The thing that sets college football apart from almost every other team sport in the world is that if you want to win a National Championship you have to be darn near perfect. Only one time has a champion had multiple losses since college football started: 2007 LSU (12-2), during the BCS era. If you can remember that 2007 season, it was a wild one. The number 2 team in the country lost seven different times and the #1 and #2 teams in the country lost on the same weekend three of those times.
In the College Football Playoff era, there has yet to be a two-loss team to get one of the coveted four playoff spots. Each year we have these conversations about who “deserves” the four spots. Is it the best four teams? Is it the four most deserving (whatever that criteria maybe)? Before we get into how I think we should fix the problem, I want to identify the problem. By no means is this trying to say that the playoff is worse than the BCS –because it’s not. Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane of what the playoffs have given us so far and what we might have missed out on.
Year One (2014-2015): Alabama 12-1, Oregon 12-1, Florida State 13-0, and Ohio State 12-1. The other two teams that were in contention were the Co-Champs of the Big 12, Baylor 11-1 and TCU 11-1. At the time the Big 12 did not have a conference championship game and even though the motto was “One True Champion” they still had two teams crowned champs. With that, and the fact that Ohio State beat Wisconsin in the Big 10 championship game 59-0, gave Ohio State the edge in the committee’s eyes. People were incredulous that the committee would do such a thing, but as it turned out it’s hard to argue when Ohio State went on to beat the favorite, Alabama, and then Oregon to win the National Championship.
Year Two (2015 -2016): Clemson 13-0, Alabama 12-1, Michigan State 12-1, Oklahoma 11-1. The other one-loss teams this year in contention were Iowa 11-1 and Ohio State 11-1, but they both lost their matchups against Michigan State, so the argument was pretty easy. Houston finished 12-1, but for a Group of 5 team to get a shot they have to be perfect, more on that later. Stanford was the PAC 12 champ but had two losses so the field was relatively easy. Then when you look at the semi-final games Clemson beat OU by 20 and Alabama beat Michigan State 38-0. I think the BCS that year would have been fine and we got a fantastic game between Clemson and Alabama, the first of their four meetings.
Year Three (2016-2017): Alabama 13-0, Clemson 12-1, Washington 12-1, Ohio State 11-1. This was the first year we saw a team that didn’t win their division or play in the conference championship get in with Ohio State. Penn State won the Big 10 with both teams being 8-1 in conference play, but held the head-to-head tiebreaker. The problem with Penn State was they lost to Pittsburg week two by 3 points and were blown out by Michigan 49-10. Ohio State beat Michigan 30-27 in double overtime. Depending on who you ask, Michigan got robbed of a playoff berth by a bad spot giving Ohio State a first down on a fourth-down play – but that is for another day. The Group of 5 team this year was Western Michigan who was 13-0. WMU played two Big 10 teams that year in Northwestern and Illinois. Illinois was 3-9 and Northwestern also lost to an FCS opponent, not the key victories that WMU needed to make a playoff push. All in all, none of the above issues were talked about for hours on end mattered because Alabama beat Washington 24-7 and Clemson beat Ohio State 31-0, giving us a rematch and game that went down to the wire with Clemson avenging the loss from the previous year.
Year Four (2017-2018): Clemson 12-1, Oklahoma 12-1, Georgia 12-1, Alabama 11-1. This year, like the previous one, Alabama was given the fourth spot without having to play for their conference championship. There were 4 other teams vying for the fourth spot with Alabama, Ohio State 11-2, USC 11-2, Wisconsin 12-1, and the group of 5 candidate UCF 12-0. In the first three years, no team had made the playoffs with multiple losses, this excuses Ohio State and USC from the conversation. Wisconsin had just lost the Big 10 championship to Ohio State so if Ohio State wasn’t getting in, neither was Wisconsin. That leaves Group of 5 UCF vs a team that had played for the national championship the previous two years and had yet to miss the playoffs. The issue was UCF’s schedule. They didn’t play a ranked opponent until week 13 and then again in the conference championships against Memphis which took them double overtime to beat. Compare that to Alabama who beat ranked LSU and Mississippi State, but lost to ranked Auburn on the road. This is the best example that for a Group of 5 team to make the playoffs there has to be less than three 1-loss or undefeated Power 5 teams. That’s what I want to fix. UCF went on to play in the Peach Bowl and beat the same Auburn team that had beaten Alabama. Although it’s hard to argue that the committee made the wrong choice because Alabama beat Clemson in their third meeting in three years and then went on to beat Georgia in overtime for the National Championship.
Year Five (2018-2019): Alabama 13-0, Clemson 13-0, Notre Dame 12-0, Oklahoma 12-1. The only real argument this year was between Oklahoma, who lost to Texas by 3 on a last-second field goal, and Ohio State, who lost to Purdue by 29. UCF was again the Group of 5 candidate at 12-0, but with fewer ranked wins than the year before giving them no shot at the 4th spot. Again, this is the problem I want to fix. Alabama beat OU 45-34 and Clemson beat Notre Dame 30-3 triggering the fourth game in 4 years between Clemson and Alabama. Clemson won the National Championship by a score of 44-16.
Year Six (2019-2020): LSU 13-0, Ohio State 13-0, Clemson 13-0, Oklahoma 12-1. I think we can all agree that one of these teams was not like the others. Oklahoma’s one loss was to Kansas State by 7, but they just didn’t have the defense to make them an elite team like the other three. The other options for the 4thspot were Oregon 11-2 and 12-1 Memphis. Personally, I don’t think it would have mattered who the 4th team was, LSU would have beaten the ’85 Bears. Ohio State and Clemson gave us one of the only two good semi-final games we’ve had this entire time. The other being the Georgia vs. Oklahoma Rose Bowl in the 2017-18 season. LSU went on to beat Clemson 45-25 for their first National Championship since 2007.
The system we have now and the issues that come with it are you’re never going to make everyone happy. With the 5 “Power 5” Conferences and 4 spots along with the “Group of 5” all trying to get in, with almost no shot for the Group of 5, something needs to be done. In my opinion, UCF going undefeated and not having a shot to win a title is inexcusable. Currently, there are 5 Group of 5 teams that are undefeated with more than 5 wins: Cincinnati, BYU, Coastal Carolina, Marshall, Liberty. Technically speaking BYU and Liberty are Independent so in theory, they should receive similar treatment as Notre Dame has in the past, but we all know that isn’t true. Therefore, for the sake of argument, they are both Group of 5 teams. Also, I would like to note that there are at the time of this article 5 teams without a loss in the MAC and 2 in the Mountain West, but I’m only focusing on the 5 mentioned above. The problem with all of these teams is that unless we have a repeat of 2007 the 5 teams mentioned above have almost a zero percent chance of getting to the playoffs if they finish undefeated. We know that Coastal and Liberty both won’t finish without a loss due to the fact that they play each other on December 5th. Here is my proposal, and before you hate it, think about it.
Due to money and TV deals and the fact that colleges have more sports than just football, conferences are not going away anytime soon. However, I believe the key is to ditch conference alignment and split up the FBS from how it looks right now. Currently, there are 130 FBS football teams. The unofficial way college football breaks it down is there are 65 teams that make up the Power 5 conferences (plus Notre Dame). This means 65 teams make up the Group of 5 and have almost no shot at playing for a National Championship. In your mind, we typically categorize teams as elite, good, average, bad, and terrible. There are typically 3-5 elite teams, 40 or so good teams, the average is the teams that are .500, and the bottom two are everyone else to some degree. My idea would take the top 40 teams, make 4 groups (instead of conferences) with 10 teams in them. We can call this tier A. Tier B would be everyone else, which we will get to later. Tier A would be determined by the standings from the previous year. For this example, I took the top 40 teams in ESPN FPI rankings at the end of last year, then took out everyone with a 7-6 or worse record and filled in until I was back up to 40.
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D|
|Kentucky||Oklahoma State||Arizona State||Boise State|
|Appalachian State||Cincinnati||Louisiana||Virginia Tech|
These 40 teams would be in Tier A and play a 9-game schedule against everyone in their group. They would also be able to schedule 3 addition regular-season games against protected rivals that weren’t in their grouping. For example; Oklahoma would add Texas, Oklahoma State, and Nebraska as their protected rivals to fill the rest of the 12-game schedule. Another example to look at is Georgia. Georgia’s 3 protected rivals would be Auburn, Florida, and Georgia Tech. As you can see Florida is already on the schedule because they are in the same group. This would allow them to schedule someone from Tier B or an FCS opponent. As much as people complain about good teams scheduling FCS opponents, it’s a necessary practice for the FCS programs to operate with the money that is given to them. In this format, everyone in the group has to play the entire group. You would take the top 2 teams from each group, have a “conference championship” game, and the 4 winners would play for the National Championship. It gives you meaningful games each and every week, it keeps the rivalries we all love, and allows teams a chance to play for a championship that would previously have none. What about the other 90 that aren’t in this table?
Glad you asked. The other 90 teams would put into a similar grouping system of 9 groups with 10 teams. They would only get 11-game regular seasons to allow for an expanded playoff of their own. Since you have 9 groups and a playoff bracket can break into 8 easily, you would take the two winners with the lowest win percentage to have a play in-game for the 8th spot. Tier B would look like this, based on last year.
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D||Group E||Group F||Group G||Group H||Group I|
|Iowa State||North Carolina||Washington State||Missouri||Michigan State||TCU||Mississippi State||South Carolina||Miami|
|Ole Miss||Nebraska||Florida State||Wake Forest||Louisville||Tulane||Texas Tech||BYU||UCLA|
|Stanford||Oregon State||Pittsburgh||San Diego State||Purdue||Duke||Illinois||Wyoming||Western Michigan|
|West Virginia||Boston College||Northwestern||Syracuse||Arizona||Colorado||Western Kentucky||Hawai’i||Houston|
|Ohio||Louisiana Tech||Utah State||Buffalo||Fresno State||Tulsa||Marshall||Army||Temple|
|Georgia State||Ball State||Southern Miss||Maryland||Arkansas State||Arkansas||NC State||Central Michigan||South Florida|
|Kent State||Liberty||Vanderbilt||Eastern Michigan||Miami (OH)||Troy||FIU||San Jose State||UAB|
|Kansas||Toledo||Middle Tennessee||North Texas||Georgia Tech||UL Monroe||Georgia State||Charlotte||Coastal Carolina|
|East Carolina||Nevada||Colorado State||UNLV||Rutgers||Rice||Texas State||New Mexico||South Alabama|
|UTSA||Old Dominion||Northern Illinois||New Mexico State||UConn||Bowling Green||UTEP||Akron||UMass|
These games, I believe would be much more competitive than watching OU beat Kansas 62-9 or Alabama beat Mississippi State 41-0 or Clemson beating Georgia Tech 73-7. As mentioned for Tier A, Tier B teams would get 2 protected rivalries, or teams that are close in proximity geographically, or FCS teams that need a paycheck. This Tier B would have their own playoff with their own championship to play for. Would it mean less than winning in Tier A? Sure, the same as winning the SEC championship is more prestigious than winning the MAC. Here is the big kicker though. Teams each year can either get demoted from Tier A or promoted from Tier B depending on their record the previous year. Since there are 9 groups in Tier B the easy number seems to be 18, which I would be fine with. However, when you look at the past two years, 16 teams trading spots in Tier A and B seems more likely. Below are two more tables showing what this would look like over the past two years. The first table is what would have been the beginning of the 2019 season. The teams that are crossed out would have been demoted at the end of the year and replaced by the teams in the second table that are in all caps.
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D|
|Oklahoma||Michigan||Notre Dame||Penn State|
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D|
|Kentucky||OKLAHOMA STATE||ARIZONA STATE||Boise State|
|Appalachian State||Cincinnati||LOUISIANA||VIRGINIA TECH|
At this point, you may recognize the system that is being used. It is very similar to that of European soccer with the promotion and relegation system. The biggest benefit that this would give the viewers is more meaningful games. The average college football fan would still have their over-abundance of games available every Saturday. Imagine that in the course of a season Clemson, Penn State, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, and USC are all playing week after week after week. The challenge for non-blue bloods would obviously be sustaining a high level of play in order to stay in the top 40. With changing out 16 teams every year, teams couldn’t afford to finish in the bottom 4 of their group. Another benefit would be that these groups would change every year based on how they finished the year before. More fans would be able to travel to different places, and more teams would gain exposure to parts of the country they currently can’t get into. Bowl games would still be played as they are now, with teams from both Tiers needing to be .500 or better to qualify.
Why this is just a pipe dream. Is it a perfect system? No. Are there issues that I haven’t found yet? Of that, I have no doubt. But if you’ve lived in the USA for longer than 4 years by now you’re well aware that money makes the world go ‘round. College football is no different. With TV deals and the amount of money each conference brings in, for them to go for this idea they would have to evenly split between teams, and that just isn’t going to happen. So just like the previous years with the BCS where we would argue about who the top 2 were, we are going to continue to do that now with the Playoffs, just arguing about the top 4. Maybe one day, college football will evolve to a point where the little school has a chance in the big dance. Until then, this is what we’ve got.