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Building A Better College Football Playoff System

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

With the third year of the current Playoff system in the books, it’s time to take a look at how it can be improved.

When the College Football Playoff was “invented,” it was hailed as the be-all, end-all way to declare a true national champion. People were upset by the ambiguity of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and wanted something with more intrigue. Enter the four team playoff. On the surface, it was a fantastic idea. The four top teams in the country would duke it out to claim the title.

In reality though, all it has done is amplify the ambiguity that was so despised during the BCS era. Complaining about teams being left out of the top two has simply shifted to complaining about teams being left out of the top four, and complaining about the numbers-based BCS ranking system has been replaced with complaining about the subjective Playoff Committee. So what can we do to make the Playoff system better?

The Main Issues

The main problem with the Playoff is the ambiguity that defines what a “top team” is. In each year of its existence, the Committee has placed emphasis on different parts of teams’ resumes. For reference, here is a quick summary of Playoff storylines: 

2014-2015 Season: TCU drops out of top four while Baylor also misses out due to lack of a Big 12 Championship Game. Committee placed enormous emphasis on Conference Championships, and all four Playoff teams were Champions. Committee also brought up Big 12’s weak out-of-conference (OOC) scheduling as a factor (for TCU, Minnesota was their best OOC opponent).

2015-2016 Season: Defending champions Ohio State spent all year at #1 even though they had a fairly easy schedule and no particularly strong wins before being knocked out by Michigan State in the final weeks. All four teams in the Playoff were again Conference Champions, and the top four was fairly obvious. Committee started placing more emphasis on out-of-conference scheduling, prompting schools to begin scheduling tougher opponents.

2016-2017 Season: Committee reversed its previous emphasis on Conference Championships and head-to-head results, opting to put in Ohio State over Penn State. There was also a possibility of Michigan being put in over Washington.

The consistent problem here is that different emphasis was placed on different factors in different seasons. In the first two years, a Conference Championship was almost a guaranteed bid. But this season saw that trend falter. Even though Penn State held a victory over Ohio State as well as the Big 10 Trophy, the Committee opted to include Ohio State on account of their “strong resume.” While I don’t want to dispute the fact that Ohio State was a great team, I do believe that Penn State did more to earn a spot in the final four. Still, the Committee favored a Buckeye team that had more “quality” wins and started higher in the rankings to begin with. 

Another consistent problem is the emphasis on OOC scheduling. Initially, the Committee appeared to be penalizing teams that had week OOC schedules. They preferred teams that scheduled quality opponents. At first glance, this makes perfect sense. When comparing two 11-1 teams, the one with the tougher schedule should probably get the nod.

The problem arises in the fact that scheduling takes place years in advance, and there is no guarantee that the scheduled team will remain “quality.” This season saw a perfect example with the Louisville-Houston matchup. Houston had been a quality G5 opponent over the last few years, but the 2016 squad was nowhere near the previous one that defeated Florida State in the Peach Bowl the year before. Early in the season, a win over Houston meant an additional quality win and a better Playoff resume. By the time the game was played, Houston was unranked and no longer a quality win. Technically it doesn’t matter since Louisville lost anyways, but had they won, it would have likely done nothing to boost their Playoff resume as they had hoped it would do. Teams can change drastically year to year, and it is unfair to penalize or reward teams based on scheduling that takes place years in advance.  

Finally, it’s a problem that at least one Power 5 conference is left out each year, thereby furthering the divide between conferences. Obviously there are differences between conferences; that’s an unavoidable fact. I do, however, disagree with the tendency to punish good teams in those “weak” conferences. For example, Washington was criticized for having easy conference schedules. Similarly to my arguments against out-of-conference scheduling, there’s nothing a team can do about the teams that they play; starting 9-0 is impressive no matter the schedule. Any Power 5 team that is a Playoff contender plays a Power 5 schedule. The Committee should honor a team’s record before looking at their strength of schedule.   

The root of all of these issues is the Committee’s need to identity the four best teams in the country. That’s no easy task, especially when there can be such huge differences in things like strength of schedule and what it means to be a “quality” win or loss. Teams can get hot and cold, and results from the first few weeks can become almost meaningless. Below, I propose a system that takes this great burden off the shoulders of the Committee.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Proposed Solution

The most commonly proposed solution to the Playoff’s problems has been simply expanding the Playoff to eight teams. While I don’t think that a standard eight team Playoff would be a huge improvement, my proposal does have an eight team style bracket.

To completely erase ambiguity about Conference Champions vs Non-Champions, my bracket would see five automatic bids given to each of the Power 5 Conference Champions. Another bid would go the highest ranked G5 Champion, and the final two bids would go to the highest ranked “at-large” teams that do not already have a bid. 

To further decrease ambiguity about having to rank those final eight teams as seeds in a bracket, my bracket would consist of yearly-rotating predefined conference matchups. For example, one year the ACC and SEC Champions play. The next season, the ACC and Big 10 Champions play, and so on and so forth. The two at-large teams would always play against each other in order to decrease the chance that two teams from the same conference play in the first round. This rule could be changed providing a rule system is created to prevent at-larges from playing schools from the same conference. The four first round games would be considered the four biggest original BCS bowls (Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Fiesta), and the actual bowl played would rotate around the conference matchups. 

Using 2016 results as an example, the bracket would be set up something like this:

(assuming conference matchups are ACC vs. SEC, BIG10 vs. BIG12, PAC12 vs. G5)

Fiesta Bowl: Clemson vs. Alabama

Orange Bowl: Penn State vs. Oklahoma

Rose Bowl: Washington vs. Western Michigan

Sugar Bowl: Ohio State vs. Michigan

From there, the four winners would play a normal four-team Playoff.

Obviously the Ohio State vs. Michigan matchup isn’t ideal since it was previously played out this season, but there’s nothing preventing a similar situation in the current Playoff system, and again, a rule system could be put into place to prevent it. 

Schematically, this is very similar to the current NFL Playoff system where Division Champions are given spots and the two final spots go the highest-ranked non-champions. The NHL and MLB have similar systems (albeit using Divisions instead of Conferences) as well. In the college world, NCAA Basketball is run much the same way with Conference Champions receiving tournament bids. There is a clear and successful precedent for a system that plainly rewards Conference Championships, and there is no reason that it couldn’t work in college football.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports


Conference Championship has definite reward: This is cut and dry: win your conference and you’re in. This gives teams a clear goal and a clear path to success. 

Relies less heavily on Committee’s ability to rate and rank teams: By removing the need to actually rank the top four, almost all controversy (such as the Penn State vs. Ohio State debate) can be removed. Ranking teams only matters for the two at-large bids, and the differences between teams are commonly more clear as you go further down the rankings to find those teams. By defining which conferences are matched up in the first round, it also erases the ambiguity that comes with having to rate one conference over another. Conference Champions get an equal playing field, which is the way it should be. 

All P5 conferences represented each year: No conferences is left out, which means that the best teams from all conferences are competing. 

Always includes a G5 team: Usually the G5 team is the one whose fans sport the “We Want Bama” signs. While it’s probably not likely that the G5 team will be a perennial competitor, it does allow the smaller conferences a national stage to compete on. 

Still respects top teams that did not win their conference: Ohio State fans can rest easy. This allows those “stronger” conferences to have more than one competitor and doesn’t harshly penalize a great team that maybe had one bad upset or a fluke game.


Requires an additional game for four teams: This is the main complaint about eight team playoffs in general. Yes, it does add one game, but only for four teams. Plus, the break between the bowl games and the national championship game is large enough to incorporate two quarterfinal games. 

Ambiguity remains in picking two at-large teams: It’s tough to completely erase ambiguity when dealing with ratings and rankings. Under a system like this one, there is likely to still be controversy over how the Committee chooses the two at-large teams. Still, a controversy over two teams is better than one over four teams. Additionally, teams begin to separate further and further down the rankings. Since the five conference champions will likely occupy the top four or five ranking spots, the two at-large teams will be found somewhere in the five to seven range. For example, choosing Ohio State and Michigan over Wisconsin would be a no-brainer: they both won the head-to-head. 

More of a chance of lesser teams “getting hot” (i.e. the rare situations in 2005 and 2010 when the NFL’s #6 seed won the Super Bowl): With an expanded field, there’s always a chance that one of the “lesser” teams could earn a few stunning upsets and come away with the title. On the one hand, the games are obviously played for a reason; if they win, they win. On the other hand, how many people would be willing to crown Western Michigan as the best team in college football? In my mind, the former logic prevails. If a team can win three games in a row against the best competition in the country, they deserve the title. 

I don’t claim this to be a perfect system, but I do believe that it provides a better option than the current one. It is simpler to understand, more defined, and provides more intrigue to viewers. I think it’s inevitable that the Playoff moves to an eight-team system; let’s just hope that the Committee reads this article before making that decision.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

Who was the highest ranked Group of 5 team at the end of the 2016 regular season?
Created 1/11/17
  1. Houston
  2. Boise State
  3. San Diego State
  4. Western Michigan

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