The 16-Team College Football Playoff That Needs to Happen

This year’s Iron Bowl, a game which set the sports world on fire, would have meant nothing next year.

That is not hyperbole. Sadly, it is fact. If the four-team college football playoff was in place, Auburn’s reward for beating Alabama could potentially be playing Alabama again, except this time in Pasadena in the Rose Bowl.

college football playoff
This year, that Iron Bowl ended Alabama’s championship dreams. Next year, it would have merely given them an extra week off – no SEC title game – while Auburn played Missouri for a playoff berth.

The problem here – and why I’ve railed against the playoff before – is that college football cannot have bowls and a playoff. It has to choose one or the other. By attempting to do both, they are essentially doing neither.

The playoff will work in year 1 because it’s shiny, it’s new and it’s perceived to be better than the BCS. Also, the 2014-15 bowl schedule has the playoff games on New Year’s Day. What happens for the 2015 season when the playoff games are on New Year’s Eve and the Rose Bowl feels like the NIT of college football?

They said the BCS would preserve the bowls – ask the ancient and irrelevant Orange Bowl how they feel about that.

I have the solution. Sure, everyone says they have the perfect system for college football. But I actually do. Gaze in wonder at the most perfect 16-team college playoff ever devised. Let’s walk through it and why it would work.

16 Teams, 10 Conference Champions, 6 Wild Cards
For a playoff to work, every conference has to be represented. The four-team playoff, as Tom Osborne essentially said today, will be cut off from non-power league schools even if they go undefeated. These schools never had a chance to play for a national title but now, even in a playoff, Northern Illinois will never have a chance.

Well why not? They deserve a chance. And more importantly, the top seeds need to earn something. In a four-team playoff, there is next to no difference between being ranked #1 or #3, except for being closer to a neutral site. In this playoff, being a top seed does earn you something – a relatively easy first round game.

Top 4 seeds are conference champions
In the four-team college playoff, it is believed that being a conference champion will carry weight but there is nothing definitive. As such, an 11-1 Alabama team will get in over a 11-2 Stanford team without much controversy. That’s fine, but it’s not right. Being a conference champion should earn you something. In this case, it’s a top seed and…

First two rounds on campus sites
Two home games. So being a conference champion* ensures that you get two home games on your way to the semifinals. In this case, Alabama’s loss has a huge impact, if not the Earth-shattering “dream is dead” impact of this year’s game. By losing that game, Alabama falls from the top 4 and will have to play at least one true road game before reaching the semifinals. That severely damages championship hopes.

*Edit: I meant to write a Top 4 conference champion. Ultimate point is, the top 4 seeds are protected for conference champions, sort of like how the NFL gives home games to division champions over wild cards with better records.

Also, how great would it be to see college football playoff games on campus? I don’t even need to go into detail about this. Just close your eyes and imagine Oregon taking the field at Jordan-Hare stadium or Alabama visiting Stanford. It’s amazing.

Semifinals on New Year’s Day
The way the college football playoff is set up next year is perfect – playoff game in the Rose Bowl in the afternoon, playoff game in the Sugar Bowl in the evening. In fact, it’s so good that it should be that way for the rest of time.

Other bowls can still exist
There are 16 teams in my playoff. There are 79 bowl eligible teams this year. That means there would still be 63 teams (!!) that would like to play in bowl games. So instead of the 35 we have this year, we could have 31 bowl games and 15 playoff games. That would work, no?

As you’ll see after I show who would make this hypothetical playoff, there are still very good teams that would probably like to play in bowl games around New Year’s – teams like LSU, UCLA and Texas A&M. In fact, the schedule of bowls that will be in place next year could be in place every year for the rest of time as well. And as in the current system, while the other four major bowls, like the Orange or Cotton, won’t host playoff games, they could certainly host bowl games and a potential title game.

The creation of a true College Football Super Bowl
The game would still be played on a Monday night a week or so after New Year’s Day. It would be massively huge. It could instantly become the second biggest annual sporting event in terms of ratings – a title now held by the NFL’s Championship Sunday. Could a true college football championship game draw 40 million viewers? 50? 60? What is the limit? Is there a limit?

The regular season will mean something for everyone
Nothing irritates me more than the notion that a playoff system would diminish the regular season. By November, there are only a couple games each week that impact the national champion. Look at the ratings from last Saturday – the Pac-12 title game barely registered a blip because it mean “nothing” to 99% of the sporting public, merely a spot in the Rose Bowl.

Well what happens when the winner of that game is guaranteed a playoff spot? What about the Conference USA title game? Or the Sun Belt? So many more games will mean something.

This year, Clemson/South Carolina was a game that truly meant nothing – the loser made the BCS, the winner did not. In this system, the game would be for a Wild Card berth and would mean everything.

Most annoying is the fact that many believe college teams would start resting players like they do in the NFL. I’m sorry, does Tom Brady sit before the Patriots clinch home-field advantage? Of course not. Yes, starters rest in Week 17 but that’s usually when a team cannot change their seeding.

No team could rest at any point because they would be giving up home-field and a top seed if they did. If anything, this increases the importance of the regular season because every game will be analyzed and overanalyzed. Which leads me to…

Better games, better schedules, better crowds
What is killing college football’s attendance? Poor games and “meaningless” games. By spreading out a playoff, so many more games have meaning on a weekly basis. November would be one gigantic playoff push for, what, 40 teams? Who wouldn’t go crazy for that?

More importantly, resumes will be dissected like they are in college basketball. Do you see all the awesome nonconference games played in that sport? There are a lot. This is a good thing! We need more teams playing better games. We need road wins to matter so Alabama will play road games in September against non-SEC teams.

college football super bowl
The month of December is there for the taking
There will always be Saturdays in December longing for football. In some years, this would conflict with Army/Navy & the Heisman – like this year because Thanksgiving fell extremely late. This is the exception rather than the rule – there would be some years with a week between Championship Saturday and the playoffs, some years there wouldn’t. This is not a deal breaker.

As an example, schedule in 2012 would have been Round of 16 on Dec. 15, Quarterfinals on Dec. 22, Semifinals on Jan. 1, Title Game on Jan. 14.

This year, we would have the Round of 16 on Dec. 14, Quarterfinals on Dec. 21, Semifinals on Jan. 1 and the Title Game on Jan. 13.

Crowning a true national champion
College football has never crowned a true national champion – despite what everyone says about the sanctity of the regular season and that bullshit. Florida State will play one good team (Auburn) that doesn’t play in its conference. Same for Auburn – its best nonconference foe was Washington State, which went 6-6.

We know nothing about our top teams because college football has too many teams playing too few games to crown a true national champion with a 2-team playoff or a 4-team playoff. The best teams need to play each other and determine it on the field. The Auburn/Alabama finish was tremendous. So was the Patriots/Broncos Sunday night game a few weeks ago.

In this system, Alabama would be punished for the loss – lower seed, tougher matchup, a road game – but not eliminated. Let’s look at how this playoff could shake out:

First Round

#16 Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4) at #1 Auburn (12-1)
In college basketball, the number of losses is almost irrelevant for the top seeds and this is a crucial piece missing from college football where everything is predicated on the number of losses, without any other criteria. Auburn has 2 wins better than Florida State’s best win as Alabama and Missouri are both better than Clemson.

We also need to accept that in college football, there are significant differences between losses. For example, Stanford lost on the road to a 4-8 Utah team – that’s a bad loss. Auburn lost on the road to a 9-3 LSU team – that’s a good loss.

And by virtue of a #1 seed, Auburn gets a relative bye to the second round – the regular season means something because it brings a team closer to a championship.

#15 Rice (10-3) at #2 Florida State (13-0)
There is relatively no difference between #1 and #2, except that Florida State has a marginally more difficult first round opponent. And why wouldn’t college football want to emulate the best part of college basketball? Sure, Rice might be 50-point underdogs…but isn’t that the point of sports?

#14 Bowling Green (10-3) at #3 Michigan State (12-1)
You think that MAC title game was big this year? Imagine if the stakes were raised this high.

#13 Fresno State (11-1) at #4 Baylor (11-1)
The power of being a conference champion is show here as Baylor gets rewarded with the possibility of two home games and an easier first round opponent than if it was a Wild Card.

#12 UCF (11-1) at #5 Alabama (11-1)
See why the regular season still matters? At 12-0, Alabama would be playing a mediocre team in the first round and guaranteed two home games. Instead, it has a feisty (if overmatched) first round opponent and would be forced to travel on the road to Waco in an effort to make the semifinals (if Baylor isn’t upset).

Next year, Alabama would be placed into the semifinals regardless of the loss to Auburn. You tell me which system means more.

#11 Ohio State (12-1) at #6 Stanford (11-2)
Ohio State is the final wild card and, frankly, I’m not sure they would make it over Oklahoma State or LSU if we were really looking at resumes like we should. Ohio State is #7 in the BCS standings. That’s absurd. By instituting  a playoff, we will be able to analyze teams subjectively because we know that the bubble teams mean less than what we have now.

If this were next year, we’d be debating whether the Big Ten champ or the Pac-12 champ should get a chance to play for a title. In a 16-team playoff, we’d be debating between Ohio State and Oklahoma State – both good teams for sure, but if they’re left out they have only themselves to blame.

#10 Oklahoma (10-2) at #7 Missouri (11-2)
#9 Oregon (10-2)  at #8 South Carolina (10-2)
This further illustrates why being a Wild Card is such a huge disadvantage –to win a championship, you will have to win 4 tough games, with at most 1 coming at home. These teams won’t complain, much like wild cards in the NFL can still win a title, it just makes the road that much more difficult. And makes the viewing experience so much better.

Second Round
For fun, a quick glance at what a quarterfinal round could look like:

#9 Oregon at #1 Auburn
#10 Oklahoma at #2 Florida State
#6 Stanford at #3 Michigan State
#5 Alabama at #4 Baylor

Would you like to see those games? I think I would.

Now if we could only convince ESPN to fork over about $8 billion dollars to make this happen…

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  1. There are already too many bowls with too many mediocre teams. Expanding to 31 bowls and a 16 team playoff results in 46 postseason games.

    1. What's wrong with that? I like football.

  2. This doesn't guarantee conference champions first-round-at-home, unless you're only referring to the power conferences?

    1. I put in an edit. The top 4 seeds will be conference champs, who would get home games. You care correct, not all champions would get first round at home. Only the top 4.

  3. This has to be a terrible idea, 16 teams playing in a playoff system in college where it is not even the top 16 but the winners of the MWC or SunBelt. Unless you are in the top 20 you should not be able to compete. Another issue with this is that player will have to play 2-4 more games a season at a very high level without bye weeks giving them a break. How would you feel if star players and seniors get injured just before the draft ruining their career because the have to play rice or temple or ecu to play a top team. I love college football but this is asking a lot out of college students, during finals Christmas and New Years. I like a 4 team playoff and at max an 8 team but this isnt a 40 min game of basketball we cant have 66 teams playing in a tournament. Even the NFL doesnt have a 16 team playoff. Good Article tho

    1. Thanks for reading. Just wanted to point out that Roger Goodell is trying to increase the playoffs in the NFL to at least 14 teams, if not 16.

      I don't really think the playoff would ever happen...I just think it should. If they can have a 24-team tournament in FCS, why can't FBS have a real one?

    2. Go one giant step farther and Reorganize the FBS into a new Major College Football Division see the Perfect Playoff Plan 16 Team National Championship


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