a loss Bama will still probably get into the playoff. And deservedly so.
  • If Clemson beats Notre Dame in the ACC Championship, then how can you leave both teams out? Notre Dame beat Clemson a month ago but it was when Clemson was missing Trevor Lawrence. The game went to 2OT. If Clemson wins a close game over ND in the ACC Championship, how can you leave Notre Dame out? The only way Notre Dame gets left out is if they get absolutely smashed by Clemson. But if it’s a 31-28 Clemson win or something like that, you can’t leave a 1-loss ND squad out that has already beaten Clemson in the regular season.
  • Are they really going to take a 6-win Ohio State team (6 wins are assuming they win the Big Ten Championship) whose best win is Indiana, over a 10-1 Notre Dame team that has beaten Clemson in the regular season? A lot of people will say yes, because it’s not Ohio State’s fault they could only play 6 games, plus everyone just knows Ohio State is one of the 4 best teams in the country. But we’d only be saying that because we give a program like Ohio State the benefit of the doubt.

Now, I think we all agree it’s unlikely Florida beats Bama. But it can happen. It’s not impossible. Bama has looked like the clear best team in the country this season even though they started just a little bit shaky with that 63-48 win over Ole Miss. But it’s not out of the question that Florida beats them. If you’re in the game, you’ve got a puncher’s chance.

What if Florida loses a nail-biter? Sure, they’d have two losses, but Bama has been so dominant in the Saban era that losing close to Bama has become an accomplishment in and of itself. I think there’d at least be a case for Florida to get in to the playoff if they go punch-for-punch with Bama but lose close at the end.

Don’t get me wrong, Ohio State will get the nod over a 2-loss Florida. There’s no way a 2-loss non-conference champion would get in over an undefeated Big Ten Champion Ohio State. But Florida would at least have a legitimate case, I think.

Ohio State and Florida would both deserve to get into the Playoff. The problem is that there’s only 4 spots and 5 deserving teams.

Here’s another problem: the fact that that, the Florida/Ohio State debate I just went over above, would be the discussion in sports media rather than “Should Cincinnati get in?” is why the college football playoff needs to expand.

Cincinnati is 8-0. Sure, they play in a non-Power Five conference, and nobody really thinks they can beat Bama. But if they can’t get in to the big dance in a crazy year like this, they probably never will. This is the best season Cincinnati has had in years, and those kids should get an opportunity to prove themselves. Most of the kids on that team aren’t going to the NFL. For a lot of those seniors, it would be the last football game of their lives. They should get a shot at Bama if they go undefeated.

I don’t care if the sports media thinks they have no shot at beating Bama. It’s about them, the kids, the players on that team. It’s about rewarding them for having a great season and giving them a chance to do something incredible. This is college football we’re talking about. We want these kids to be having fun.

Shouldn’t there at least be some hope for a Group of Five team to get a chance to do the unthinkable and win a National Championship? Or at least pull a Boise State-like upset?

The 4-team playoff does not allow for that. It completely ignores a team like Cincinnati, who is having potentially the greatest season in program history. It tells them they’re irrelevant and that they’ll never have a shot at greatness no matter how many games they win.

That’s just wrong. Every team in the FBS should start the season some degree of national championship hopes, even if they are the longest of long-shots. They should at least know there’s a legitimate path to a national title if they manage to go undefeated.

With the old BCS system, for all its obvious and well-documented flaws, while the mid-major programs had zero hope of making the National Championship game given that it was always 1 vs. 2, at least they routinely made BCS Bowl games and got the chance to compete with the Big Boys under the Bright Lights. People used to care about BCS Bowl games before the playoff came around and rendered every other bowl game irrelevant. They were a big deal. It was a major accomplishment for Boise State to beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl back in 2007, and when Utah beat Bama in 2008. Before the playoff era, it was way more of a prestigious honor to get invited to a BCS Bowl than it is to get invited to a New Year’s Six Bowl nowadays.

It’s time to go to 8 teams. But not only because it would give a team like Cincy or potentially even Coastal Carolina (10-0 this year) a chance to make some noise.

It’s because we wouldn’t even have to have the debate about Florida if they lose close to Bama: they’d have a chance to get in as an at-large bid if we had an 8 team playoff. It would be a debate between them and Texas A&M, but since A&M beat Florida this year already, there’s no guarantee the committee chooses Florida over A&M for the at-large spot. So it means the SEC Championship game is still extremely important for Florida. It’s not as if they could just assume they’re into the playoff win or lose.

There would also be room for either Oklahoma or Iowa State, whoever wins the Big 12 Championship game on December 19. Both teams have two losses currently, but one will finish as a 2-loss Big 12 Champ and not even be in the discussion for the CFP.

And even though USC will only play 5 games this season, shouldn’t they at least have a shot at the playoff if they win their conference? They’ve played a pretty weak schedule so far (no ranked opponents) but all you can do is play the teams on your schedule. Who’s to say USC isn’t a legit team this season? I mean, given their recent history and the recent history of their conference, we can probably safely assume they’re not. But we don’t know that for certain.

Winning your conference should earn you the opportunity to compete with the best teams of the other conferences. We should, as much as possible, take the setting of the playoff field out of the hands of some “committee.”

There’s only one other major sport in America with a committee that decides on the post-season field: college basketball. But with March Madness, there’s still 32 automatic bids for conference winners. The selection committee chooses the 36 other at-large teams. But in college football, the committee chooses all 4 playoff teams.

If we moved to an 8-team playoff, we would still need rankings and a committee to determine seeding and to award the three at-large bids. But with automatic bids for the Power Five conferences, we’d be taking most of it out of the hands of the committee and bringing college football into line with all the other major sports in America.

At the very least, automatic playoff bids would keep every part of the country engaged in college football. Right now, fans of Big 12 teams know there’s zero chance of a team from their conference playing for a national title. So they start to lose interest. Same with the Pac 12. Hell, the Pac 12 is about to make it 4 straight years without an appearance in the CFP. That basically means college football is irrelevant to the entire western half of the country. It’s just for fun. They play football in the Pac 12 for a chance to go to the Rose Bowl and play the Big Ten runner-up, since the Big Ten Champ is usually in the Playoff.

That just sucks for them, doesn’t it? Why shouldn’t they get a fair shot at a Championship? Because the committee doesn’t think they deserve one? I don’t like that. Football is the sport of the “Any Given Sunday” mentality (in this case Saturday). I just don’t like the idea of the committee leaving teams out because the committee assumes they’re not good enough. You can never know for sure unless you play the game.

Now, I will admit: I do believe the committee usually picks the 4 best teams every year and that most of the teams that barely miss the cut for the playoff in reality had no shot, even though we like to fret about who was “snubbed” after the final rankings are released every season.

But then again, we thought that about the old BCS system, too. And then in the first year of the CFP, the freaking 4 seed won the whole thing! And that made everyone think, “Boy, how many teams that could’ve won the National Championship were snubbed by the BCS system?” Because if the BCS was in place for the 2014 season, the team that ended up winning the Championship, Ohio State, wouldn’t have made the BCS title game. It would have been #1 Alabama vs. #2 Oregon under the old BCS rules.

Also, in 2015, Ohio State missed out on the playoff because they lost to Michigan State in the regular season and thus couldn’t play for the Big Ten Championship. But that Ohio State team was absolutely loaded. They were the reigning National Champs and had Zeke Elliott, Michael Thomas and Joey Bosa. That team had 12 guys who were drafted in the subsequent NFL draft including five in the first round (!) and a further three were signed as undrafted free agents. That’s 15 NFL players on one college football roster including 5 first-rounders. After they missed the playoff they went to the Fiesta Bowl and easily beat Notre Dame 44-28, and it left a lot of people wondering if maybe they were the best team in the country. It might have been Urban Meyer’s best team at Ohio State. Everyone knew they were better than Michigan State and that Michigan State had just caught them on a bad day. But Michigan State still got the nod for the playoff over them. I absolutely believe that 2015 Ohio State team could’ve won the National Championship. At the very least, they wouldn’t have gotten shut out 38-0 by Bama, like Michigan State did. If you asked Nick Saban that year who he’d rather play, Ohio State or Michigan State, you can’t look at me with a straight face and say he would’ve preferred to play Ohio State.

In 2017, there was serious debate over whether the 4th spot in the playoff should go to 2-loss Big Ten Champ Ohio State, or 1-loss but non-SEC Champ Bama. The spot ultimately went to Bama, and Bama ended up winning the whole thing, but there was a lot of people in the sports media who thought Ohio State should get in over Bama because Ohio State won their conference and Bama didn’t. Could you imagine if Bama got left out? And what if Ohio State would’ve gotten in and won? We’ll never know.

There was also 3-loss Auburn that could’ve been an interesting team in the playoff in 2017: Auburn beat both Bama and Georgia in the regular season, but had a close early-season loss to Clemson (who made the playoff that year), a mid-season close loss to LSU and their third loss was in a rematch with Georgia in the SEC Championship. Auburn did lose that game 28-7, but they also won their game against Georgia 40-17. That game was less than a month before the rematch in the SEC Championship. 2017 Auburn absolutely should’ve gotten a shot in the playoff. They definitely shouldn’t have been one of the 4 teams to make it, but who wouldn’t have wanted to see them as an at-large team? They were the exact type of team at-large bids are meant for: dark horses.

In 2018, 2-loss SEC runner-up Georgia was left out of the playoff even though they lost late and in dramatic fashion to Bama in the SEC Championship (the Jalen Hurts Game). They also had a loss to LSU earlier in the season, but they were a very strong team and had a 28-21 lead on Bama going into the 4th quarter of that SEC Championship. They should’ve gotten a chance at a rematch with Bama. Ohio State was also left out of the playoff in 2018. They were a 1-loss Big Ten Champion, however their loss was as ugly as can be: 49-20 to an unranked Purdue team that finished 6-7 that year. Still, that Ohio State team beat 5 ranked opponents that season, including a blowout over #4 Michigan. The Purdue loss kept them out of the playoff. Is that fair? Sure. Don’t lose 49-20 to Purdue next time and maybe you’ll get in the playoff. But still.

Why shouldn’t 2-loss Big Ten Champ Penn State have gotten a chance in the playoffs in 2016? Ohio State got in over them even though Penn State beat them and won the Big Ten. Ohio State ended up getting sacrificed 31-0 by Clemson in the semifinal. That Penn State team had Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin and Mike Gesicki on it. They lost 2 games early in the season but then went on a 9 game winning streak and were clearly a completely different team by the end of the season.

Now you can say all those teams I just listed wouldn’t have won the Championship. Maybe they wouldn’t have. But we don’t know that for sure.

We need an 8-team playoff with automatic bids for the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Pac 12 Champions. Automatic bid for Notre Dame if they finish in the top 10.

Then three at-large teams.

One of the arguments put forth for starting the CFP was that it would give “the little guys,” aka the Group of Five conferences, an outside shot at getting into the playoff. But we know that’s not been the case. If anything the CFP has made the sport more top-heavy: of the 24 teams that have made the CFP since its inaugural season in 2014, 17 of the 24 have been Clemson (5 appearances), Bama (5), Oklahoma (4), and Ohio State (3).

All but two of the 24 spots have gone to a Power-5 conference champion or undefeated Notre Dame: Ohio State in 2016 and Bama in 2017.

We’re already at the point where it’s basically an automatic bid for winning a power-five conference, but the problem is somebody gets left out every year. It’s usually the Pac-12. The SEC Champ has made 6/6 College Football playoffs plus in 2017 they got two teams, Bama and Georgia. The ACC Champ has made 6/6 CFPs (FSU in 2014, Clemson every year after that).

Why not just make it an automatic bid for winning a Power Five conference? Isn’t that a worthy accomplishment in and of itself?

If it’s not, then why the hell are recruits going to choose a Pac 12 school if they know there’s very little chance they’ll ever be able to play for a National Championship there? This begets a vicious cycle: Pac 12 gets left out of the playoff, therefore top recruits don’t want to play in the Pac 12, therefore the Pac 12 goes downhill, therefore the Pac 12 keeps getting left out of the playoff, and so on.

Give every conference Champ a chance to play for the National Title. What’s the point in having a Power Five if winning a Power Five Conference doesn’t automatically entitle you to a chance at winning the whole thing?

Doesn’t the NCAA want as much of the country invested and engaged in the sport as possible?

In the 2017 CFP, you had three teams (Bama, Clemson, Georgia) that were located within 350 miles of one another. You can drive from Clemson, SC to Tuscaloosa, AL while driving through Athens, GA in under 6 hours. And the other team was Oklahoma. That meant like 80% of the country had no dog in the fight in that year’s CFP.

Now, people still watch college football no matter what because this is America and we love us some football. But imagine how much better it would be if you consistently had teams from all over the country involved in the National Title hunt.

This year, an 8-team college football playoff would (probably) feature:

  1. Alabama
  2. Notre Dame
  3. Clemson
  4. Ohio State
  5. Florida (as long as they lose close to Bama)
  6. Iowa State or Oklahoma (whoever wins the Big 12)
  7. USC (presumed Pac 12 Champ)
  8. Cincinatti

The committee could choose between Cincy and Coastal Carolina, but they’d probably go Cincy because they have Cincy ranked #8 right now and Coastal Carolina ranked #13.

If Florida gets pounded out by Bama in the December 19th SEC Championship game, then put Texas A&M in there. Yes, A&M got wrecked 52-24 by Bama when they played in week 2 of this season, but who knows? Maybe A&M got better. They’re 7-1 right now.

If Notre Dame beats Clemson again, who the hell cares? We all know Clemson is a great team. Who could really be against keeping a team out that has won 2 of the last 4 National Championships, been in 4 of the past 5 National Championship Games, and has Trevor Lawrence at QB? I mean, as long as it isn’t an ND blowout win (and few think it will be), then put Clemson in anyway. Or maybe give 8-1 and #10-ranked Miami a shot.

Or just give the people what they want and put both Cincy and Coastal Carolina in.

If Clemson beats Notre Dame, then hey: we might get a rubber match in the playoff.

College football is the only sport where we think it’s wrong for teams to have rematches. But what’s so wrong with a team getting another crack at an opponent?

In the NFL, we love playoff rematches. In 2010, the Bears and Packers, being division opponents, played twice the regular season and split the two games. They then met in the NFC Championship for a third matchup that season. Nobody had a problem with it.

In 2007, the Patriots beat the Giants in week 17 to complete the first-ever 16-0 regular season in NFL history. That game was on December 29. The Giants squeaked into the playoffs as a wild card at 9-7, but got hot and made it to the Super Bowl where they got a rematch with the now-18-0 Patriots. The Super Bowl was played barely a month after their week 17 matchup. Obviously we all know how that game went.

When the two teams met again in the 2011 Super Bowl, they had already played in the regular season. The Giants won 24-20 in the regular season and 21-17 in the Super Bowl.

Prior to the first Rams-Patriots Super Bowl (2001 season), the Rams beat the Patriots 24-17 in Foxboro in the regular season. But the Patriots won the rematch in the Super Bowl.

The point is, we like rematches in the NFL. Why shouldn’t we in college football? Especially if it’s between two great teams. In college football, we act like once one team beats another, then the team that lost is dead, buried, done, disqualified and can never improve or turn their season around.

In the NFL, teams beat teams they’ve previously lost to all the time. In fact, when teams meet in the regular season and the playoffs, usually the team that lost the regular season matchup wins the rematch. Why don’t we think this is possible in college football? As I went over earlier, Georgia got blasted by Auburn in the 2017 regular season but then beat Auburn by 3 TDs less than a month later in an SEC Championship rematch.

It can happen. It’s just that the committee doesn’t like in-season rematches in college football. They try to avoid setting those up in the playoff. A big part of that is because there’s only 4 spots: it feels wrong to give a team that has already lost to one of the other three a second chance over some team that has probably gone undefeated and won their conference.

Teams in college football seldom get second chances. But with an 8-team playoff, there would be more room to set up rematches and give good teams second chances.

In a normal season, we probably wouldn’t even be having this rematch discussion. This is a weird season for college football. A lot of good teams are having down-years due to the virus. Normally there’s a lot more good teams that would be in the mix. Georgia is having a down-year. Oklahoma is having a down-year for their standards. Auburn is usually better than they are this season. Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin are all down. LSU is normally way better than they are this year. Oregon should be good again next season. UCF is always undefeated at the end and would be a cool team to see in an 8-team playoff (remember when they beat Auburn in 2017?)

Also another factor is that USC, Texas, Michigan and Florida State have all been underperforming their historical levels of greatness for a long time. Miami has been down for a while now, too. Those are five blue-blood programs. If they get good again–not even all of them, just a couple of them–then we’ll need an 8-team playoff; it’ll be a no-brainer given how large their fanbases are.

But at the end of the day, the strongest argument for the 8-team playoff is that it could help level the playing field in an increasingly top-heavy sport. With 8 playoff sports and automatic bids for all Power Five conferences, recruits won’t feel the need to go Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State to have any shot at playing for a National Title and getting exposure on the big stage. It’ll give more teams the opportunity to get there. I think it’ll eventually result in the talent in college football being more spread out and less concentrated at the very tip-top of the sport, which equals more parity. There will still be powerhouse programs of course, but they won’t be quite as dominant as they are today.

It’ll also give Group of Five teams a shot at the championship, which opens the door to potential Cinderella stories, which we football fans love.

Not only this, but an 8-team playoff with automatic bids for winning your conference will encourage teams to schedule more blockbuster non-conference games. There’s no downside for a team like Ohio State to schedule a Florida or even an Alabama, because even if they lose, it’s not a conference loss. It doesn’t hurt their chance to win the Big Ten whatsoever. You have nothing but upside to gain from scheduling tough out-of-conference matchups. All it can do is boost your resume for an at-large bid in the event you don’t win your conference. And the committee already judges teams heavily based on who they’ve played, so great teams would have a huge incentive to load up their non-conference schedule.

Right now, teams like Bama, Clemson and Ohio State have no incentive to play one another in non-conference games because a loss basically eliminates your margin of error for the rest of the season. Why would any of these teams, who start every season in the top 4, risk losing to another powerhouse early in the season when they know they’re basically in the playoff as long as they win their conference? This is why they usually play cupcakes in their out-of-conference schedules: free wins. There’s no upside for these teams to schedule big-time out-of-conference games. They have very little to gain from it.

The 8-team playoff is the right move. It’s time.

UPDATE: Aaron Rodgers agrees!

Octavian

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