Friday, December 02, 2016

It's Time for a 16-Team College Football Playoff

Tuesday night, the latest College Football Playoff rankings were released.  Alabama is #1, Ohio State stayed #2, Clemson moved up from #4 to #3, and Washington moved up to #4, with Michigan sliding from #3 to #5 after its double overtime loss to Ohio State.  Two more Big Ten teams, Wisconsin and Penn State, follow at #6 and #7, with Colorado, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State rounding out the Top 10.

No matter what happens this weekend in the conference championship games and Bedlam, a deserving team (or five or six) will be left out of the College Football Playoff, not that any team is without its faults.
  • #1 Alabama is a shoo-in, even if it loses to #15 Florida this Saturday in the SEC Championship game.  While their non-conference slate did include an FCS opponent, the Crimson Tide destroyed #11 USC in the season opener, beat Western Kentucky (who is now 9-3 and playing for the Conference USA title this weekend) the following weekend, won road games at #21 LSU and #22 Tennessee, and beat #14 Auburn at home.
  • #2 Ohio State's only loss is to #7 Penn State in Happy Valley on kind of a fluky play (a blocked field goal that would have put OSU up 10, but ended up being returned by PSU for the game-winning touchdown), and the Buckeyes have beaten #5 Michigan, #7 Wisconsin (in Madison), and #9 Oklahoma (in Norman).  That said, the Buckeyes are not the Big Ten champs (or even playing for the championship), and they barely squeaked by 4-8 Michigan State two weeks ago, and needed a controversial call in double OT to beat rival Michigan this past Saturday.
  • #3 Clemson, whose only loss is on a last-second field goal to #25 Pitt at home, hasn't beaten anyone ranked in the Top 10, but has beaten three Top 15 teams:  #12 Florida State and #14 Auburn (both on the road) and #13 Louisville at home.
  • #4 Washington, whose only loss is to #11 USC at home, arguably has the weakest résumé of the top five teams, having only beaten #18 Stanford at home and #22 Utah on the road.
  • While #5 Michigan's only losses are to Iowa and #2 Ohio State by a combined 4 points, the Wolverines do still have two losses and they are the only team in the top nine that lost to a team that is not currently ranked in the CFP Top 25.  On the bright side, Michigan has beaten #6 Wisconsin at home, #7 Penn State at home (by 39 points), and #8 Colorado at home (by 17 points).  They could still slip into the playoff if Clemson or Washington loses this weekend, but could also get bumped out by Penn State, Wisconsin, Colorado, or Oklahoma.
  • #6 Wisconsin or #7 Penn State will have won the toughest conference's championship, and if Penn State wins the championship game, can you really leave the Nittany Lions out of the CFP and put Ohio State in when Penn State beat Ohio State?  However, again, both teams have two losses.  Wisconsin beat #21 LSU in the season opener, and has benefitted from the imbalanced Big Ten divisions.  The Badgers lost heartbreakers to #5 Michigan and #2 Ohio State in consecutive weeks, both by 7 points (the latter in overtime), but beat everyone else they played (including winning at Iowa, which Michigan was unable to do).  Penn State lost at #25 Pitt in the second week of the season and then by 39 points at #5 Michigan two weeks later, but haven't lost since, including that season-defining win over #2 Ohio State.  Since then, their closest win was a 45-31 win over Indiana.  They also have a win over Temple, which is 9-3 and playing Navy for the AAC title this weekend.
  • Since #8 Colorado lost at #5 Michigan in the third game of the year, the Buffaloes have gone 8-1, with their sole loss being a 21-17 loss at #11 USC.  Along the way, they have beaten #18 Stanford in Palo Alto and #22 Utah at home.  I'm not sure that a win over #4 Washington in the Pac-12 Championship game would give Colorado enough of a résumé to jump over Michigan and whoever wins the Big Ten Championship game, but then again, I think it's highly unlikely that the CFP Committee would put three Big Ten teams in the playoff.
  • In this year's edition of Bedlam, #9 Oklahoma and #10 Oklahoma State are basically playing a CFP elimination game.  Oklahoma has a chance to go undefeated in the Big XII if it beats Oklahoma State this Saturday, but the Sooners have two losses and the Big XII is pretty weak this year (only 3 teams ranked in the CFP rankings).  Sure, the Sooners' only two losses are to ranked teams in the first three weeks of the season (#24 Houston and #2 Ohio State), but both were double-digit losses, and the Sooners' only win over a team currently ranked in the CFP Top 25 came two weeks ago, when they routed #16 West Virginia, 56-28.  The Cowboys are in kind of the same boat, but with worse losses.  They suffered that heartbreaking loss to Central Michigan at home on a hail mary after the refs incorrectly gave CMU an untimed down at the end of the game.  Two weeks later, they lost at Baylor.  They have beaten #16 West Virginia and #25 Pitt, though.
  • #11 USC has three losses, which they suffered in the first four weeks (to #1 Alabama, at #18 Stanford, and at #22 Utah), but the Trojans have won eight straight since then.  USC is the only Power Five team that can say it beat both of the teams playing in its conference championship game (#4 Washington and #8 Colorado).  I find it hard to believe they could possibly leap into the Top 4 of the CFP rankings, though.
  • And let's not forget #17 Western Michigan, who could very well finish undefeated, but has no chance of making the College Football Playoff, which is kind of BS.

You're probably thinking, "Where's all of this going?  And how are your kids?"  Well, fair reader, I'm getting to that.  And the kids are doing great.  The girls are both in school, and Son is a two-and-a-half-year-old ball of energy and hilarity.  They grow up so fast.  But more to the point, all of this analysis of teams that will get screwed over is to propose a larger college football playoff. 

An eight-team playoff would be better than a four-team playoff, but a 16-team playoff would make the most sense in ensuring that everyone gets a fair shot.  The argument against expanding the playoffs that I've heard is that it will disrupt finals for the players.  If the lower NCAA divisions can have playoffs that work around finals (with 24 teams, no less), then I don't see why it would be a problem for the FBS schools.

With that in mind, here is how my proposed 16-team playoff would work:

1. The regular season would be shortened to 11 games, with the last regular season game for conferences with a conference title game happening the weekend before Thanksgiving.  Whether conferences would go with eight- or nine-game in-conference schedules would be up to the individual conferences in their infinite wisdom.  Conference championship games and final regular season games for teams in conferences without a title game would happen the weekend of Thanksgiving.  As it currently stands, just about every team plays the weekend of Thanksgiving anyway, so this wouldn't be much of a change.  And the Army/Navy game would have to be moved up, so that it couldn't wreak havoc on the selection process, as it might do this year.

2.  Every conference champion will receive an automatic berth.  Like college basketball, if a conference holds a championship game, the winner of the championship game gets the automatic berth.  If not, it's the regular season champ.  This creates the drama of the potential Cinderella -- a mid-major team proving its mettle by upsetting a Power Five team, capturing the hearts of millions in the process.  But what about the four teams who aren't in a conference?  Well, Army, BYU, UMass, and Notre Dame will just have to figure out for themselves whether they think they can survive without being in a conference (i.e., hoping to get one of the six at-large spots -– see #3 below) or if they have a better chance of making the playoffs in a conference.

3.  The remaining six playoff spots will be determined by the College Football Playoff Committee rankings, so the six highest-ranked non-conference champions would receive at-large berths to the playoffs.  This way, if a really good team stumbles in its conference title game or, like this year, two really good teams (Michigan and Ohio State) don't make it to their conference title game, those teams would still have a chance to make the playoffs.  While I realize that no ranking system will be without controversy, under this system, the margin for error is not as slim as it is under the current system, where, as we will see this Sunday, several very good teams will not have a chance to play for the national title.

4.  The bracket would be seeded 1-16, based on the CFP rankings, regardless of whether a team won its conference title.  For conference champions not ranked in the Top 25 of the CFP rankings, the CFP Committee would determine the seeding.  So, for instance, assuming the top two spots in the current rankings hold (i.e., Alabama #1 and Ohio State #2), Ohio State would get the #2 seed, even though the Buckeyes did not win their conference title.  However, conference champions playing at-large teams would get to play their Round of 16 games at home.  How exciting would it be for a team like Western Michigan or Western Kentucky to host Michigan or Ohio State in a first-round playoff game?

To cover all bases, here is how the location of the Round of 16 games would be determined:
(a)  For games between two conference champions, the game would be played at the campus of the higher-seeded team.
(b)  For games between two at-large teams, the game would be played at the campus of the higher-seeded team.
(c)  For games between a conference champion and an at-large team, the game would be played at the campus of the conference champion.

For instance, assuming for the sake of this exercise that the rankings right now do not change (and assuming the higher-ranked team wins any conference title game, and assuming the team with the better record that is not ranked will win any other conference title game between two unranked teams), here's how the Round of 16 games would shake out:

(16) Arkansas State (Sun Belt champ) at (1) Alabama (SEC champ)
(8) Colorado (at-large) at (9) Oklahoma (Big XII champ)
(13) Navy (AAC champ) at (4) Washington (Pac-12 champ)
(5) Michigan (at-large) at (12) Western Michigan (MAC champ)
(14) San Diego State (Mountain West champ) at (3) Clemson (ACC champ)
(11) USC (at-large) at (6) Wisconsin (Big Ten champ)
(10) Oklahoma State (at-large) at (7) Penn State (at-large)
(2) Ohio State (at-large) at (15) Western Kentucky (C-USA champ)

5.  Here is how the schedule would go:
Round of 16:  the first weekend of December, at campus sites of higher-seeded teams or conference champions (see #4 above).
Quarterfinals:  the second weekend of December, at campus sites of higher-seeded teams.
Semifinals:  January 1 (or January 2, if January 1 falls on a Sunday), at neutral sites.
Championship:  the Monday at least 9 days, but no more than 14 days, after January 1 (or January 2, if January 1 falls on a Sunday), at a neutral site.  Thus, if January 1 is a Saturday, the teams would play on January 10.  If January 1 is a Tuesday, the teams would play on January 14.

This schedule should allow for finals to be relatively uninterrupted for most schools.

6.  Similar to the current system, the neutral site games would rotate among the New Years Six Bowl sites -– the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Cotton Bowl, and Peach Bowl.  They would pair off in threes (for instance, Rose, Cotton, and Orange in one group, and Fiesta, Sugar, and Peach in the other group), and each group would get the semis and final every other year, with the final game rotating within each group.  Thus, if the Rose and Cotton hosted semis, and the Orange hosted the final in 2017, then in 2019, either the Rose or Cotton would host the final.

7.  The remaining bowl-eligible teams would still play in bowl games.  This would mean the remaining teams that finish .500 or better still have something to play for, although there would be no more New Years Six Bowls.  I love the Rose Bowl, and it would be hard to see it go as a standalone game (and I'm sure there are many college football traditionalists who would go ape shit over the thought of this), but let's be honest here.  What we all really want, deep down, is a system that determines a true national champion without leaving legitimate contenders by the wayside.

So there you have it.  Am I missing or overlooking anything?

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