Why the 4-Team College Football Playoff Is Doomed to Fail
Full disclosure: I’ve wanted a college football playoff for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been a big proponent of ‘settle it on the field.’ I despised the BCS (while still giving that system the tiny share of credit it deserves for pulling together No. 1 and No. 2 in a national title game that college football fans didn’t have the pleasure of enjoying 20 or 30 years ago).
But the biggest reason I was convinced college football needed a playoff was so that every then-Division I/now FBS program could control its own destiny. It’s what we love about March Madness. Cinderella can win. The underdog can advance. It doesn’t matter if you’re Duke or Davidson. If you win every game you play all year long, you’ll be the national champion. Throw out size of enrollment. Throw out quality and tradition of program. Throw out television ratings. Let the athletes play the games and decide who deserves to hold up the trophy on the season’s final day.
So you can imagine my excitement when the powers that be announced the formation of the aptly named College Football Playoff, albeit 100 years or so too late for my liking. There’s four teams instead of two. There’s an actual bracket! We can get past the days of an undefeated Auburn or Boise State or Utah or Hawaii watching from the sidelines because somebody arbitrarily decided there were better teams out there. Or not.
CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm wrote an excellent piece this week about his recent experience as part of the mock selection committee, where football writers from around the country got together to learn how the playoff would be assembled and seeded. They met in the same room where Condoleezza Rice, Peyton Manning’s dad, Tom Osborne, Andrew Luck’s dad, and the rest of the 13-person CFP committee will be ranking teams and putting together the bracket themselves in less than two months. Since the 2014 season is obviously not even half over, Palm’s group was tasked with using complete data from the 2008 season as an exercise to see how the sausage gets made.
The news isn’t good.
I’d encourage you to go read the whole story for yourself to better understand the nitty-gritty data of the process, but the most important part that jumped off the screen to me is this: In a past season where 12-1 Oklahoma and 12-1 Florida played for the national title as ‘the chosen’ two of seven one-loss major-conference schools — and undefeated Boise State and Utah were excluded — the new and improved system, as decided by writers impersonating committee members, spit out a four-team bracket that still left out the only two teams that had won every game on their schedule up until December. Excuse me?
In other words, it doesn’t matter if two teams or four get invited to the party. If you’re not big enough, don’t play in a tough enough league, and don’t get enough eyeballs to the TV screen, you’re not coming. In that regard, the new look playoff seems destined to be just as slanted toward the haves over the have-nots as the old look BCS. I understand this may not be a popular opinion when it comes to the fans of the power conference schools, but my math still says zero losses is better than one (or two). The real question isn’t whether a team like Utah — which finished 2008 with a No. 2 ranking, we might add — deserves to be included automatically as an unbeaten. That’s a Pandora’s box in itself, because what happens in a year with five unbeaten teams? No, the real issue is this: How big does the playoff have to be before the unbeaten little guy gets a seat at the table?
If it were an eight-team playoff, would Utah be allowed? Well, if it expanded to 16, at least Hawaii could get in. Let’s go all the way to 32 and extend the season into March. Maybe that would be enough for Boise State — or maybe it wouldn’t.
The message from the College Football Playoff is that the big schools reign. The power conferences rule. The Goliaths are in charge. If you’re North Texas or Central Michigan or Georgia State, it doesn’t matter if you land the best quarterback in history as part of your recruiting class. It’s completely irrelevant if you beat every program on your schedule by 60 points. It’s utterly worthless to beat a powerhouse program in a bowl game the year before or play the best schedule you can. The only way you’re realistically going to get a sniff of the new college football playoff is to realign to a power league before the season begins.
To put it into perspective: When the pretend selection committee members took an initial straw poll on which six teams were most deserving of a top ranking, there was no undefeated team to be found. So why should a mid-major feel good about its chances if the four-team playoff expands anytime soon (or after the initial 12-year deal runs out)? The answer: It shouldn’t.
Alabama will always have a better chance of winning the national championship than Army because they’re seen as a better program. Georgia will have a leg up on Georgia State no matter how much talent is on the roster, simply because of the name/size of the school.
With that understood, are we really any better off with a playoff? For that matter, were we really any better off with No. 1 versus No. 2 in the BCS era? It’s all one giant popularity contest anyway.
Why not let the fans vote for who should play in the game? Just let the Texas fans stuff the ballot box. Let Michigan fans get their team’s hashtag trending. The national title in college football goes to whichever team looks like it deserves the national title, not to whichever team actually does deserve the national title.
That’s why the College Football Playoff is doomed to fail.