Every year I like to think about what-ifs for my favorite sport: college football. Because of big money concerns, it is the only major sport where a team can essentially be eliminated from championship possibilities before playing a single game. This is not the case in college basketball or even in every other division of college football as every conference champion gets a berth in a tournament to declare a champion.
This year, the Western Michigan Broncos went 13-0 and will be unable to compete for a national championship. Would they beat an Alabama or an Ohio State? It’s pretty unlikely. But we will never know because they won’t be playing on the field. Instead they play on ESPN talking heads segments and statistical models. By that logic, we should just look at the stats of all incoming freshman and declare the winner of the 2021 National Championship right now.
The NCAA had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the current four team playoff system which started in 2014. This was an upgrade from the two-team playoff system started in 1998. Before that, the national champion was crowned by an inconsistent combination of sportswriters, mystics, and soothsayers.
Since the dawn of the College Football Playoff, writers and fans have opined that it is simply a matter of time before the playoff field expands to at least eight because the four-team field makes no sense in a system with ten conferences–five of which are considered “power” conferences in order to further stratify the playing field.
The system takes who are supposedly the four best teams and pits them against each other. However, this “best” system seems to be inconsiderate of the same rules that determine conference champions. One of these systems must be wrong because they are inconsistent.
- Conference champions are determined incorrectly and should be determined by a panel who decides who is the best team. Or,
- The playoff participants are determined incorrectly and should be determined solely by on-field results.
I lean toward the latter, but can see the arguments towards the need for a subjective eye. As a game designer, I’m constantly viewing systems that need fixing. Here is what I see as problems with the current system:
- A subjective agreement on the four best teams means that on-field results are less relevant. If everyone agrees that USC is the best team, then they are in whether they have lost 0 games or 3.
- Western Michigan can never win a national championship. Boise State, who had an unprecedented run of success (two undefeated seasons in three years) in the BCS era was never considered even after consistently beating teams like Oklahoma, Oregon, and TCU.
Here is a system I would propose if I had the power to enact it that preserves both the need for subjective human rankings but ultimately leaves results up to the players on the field. It also allows for teams outside of conferences to have opportunities to play for championships.
It is an uncomplicated system. Conference championships happen as they always have in the ten conferences. A committee (or even an algorithm) chooses the seven best conference champions and the top two teams who did not play in a conference championship. The latter two play a “play-in” game on the conference championship weekend and then the rankings are used to seed an eight team tournament.
While this does not guarantee a situation like a 2016 Western Michigan to never happen, it is certainly harder to make a case that an undefeated team is not one of the top seven conference champions than it is to make the case that they are not one of the top 4 (or 8) teams in the country.
Additionally, it gives teams that were excellent but lost due to tiebreakers a second chance while eliminating a second chance for conference title game losers who have their chance on the field to make it or break it.
Here is what that scheme would look like in 2016. Note that the seeding would only happen after the conference championship weekend. It is likely that if Toledo would have beaten Western Michigan that it would instead be C-USA champion Western Kentucky taking the next open spot.
Pundits would endlessly argue about the play-in game participants, but in this system there is an easy out: win your conference without the bloat of many non-conference winners being able to dilute the meaning of conference championships. If the semifinals played to chalk, we would see the same New Years Eve bowls as already set.
With only five additional games, surely some bowls between 6-7 teams can be negotiated as replacements. Money that would normally go to those conferences involved in those games can be redistributed amongst the ten conferences.