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Expanding the College Football Playoff: The Case for a 16-Team Playoff

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The college football postseason has been long been broken. It’s time to change that.

YOUNGSTOWN V MARSHALL

There’s nothing better than a long day of College Football. Each Saturday brings new twists and turns, a shocking upset or two, some jaw-dropping highlights, thrilling conclusions, and on the very best of days - complete chaos. Unfortunately, after several months of this, each season comes to an unsatisfying conclusion. There are one or two meaningful games, and then dozens of others that mean little outside of the schools fanbase. This has been the case with the Coalition, the BCS, and still remains with the current four-team system. Not only does it create a poor fan experience, but the subjectivity for how champions are determined is completely unfair and maddening.

The proper solution is simple - a 16-team playoff.

I had an early taste of the effectiveness and pure fun of following a 16-team playoff system. I grew up a Cleveland sports fan, which taught me nothing but pain and misery. Then along came Youngstown State becoming as a FCS (then I-AA) powerhouse. The Penguins won their first of four national championships in 1991, and it was thrilling for me to see a team from my backyard win a national title. But it was the way that they won that made it so memorable.

First they had to play well enough throughout the season to qualify for the playoffs. Despite the larger pool, every game still absolutely mattered. Then it was a series of win-or-go-home games. In a championship season, that’s four consecutive games with everything on the line. The fact that YSU wasn’t typically one of the most talented teams in FCS made it all the more compelling with each game they advanced, and especially when they hoisted the championship trophy.

There’s no question that a 16-team field would create a vastly improved fan experience. It also fixes many of the other problems that have plagued how major college football champions are determined since...well, forever.

The current system still leaves a major debate if the best teams are truly being selected. (For argument’s sake, let’s say things will go back to normal with a more wide open field, rather than just penciling in Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma/Notre Dame/2nd SEC team.)

Each year, there will be a narrow gap between the fourth and fifth-ranked teams, leaving the committee (who notoriously change its unofficial criteria from year to year) to subjectively pick the last team in based on the “eye test,” an insufficiently determined strength of schedule, judging the merit of the out-of-conference schedule, and a slew of other items. This argument will always remain alive and well under the current system, and just determining the fourth-seed has become its own cottage industry.

However, this argument is completely eliminated in a 16-seed format. Sure, the teams that have their bubbles burst will likely believe they should have gotten in, but we can rule out that one of the teams who failed to qualify would have been able to somehow put together a championship run. A number five seed would win it all from time to time, but it would be a once in a lifetime moment should a 17-seed do the same, if ever.

This also gives all FBS programs a seat at the table. Let’s say Bowling Green goes undefeated in 2021, including non-conference wins against Tennessee, Minnesota and the MAC Championship. Would they have any chance of getting in the playoffs next season? Absolutely not. What if they built on the undefeated season and went unbeaten again in 2022? Still no. What if they kept this up in 2023 nd 2024? They still won’t get a sniff from the committee, with their ceiling being a NY6 bowl victory against a runner-up from a major conference.

This also solves a more recent issue that has further downgraded the appetite for most bowl games - the absence of marquee players who opt to sit out. This has become the norm for players projected to go in the first round (and at times, second, third or even further down) who don’t want to risk a severe injury when their months away from a bigger payday most of us will ever see in our lives. This is the case for any “major” bowl outside of the playoffs, and has absolutely taken the luster off of some of the better bowl games that suddenly lack star power.

College football is the most amazing spectacle of the sports world for three months, before crashing down and ending with a thud each season. It’s far time to make the fixes so that the postseason will match the intensity and passion seen in stadiums across the country from Labor Day weekend through the first week of December. The 16-team playoff is the best way to reward fans by improving the overall product, while giving everyone a seat at the table for a more fair way to crown a champion.