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Expanding the College Football Playoff: The Case For 12

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The Playoff doesn’t need to go all the way to 16. 12 is enough.

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

By now, you have heard every possible argument for how to improve the College Football Playoff. You’ve read about what’s wrong with the current format, what’s right with the current format, and what format will create the perfect system moving forward.

Everything you’ve read so far about the playoff is a lie. Well, maybe not a lie, but my colleagues arguing for four, six, eight, and 16 teams, as well as going back to two teams, are all wrong!*

The biggest argument for the 8- and 16-team playoff is the even number. The biggest argument for remaining at four is that the current system has seen some blowouts. While the BCS formula was indeed accurate, that’s not enough reason to retract the field again make it even more exclusive than it is now. If the goal is to decide who “the best” team is and not who is the champion, there’s no need to even have two teams play. We can continue to let the president pick the “best” team before the season’s over.** As per six, giving the Power 5 champions a guaranteed spot is a good thing, but it doesn’t do enough, especially when the last spot is up for grabs.

Instead, here are two ways in which we can solve the playoff problem once and for all:

Method One: Same Thing, More Teams

This is a similar take on what has been said before. Expand the playoff to 12 teams. Guarantee a spot for all Power 5 Champions. Give the highest-ranked Group of 5 team a guaranteed spot. Then, with the other six spots, fit the rest of the teams that had a great season but had the misfortune of sharing a division with Alabama, Clemson, or Ohio State, and those who had a great season, but had the misfortune of playing a championship game against Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. You could also just grab six SEC teams here and call it a day. This method even allows you to pick from the top 12 teams, which ensure the committee ranks teams in a way that only the ones they want included ever make the top 12.

This solution is fine and actually addresses an overarching theme I see in counter-arguments: “Alabama and Clemson keep winning championships therefore Alabama and Clemson should be the only teams to play for championships.” By expanding the field to the handful of teams that had the best seasons, we increase the likelihood that one of those teams rises to the occasion in the playoff and wins the whole thing. The biggest reason Alabama and Clemson keep winning championships is because we’ve built systems that makes it conducive to win the championship by giving them the red carpet treatment into the playoffs.***

Method Two: True Meritocracy

Second chances are great, and sometimes, things happen. That’s why some teams, the unfortunate ones outlined above, should get a second chance. However, the point of being in a conference is to win it. This method rewards teams for winning their conferences, by giving them a shot at the championship.

It really is that simple. All 10 FBS champions get a bid. Then, two teams, those who came oh so close but couldn’t pull it off, they too get a second chance. That’s it. We’ve been condition to think that only one group of 5 teams is “worthy” of playing with the top dogs year in and year out. But think about some of the past few seasons, including last: Appalachian State, Louisiana, Army, BYU (who lives in this Power 5/Group of 5 limbo), and Coastal Carolina, not to mention Teams from the Mountain West and AAC, who routinely make work of Power 5 teams. These are all teams who either beat, or scared the lights out of, these same championship teams we talk about as better than by virtue of being in a different conference.

These teams go on to win their conferences (except those who don’t have one**), only to watch teams who have had worse seasons by all measures get better rewards. Under this setup, they get a seat at the table too.

I can see the arguments flaring already: “Those teams aren’t worthy!” Let me point to a couple of paragraphs and mention, again, if worthiness is what we’re going for, we don’t need a postseason at all. Let the president pick the champion in October and leave there rest as a formality. Otherwise, do what’s right: Win your conference, play for a championship, and give a mulligan to the one or two teams who actually would have won their conference if not for having the misfortune of sharing a division with Ohio State and Alabama.****


*The astute in you will realize that I’m the one who argued for six. I was wrong.
**More on that next time!
***Also Nick Saban is the best coach of all time and bagmen.
****Or, you know, actually winning the conference despite sharing a division with Ohio State, or getting left out anyway despite beating Alabama.