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You Can Fix The College Football Playoff By Fixing The College Football Season

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No matter what format we end up, the key to fixing the postseason is to fix the regular season.

CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T - Ohio State v Alabama Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

The College Football Playoff Committee recently announced a proposal that would pit the six highest conference champions and six at-large teams in what they hope will be the solution to the evergreen problem of “how do we address the college football postseason?”

For the past few weeks, the staff spent some time making the case for what the best playoff format would be moving forward (It’s 12). What we didn’t discuss, however, is how teams arrive at this coveted postseason utopia.

While it’s still early and we don’t know what this proposal would look like in action, very few details came out addressing that very question. We all have a good idea of what playoff format we want, but there seems to be little about how we get there.

As a person who was not introduced to college football until his senior season of high school (and the concept of American Football as a whole only became familiar in the mid 90s), I don’t have the connection to tradition other folks have, folks who may have grown up with the sport and have followed it for far longer than I’ve been alive.

Because of this lack of connection, it’s easy to see how some of the things we hold near and dear to our hearts are the very issues that we need to address in the sport. Here are a few that I think would make the college football season a lot more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Big disclaimer: The bagmen in the room is likely the biggest of them all, but for the purposes of this list, we can assume that said bogeyman will never go away, and is only but a fact of live we’ll all live with.*

Uneven Schedules

The biggest and most apparent issue with the college football season right now is how uneven schedules are. Unlike other sports that have far more games than football, the college game finds itself with teams that can coast by on reputation alone, having played one or two quality teams in its entire season, while others may have played half their season agains the top half of college football.

Schedule unevenness isn’t something that will be completely eradicated. After all, there are 130 teams in college football, and the most teams any given conference has (as of today) is 14. As such, you will be bound to see some teams have decidedly tougher schedules than others. That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t something to be done about it.

Each conference plays the same number of conference games. Because we root for a team in the Big Ten, I propose a minimum of nine conference games for all conferences. With every conference having at least 10 members, the possibility of a nine-game conference schedule for everyone is a realistic one.

Divisions

The other problem with college football is that they tried to model other, professional sports in creating divisions for its conferences, then having championship games to determine the champion of each conference. What they didn’t get right, however, is that membership in these conferences tends to be smaller, teams play home and homes, and ultimately every conference rolls up toward their respective championships having played each other along the way.

College basketball, also having the problem of “too many teams to play everyone,” decided to let resumes dictate who gets in to their much larger tournament. With expansion likely coming, this means for college football, the solution to their problems could also lie in taking a cue from college basketball and getting rid of divisions.

Like college basketball, once the regular season is over, you can still have a tournament (in this case, a championship game), to crown a single team after the season has been played. And, like college basketball, you create the opportunity to play teams more often than you normally would. Instead of playing up to six fixed opponents per season, you play no more than three (to protect rivalries), and rotate the rest. This allows all teams to have home-and-homes with every member of the conference in a four-year period, unlike the current structure, which sees teams go almost a decade without visiting a conference mate’s stadium.

The biggest benefit of division-less football is, however, no longer having the second best team in the conference is stuck watching the fifth best team in the conference play the best team in the conference for a championship. The SEC and Big Ten are the biggest culprits/benefactors in this scenario, where there’s usually a team behind Alabama and Ohio State, respectively, who has a better record than the counterpart on the other division, yet, they can’t play for a championship because of division alignments.

Committee

Unfortunately, we’re not getting rid of a committee to decide who makes the playoff. Even college basketball has one. However, what we can do about the committee is force them to behave in the way the college basketball committee does.

The committee needs to pick a metric you use as your primary basis for ranking teams, whether it’s the old BCS formula or a new, NET-like metric, and stick to it. They can even borrow from available metrics like SP+ and FPI, like college basketball does (especially since these take SOS into account). Like the basketball committee, they also need to create a certain set of criteria for what constitutes a good win vs a bad loss, maybe even mirroring the quadrant system college basketball has. And last, but not least, they should release fewer and fewer of these rankings, as it’s been proven problematic in the past seven years.

By forcing the committee to rank based on an available formula, we can move away from the committee deciding who they want in the playoff then ranking accordingly, which has seemingly what they’ve been doing in the past.

Independents: The Notre Dame Clause

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that Notre Dame exists and special rules keep being made for them. Because the Irish have their own contract with NBC, they have no incentive to actually join a conference and play by the same rules as everyone else. Sure, joining a conference means they’d lose annual games against traditional rivals, but guess what? So did every other team that was at one point independent and is now part of a conference. They’ll get over it.

The 12-team proposal already has a Notre Dame clause, which at least makes it so that they can never be a top four team, but it doesn’t go far enough. Any other independent isn’t a shoo-in for the playoff, yet Notre Dame can effectively slot themselves as an at large team 8 out of every 10 years moving forward with this setup, simply by being an independent.

Traditions

I don’t have the connection to tradition other people have. After all, I was only introduced to college football once I arrived at Penn State. As a result, there are some parts of the sport that people hold near and dear to their hearts that don’t mean much to me. For example, Big Ten fans seem to live and die by the Rose Bowl, yet to me, it’s just another bowl game.

Another tradition that I really don’t care for is the obsession college football has with the “best” team over the champion. Over the course of history, college football championships were decided by people watching the sport and deciding, arbitrarily, that a certain team (hopefully one that was undefeated, but not always), deserved to be crowned champion that year. They voted, and the team that got the most votes was the champion.

The effect of this system was felt far and wide, and led to a process where a champion was chosen almost arbitrarily. On rare occasions, even the president would decide that whatever team they were watching at that moment was the national champion, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Or, maybe, the AP felt bad for a coach who’s had incredible teams for over a decade, but had been unable to actually capture a championship in that time, so they handed him one (of what would become three in four years).

If these two examples sound familiar to you, that would be because Penn State was the unfortunate team who got the shaft in both occasions. This doesn’t touch on the litany of other undefeated seasons Penn State would go on to collect, but was locked out of a chance for a championship because people decided other teams were better.

The modern day interpretation of the obsession with the best team, of course, is still about picking which teams we deem best, but now we create barriers to entry for teams who are not as talented as others. In other words, a team that loses doesn’t have the right to compete for a championship, but only if that team is not one of the predetermined “best” teams in the country. As of 2021, those teams are Alabama, Clemson, and to a lesser extent Oklahoma and Ohio State. In the past 20 years, there are several examples of every single one of those teams getting the benefit of the doubt over another, mainly due to who they are:

  • In 2008, Oklahoma went to the championship game over Texas, even though they lost to Texas in the regular season.
  • In 2011, Alabama went to the championship game over Oklahoma State, after having lost to the same LSU team it would face in the championship game.
  • In 2014, Ohio State went to the playoff over Baylor and TCU, after having lost to a decidedly worse Virginia Tech team earlier in the season.
  • In 2016, Ohio State leapfrogged Penn State, after having lost to the Nittany Lions in the regular season.
  • In 2017, Clemson received the No. 1 seed in the playoff despite having lost to a Syracuse team that was worse than the Virginia Tech team in Ohio State’s case. That same year, Alabama made the playoff despite not having won its division (in a repeat of 2016, where Auburn, the team that beat Alabama, was nowhere near the playoff’s radar).
  • In 2018, after its second undefeated regular season in as many years, UCF was once again left out of the conversation altogether.

And so on the examples go, where a team’s accomplishments play second fiddle to who we think has the right to play for a championship.

Put a different way: Eli Manning and the New York Giants would have two fewer Super Bowls if the NFL picked playoff teams in the same way college football does. After all, the Giants actually lost games on their way to both championships, and were clearly not a better team (in the regular season, at least), than the far superior Patriots squads they went on to beat.

Far more than anything, this particular notion is what we need to address the most: The fact that some team get the benefit of the doubt over others, and we do this before anyone has played a game, is what holds the sport back more than all. Fix that, and suddenly all the other ideas don’t seem that far fetched.


*Also NIL, but that is currently being addressed by congress.