College Football Playoff: 2013 Shows Why Eight Teams Would Be Far Better Than Four


The College Football playoff begins in 2014. This entices people to project forward, to see how the new system would have fared in 2013. The answer is…not well. Florida State and Auburn offered clear No. 1 and No. 2 choices after Championship Saturday. Deciding teams No. 3 and No. 4 would have been inconclusive and troublesome.

Pick, based on objective merit, between the following four teams. Michigan State went 12-1, 9-0 in the Big Ten with each win by double-digits. Baylor finished 11-1, won the Big 12 and beat six of its nine conference opponents by 20 or more points. Alabama went 11-1, its only loss coming to the No. 2 team, on the road, on a fluke play in the final seconds. Vegas would favor them over ever team under discussion. Stanford lost twice to finish 11-2, but has, by one measure, a 5-0 record vs. Top 15 SRS teams. The other three teams have a 1-2 mark, combined.

Everyone has an opinion. But there’s no obvious decision there. Whatever the choice by the selection committee, it would create controversy. Fate could present two teams. It could present four. It could also present three or five. As with the BCS, the decision-making process in the four-team playoff will work perfectly, when there is no decision to be made.

Let’s say we wished to form an ideal playoff. On a basic level, that playoff would (a) reinforce the integrity of the regular season (b) eliminate the campaign trail noise and (c) be fair. True fairness is not possible for FBS. It should be split into two divisions. But a fair playoff would ensure that every major program had to be eliminated on the field. No more arguing about the merits of teams that have done all they can.

A four-team playoff won’t fulfill those parameters. An eight-team could. Here is what a reasonable one for 2013 could look like.

The top five conference champions receive automatic bids. Remaining places are granted to three at large seeds. The extra round of games is played at home stadiums. The Top 4 conference champions receive automatic bids. (Some stipulation could be made for BYU/Notre Dame to earn auto-bids. Not relevant for this season.)

Ranking is done by mathematical formula. If the input is simple and accepted in advance, the output will create far less of a stink. Victory margin and schedule strength are concepts everyone uses, in some form, to evaluate teams. A basic formula crafted on those principles, perhaps an optimized version of SRS, would serve that purpose. At worst, it would have better predictive value than the hodgepodge BCS effort or human polling. We will use Sports Reference’s SRS as a stand-in.

Using that formula, the top four conference champions are Florida State, Stanford, Auburn and Baylor. The fifth, Michigan State, receives an automatic bid, but must play on the road. The top three at large teams would be Alabama, Oregon and Arizona State. Teams are seeded 1-8 with one practical exception, no inter-conference pairings in the first round. The result, for 2013, would look like this.

Florida State (1-ACC) vs. Arizona State (8-AL)
Stanford (2-P12) vs. Michigan State (7-B10)
Auburn (3-SEC) vs. Oregon (6-AL)
Baylor (4-B12) vs. Alabama (5-AL)

Does this fulfill our ideal parameters? It comes close.

This system not only maintains the regular season’s importance but enhances it. Every conference race has national import. All four major conference title games would affect the playoff, if they are not outright elimination games. Last Saturday, the Big 12 would have had two all-or-nothing games to get into the playoff. ASU still reached the playoff despite losing to Stanford. Though it made the difference between facing Michigan State at home and Florida State on the road in the first round.

This playoff removed the noise entirely. Teams’ resumes speak for themselves. They know precisely what they need to do. There’s no need for endless, circular debates or flawed decision-making processes.

The major quibbles with this will be Stanford ending up ranked ahead of Auburn and 10-3 Arizona State being chosen against Ohio State. There’s a reason for that. As Auburn AD Jay Jacobs put it “Strength of schedule. Strength of schedule. Strength of schedule.” Arizona State played the nation’s 2nd toughest SRS schedule. Stanford played the fourth toughest.

The Sun Devils played nine conference games in what was a close second-best to the SEC. They also scheduled ambitiously, playing two of three non-conference games against Wisconsin and Notre Dame (both in the SRS Top 25). This system rewards risk-taking instead of risk-aversion.

A process that factors in schedule strength on a more sophisticated level than “Auburn plays in the S-E-C, PAWWWL” could have a real impact. The scheduling incentive would shift from “maximizing home revenue” and “ensuring probability of bowl bonuses” to “being strong enough to get into the playoff.”

That would mean nine-game conference schedules across the board. That would mean scheduling competent opponents non-conference instead of doormats. That would be good for fans. That would be good for television networks. That would be good for programs themselves, struggling with fan apathy and empty student sections.

College football will move to an eight-team playoff sooner, rather than later. Businesses don’t thrive turning down millions upon millions of dollars. If that playoff is done correctly, it could reform college football into a much better product.

[Photos via USA Today Sports]