Monday, December 8, 2014

What if College Football had a 16-Team Playoff in 2014?

In the aftermath of TCU and Baylor being left out of the first college football playoff, many advocated for an 8-team playoff. It is so, so stupid.

16team playoff
An 8-team playoff does not make sense because it’s either too many teams or not enough. The notion that all five power conferences deserve an automatic bid is extremely short-sighted. In 2012, an unranked Wisconsin won the Big Ten. There are other examples of teams from outside the Power Five, see Cincinnati or Boise State in 2009, finishing well ahead of Power Conference champions. If you let one conference in, you need to let them all in.

Furthermore, an 8-team playoff provides zero reward for an Alabama or Oregon. In fact, in an 8-team playoff, both teams would have been better off not playing in their respective title games than risk injury.

So what to do?

In truth, a four-team playoff is proving to be far more successful than I envisioned. The real problem was not with the result but the process. As many predicted, the weekly rankings provided no real insight into the final rankings and exist as discussion fodder for ESPN.

The timing of the playoffs will prove to be a problem the next two years. While the New Year’s Day doubleheader of Florida State/Oregon and Alabama/Ohio State is going to be incredible, next year those games would be on New Year’s Eve. Yes, a playoff semifinal will start at 4 p.m. on New Year’s Eve day.

Why? Because the Big 12 and SEC didn’t like the Rose Bowl’s spot and made ESPN give them New Year’s night every year. It is a significant problem. But we will wait until next year for that fiasco.
And the fix is really easy – the Sugar Bowl isn’t every New Year’s and the playoff semifinals are played on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Night in primetime. Because the playoff only has schedules set for the next three years, I think that it will be changed.

But what if the four-team selection gets messier in future years? The proper move isn’t to 8 – it’s to 16. Last year, I explained in detail how it would work.

The key points: First two rounds on campus, top 4 seeds are conference champions, 10 auto bids for champions, 6 at-large bids, semifinals on New Year’s Day and the championship the following Monday like it is now.

How would that look for 2014? Glad you asked:
  • #16 Georgia Southern (9-3) at #1 Alabama (12-1)
  • #9 Ole Miss (10-2) at #8 Michigan State (10-2)
  • #13 Memphis (9-3) at #4 Ohio State (12-1)
  • #12 Boise State (11-2) at #5 Baylor (11-1)
  • #14 Marshall (12-1) at #3 Florida State (13-0)
  • #11 Kansas State (10-2) at #6 TCU (11-1)
  • #10 Arizona (10-3) at #7 Mississippi State (10-2)
  • #15 Northern Illinois (11-2) at #2 Oregon (12-1)

To be fair, we do not know how the final 4 Group of Five champions would have been slotted or if the at-large teams (6-11) would have been seeded if it actually mattered. But this would give us a lot more football and a lot better football.

One thing I noticed in doing this exercise in 2014 compared to 2013 is how different it felt. Compared to the BCS, a 16-team playoff felt like heaven. Compared to the four-team playoff, it feels only marginally better.

The question remains: Was this first year an anomaly for the four-team playoff or will it usually work out? There is little doubt that arguing between TCU, Baylor and Ohio State felt less serious than arguing over, say, #2 Alabama and #3 Oregon. There is no fear a truly deserving team will be left out. At least not yet.

We need several more years of the four-team playoff to properly evaluate it. We need a legitimate undefeated Group of Five team to test the system. We need a legitimate conference runner-up, such as last year’s Alabama, to test it.

Year 1 appears to be a rousing success. I still believe the future will eventually end up at a 16-team playoff…I’m just not sure if that future is 10 or 40 years away. 

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