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Advocates of a college football championship playoff may feel a little vindicated after the inaugural championship game earlier this week. The #4 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes defeated the #2 ranked Oregon Ducks with a decisive three-score lead. And they did this after also defeating the #1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.

For years, fans of college football and critics of the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) have been complaining that leaving the championship eligibility up to a subjective vote of a committee is unfair. These fans and critics have long proposed a playoff system that would allow more teams to compete for the national title. And this year, the fourth-seeded team - a team that would not have had an opportunity to even compete for a Championship title in the previous BCS-selection process - won the title.

But this outcome is still not without controversy. The age-old argument of "our school got snubbed" has not gone away. I'm sure that after watching Ohio State run the tables in the playoff, the coaches, players, and fans of both Baylor and TCU had to have thought "that could have been us!" And they're right.

Both those teams were left out of the playoff due to misfortunes of mathematics. Even though Alabama (#1), Oregon (#2), Ohio State (#4), Baylor (#5), and TCU (#6) all finished the regular season with only one loss, Baylor and TCU had one fewer win on account of having played fewer games. Only Florida State (#3) finished the regular season with a perfect record.

NCAA football 2014 Champion Ohio State
#4 Ohio State defeated #1Alabama and #2 Oregon to become 2014's national champions.

So while the playoff did consist of the four "winningest" teams in the country, Baylor and TCU didn't have an opportunity to win as many games. Part of this is their fault, since the individual schools do have the privilege of setting their own schedules. Had Baylor and TCU scheduled an extra non-conference game (possibly even one against a Division II school), they could very well have been 12-1 along with 'Bama, Oregon, and Ohio State. But they didn't.

A hypothetical playoff-selection conundrum

But what if TCU and Baylor had played (and won) an extra game and ended the season 12-1? In that case, the selection of undefeated Florida State would still seem like an obvious pick for one of the four playoff spots. But the remaining three would have been a much more subjective selection between the remaining five teams.

Alabama and Oregon probably would still have gotten the next two spots due to coming from better conferences with a stronger strength of schedule. That would leave the fourth spot up to a subjective selection from the voters with only circumstantial metrics for them to judge with (final scores, this abstract concept of "quality losses", strength of schedule, etc).

Going even further: what if the regular season ended with five (or more) undefeated teams? How would the playoff-eligible teams be decided?

So the fundamental problem behind the BCS selection process remains: it's a subjective popularity contest. Teams that may deserve a chance at the title are denied an opportunity to even compete for it due to the personal biases of an arbitrary committee.

Expansion is inevitable, but still broken

Eventually, this selection process is going to come back under the microscope of unhappy fans, and the NCAA will have to expand the playoff-selection process. Maybe they increase it to six teams with a bye based on seed, or maybe it will be an eight team single-elimination tournament.

Baylor university - football helmet TCU - football helemt
A 6 or 8 team playoff would have allowed Baylor and TCU (both 11-1) to compete for the championship.

But this still doesn't resolve the underlying, fundamental problem: the selection process is subjective and arbitrary. No matter how many teams we include in the playoff, there will always be the possibility of a team or two (or more) being snubbed by voters. Unless of course, the entire league competes in a tournament...

And this selection model has other problems. For one thing, the bias of the voters is more likely to give preferential treatment to teams with established histories of winning. Or to teams from conferences with greater prestige. So true "Cinderella stories" of teams coming from nowhere to win the championship are less likely as long as there are more established teams competing for the same playoff spot.

Teams from the WAC, Mountain West, Conference USA, or so on, who have a single standout season are very likely to be snubbed by voters if there's an SEC or PAC team that can fill that spot. Even if the WAC, MW, or C-USA team actually is better. Their conference schedule is never going to be as difficult as an SEC or PAC schedule, so strength of schedule isn't going to tip the scale in favor of the hypothetical "Cinderella team". At least not without major upheavals in the power balance in the nation. But that upheaval is very unlikely, since the current powerhouse schools from the powerhouse conferences are the only ones that can realistically be considered contenders for the championship. As long as they remain the defacto "power teams", they will continue to be the ones that get the higher-quality recruits. Only a complete collapse of the school at an organizational level will change that.

A proposed playoff model

So how do we get around this problem? Simply expanding the number of teams doesn't really solve the underlying problem as long as the teams eligible are still subject to a vote. So we need a more systematic method of picking teams.

The NFL offers a reasonable model.

My suggestion for the NCAA is to implement a playoff model that takes the conference champions and gives them automatic seeds in the playoff. Right now, there are ten conferences: American Athletic, ACC, Big 12, Big 10, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, PAC-12, SEC, and Sun Belt.

This would give us a playoff of at least ten teams, and we'd probably want a couple more spots for wildcards and independent schools. With 2 wild cards, we could have a 12-team playoff very similar to the NFL's playoffs. First-round byes would go to the top 4 teams (seeding details below), and there would be three rounds of playoffs before the championship.

NCAA football 12-team playoff bracket
A proposed 12-team playoff similar to the current NFL playoff model.
Depicts the 2014 conference champs and 2 wild cards, with top 4 teams receiving 1st-round bye.

But considering how large the NCAA is, we would probably want to include more wild cards. This is especially important early on, since it keeps more of the top-tier, non-conference-leader teams in the running.

So the next alternative would be a 14-team, 3-round bracket with only two first-round byes going to the top 2 teams, and four wild card teams.

NCAA football 14-team playoff bracket
A proposed 14-team playoff bracket with 4 wild cards, and the top 2 teams receive first round byes.

After that, would be a 16-team, 3-round model without any first-round byes. Every team would play in the first round. This is similar to the college basketball tournament, except that it is half the size - we go straight to the "sweet 16".

Larger playoffs are also possible, but they would require more rounds of play. I think that three rounds is probably as much as we would want to go, since football is such a demanding sport. We also don't want to extend the college football season into February.

Seeding the playoff

There are also a few ways that the playoff can be seeded. If we wanted to retain the value of the AP polls, then we would base the seeding on the AP poll position (rather than simple team record). The top 2 to 4 teams in the AP poll (depending on the bracket style) would receive the first-round bye, regardless of whether they were conference champs. i.e. the "wildcard" teams could hypothetically be the teams with the bye. This would be especially likely if the more than one of the top four teams come out of the same conference.

There are also more mathematical models that take human subjectivity completely out of the picture. Seeding can either be determined by a power ranking of the individual teams, or by a power ranking of the conferences, or some combination of the two. A team power ranking would be determined by its own win-loss record and the cumulative win-loss record of its opponents. The opponent record could either be factored into the power rank, or it could be used as a tie-breaker. The best teams would get the highest seed in the playoff.

A similar model could be used to rank the best conferences and seed the teams based on the rank of their respective conferences. This model would use the win-loss record of the entire conference and weigh it against the cumulative win-loss record of all the teams that the conference played against. The conference champions of the best conferences would then get the highest seeds in the playoff, including the first-round byes where applicable.

The big picture...

The proposed playoff models do have some downsides. First and foremost is the simple fact that there isn't currently parity between the conferences. So there would be a period early on that would see a lot of very one-sided playoff games.

But long-term, we may see the competition get better. Right now, it is very difficult for low-end schools to recruit high-caliber prospects. This is due to many reasons, but the two most significant reasons are that it limits the player's national exposure (and thus, his chances of being drafted into the NFL), and it makes it virtually impossible for such a player to play on a championship team.

Even if a weaker school does land some diamonds in the rough and has a break-out season, they still have a very hard time entering the conversation for the national championship. Such schools have a lot of barriers to overcome:

  • They haven't played any good teams,
  • Their conference is weak,
  • Can they really compete with the big dogs?
  • and so on...

Weaker schools have to overcome the voters' preferential treatment of teams with long histories of winning. Remember a few years ago when Boise State went several seasons without losing? They accumulated a 50-3 record over the span of four years (the first NCAA football team to win 50 games in four seasons), and their quarterback, Kellen Moore, became the winningest QB in NCAA history.

Boise State's Kellen Moore
Kellen Moore graduated as the winningest quarterback in NCAA D-1 history, and led Boise State to
an unprecedented 50-3 record over 4 years. But that team was snubbed for a national title bid.

But that team never had a chance to play in the BCS championship game. Could they have won? That's debatable. But we'll never know because they never had the chance.

Having a playoff that automatically seeds conference champs means that teams like this would at least have the opportunity to earn a championship appearance. Every team in the nation would have an opportunity to make a championship run in any given season. If all the stars align, and a team like lowly UNLV (my alma mater) puts together a conference championship team, then even they would have a chance at the title!

In addition, an automatic playoff bid would help bring more money into the lower-performing conferences. The money can be used to improve facilities and help make those teams more competitive.

Over the course of time, this would allow some of the better schools in traditionally weaker conferences to recruit better players with the promises of more playing time (since the depth chart may have less top-tier competition), a good chance at a conference championship and automatic playoff bid, and at least a chance to go for a national title.

Within ten years or so, we might start to see the whole nation become more competitive. And who doesn't want to see more competitive games?

In addition, removing the subjective vote from the playoff seeding minimizes or eliminates the need for winning teams to run up scores to "impress voters". So teams winning one-sided games can put in backups earlier, giving younger players more opportunities to gain in-game experience and develop, and reducing the risk of major injuries for starters in noncompetitive games.

I firmly believe that [in the long run] widening the breadth of competition, and opening up the title game to "lower tier" conferences and schools will only result in a more competitive league overall. Having a playoff system that has more rigid qualification rules - as opposed to relying on subjective votes - also solves the problem of champion-caliber "Cinderella teams" being snubbed. It's a pretty dramatic change that could ultimately reshape the NCAA football landscape, but I think it is the direction that the league should go. And it should start sooner, rather than later.

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