Seven Steps to a Better Playoff

So we have our playoff. Alabama vs. Oklahoma, Clemson vs. Notre Dame. Not too shabby. Like every season, we spend three months arguing and then (mostly) decide the end result was right.

And that’s all well and good, despite the objections of UCF, Georgia and Ohio State fans — all of whom have a valid point but all of whom also have to counter obvious arguments against their cause. More importantly, those arguments aren’t a flaw of the system. They’re a feature. TV, the sport — hell, all of us love debate. We embrace it, if you will. So fine.

But what if we could have a better functioning system, still have plenty of debate, and ensure that all deserving teams got a real shot at winning a championship?

Dabo Swinney is fond of noting that “winning a national title” is not one of his team goals, because it’s not something Clemson controls. That’s both true and insane.

But look around. Did UCF ever have a real shot to make the playoff? After Washington lost in Week 1, what were the odds any other Pac-12 team was getting in? Notre Dame ran the table and still has to answer for why it got in.

Moreover, we’ve spent endless hours arguing over the relative value of schedules and conferences. You know what has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of a team? Its schedule and its conference. Those are independent variables. Auburn being bad doesn’t change whether Alabama is good. The Patriots could’ve played UCF’s schedule and they’d still be the Patriots. Schedule strength may offer us a higher level of certainty as to a team’s quality, but it is not the underlying cause of that quality.

So what’s the fix? Well, we put together a plan that makes so much sense it’s bound to be ignored.

We went through some of the details in our Saturday night column HERE and on Twitter, but let’s lay it out all in one spot.

Step 1: Eliminate divisional play

Was anyone drooling over Clemson-Pitt? Ohio State-Northwestern? Those games were pointless and anticlimactic. But if every league followed the Big 12 model, we’d have had a Clemson-Syracuse rematch and another Ohio State-Michigan. Would that have watered down the regular season a bit? Maybe, but for the former, we certainly wouldn’t have known that in advance. And besides, the rematch didn’t make Oklahoma-Texas any less entertaining.

This also has the added side effect of eliminating arbitrary in-season matchups between divisional opponents with no history (do we need more Cuse-Wake?) and allows for more robust scheduling, so every team will play every other team on its home field at least once in a four-year span.

Two big problems solved.

Step 2: Eliminate FCS games

No one likes them except the accountants at the FCS schools. So let’s get rid of them and go back to an 11-game regular season. We can make up for this with added playoff revenue (more on that momentarily), and we can include a provision that a portion of FBS revenue will be distributed to FCS schools evenly to help make up some of their revenue gap.

Moreover, we can have FCS schools scheduled for every spring game. Let’s require every FBS team to schedule an FCS team for a spring game, and every team holds a photo/autograph session afterward. That puts butts in the seats for spring games, provides some actual drama (there’s bound to be a couple upsets), creates a new TV revenue stream during the offseason, and still allows FCS programs to earn some money.

Two more problems solved.

Step 3: Every Power 5 champ gets in the playoff

Right now we have five power leagues and Notre Dame for only four playoff slots and 65 teams with zero chance at the playoff. That creates a lot of meaningless football. So here’s the plan: All Power 5 league champs get into the playoff. Sure, that means a team like Washington gets in — but is that so bad? The Huskies are no pushover, and because we’ve eliminated divisions, there’s no chance a truly bad team makes it in. We essentially played an entire season in which the Pac-12 was an afterthought. That wouldn’t be true under an 8-team system. We’ve gone three straight years where the champion of the Big Ten has missed out. That seems absurd. Plus, we’ve watched a Saturday of title games that really had limited meaning. If every champ gets a guaranteed bid, Championship Saturday becomes a de facto play-in, and it’s must-see viewing.

There’s a side benefit to this, too. If teams know they can lose a non-conference game and still make the playoff by winning their league, they’re incentivized to schedule better. Currently, UCF couldn’t schedule Alabama if it wanted to. But when we eliminate this disincentive, the No. 1 priority becomes getting good games that pack the stands and draw eyeballs to their TVs (or phones or laptops, etc.).

Three more problems solved.

Step 4: The Group of 5 gets an automatic invite

UCF has won 25 straight games. In the last half-century, only eight other teams have a longer streak. We can argue that the Knights have had an easy road to those 25 wins, but if it was so easy, why haven’t more teams done it? We can say we don’t THINK UCF would stand a chance against Clemson or Alabama, but how do we KNOW? It’s still guesswork. The point is, UCF deserves a shot.

OK, you say. UCF is fine. But what about the years when there’s not an elite Group of Five team. Fine, let’s say G5 has to be ranked in the top 20 to make it. That at least sets some parameters, but I’d still prefer to leave it open ended because, again, if a so-so team gets in, that’s a bigger advantage for the team that earned the No. 1 seed.

Another problem solved.

Step 5: Expand the playoff to eight

Obviously we’re now at six teams in the playoff, so we need to get bigger. Add two more wild cards and we have a perfect set-up. There’s still real drama to the rankings, the committee still has a job in selecting playoff teams, and the outcomes of conference championships have a huge trickle down effect on the wild card selection process. Debates, drama, and good teams getting in. That’s ideal.

OK, but just because it would result in two good wild cards this year, would that always be true?

Well, let’s find out.

Last year we’d have had Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia, Ohio State and USC as conference champs, UCF as our Group of 5 and the wild card debate would’ve come down to Auburn, Alabama, Wisconsin, Washington or Penn State. That’s a great debate right there. Auburn would’ve had head-to-head over Alabama, but the Tide would’ve had the higher ranking. Do they both get in?

Go back to 2016: Alabama, Clemson, Penn State, Washington and Oklahoma are your conference champs, Western Michigan is your Group of 5 winner, and our wild card debate is Ohio State, Michigan, USC and Wisconsin. Again, not a bad group.

How about 2015: Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Ohio State are your champs, with Houston as your Group of 5. Your wild card debate is Iowa, Stanford, Notre Dame, Florida State. Again, it’s a great argument with no bad answers (except maybe Iowa).

More importantly, because home field advantage is so important, the wild cards don’t really water down the significance of any regular season games. They just translate into more games mattering.

Step 6: Play the first round on campus

As noted above, providing easier matchups and home-field advantage to higher ranked teams ensures real value in playing a tougher schedule, impressing the committee and winning games. It also means fans can take a short drive for a Saturday to see a playoff game rather than breaking the bank on flights and hotels. And part of the allure of college football in the first place is the on-campus environment — something we’re quickly losing as neutral site games become revenue sources. Something that benefits the fans? Well, that’s just crazy talk.

Step 7: Sign a new TV deal for the playoff

The straw man argument against an eight-team playoff is that it’s a slippery slope to 16 or 32 or 64 or 130. That’s dumb, but there is still a way around it. Let’s negotiate a 20-year deal for broadcast of the postseason. This is great for the networks who’ve been worried about spiraling costs. They can lock in expenses for the longterm and plan accordingly. It’s also a way to ensure we won’t have a serious push to expand the playoff again because the TV deal is already set. And the leagues will like it because it’s more money coming in, guaranteed. That extra revenue gets spread around to make up for the loss of the 12th game, but there’s plenty left over from an extra playoff game so that everyone is getting their beak wet (except the players, of course, but that’s another issue).

So what do we end up with here?

Eleven regular season games and no more awful Alabama-Chattanooga matchups.

Spring games that have some actual competition to them.

Championship Saturdays where every single game matters.

Debate over who gets into the playoff, but no whining over deserving teams that won their leagues being left out.

Incentive to schedule better out-of-conference games in the regular season.

Group of Five teams getting a chance at the biggest prize.

More regular-season games that have an impact on the playoff.

A playoff home game for four fan bases.

And most importantly, when Week 1 kicks off, all 130 teams can control their destiny.

Are there drawbacks? Probably, but those seem minor in comparison to the positive effects. And like the old “there are too many bowl games” discussion, I’m not quite sure why anyone thinks there should be LESS football. More games, better matchups, and a championship decided on the field. What’s not to like?

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