College Football Playoff debate: What would an ideal system look like?

Complaining about the College Football Playoff has become its own form of sport for many fan bases around the country — usually those outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama, central Ohio and the southernmost Carolina. This year, those grievances grew louder, as a pandemic challenged the typical criteria for the committee, new rules were created and, as usual, several undefeated teams with solid cases on paper were shut out of title contention (looking at you, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina).

Are changes in store for the CFP format? With criticism of the playoff and its committee at a boiling point, our experts break down the weak spots in the process and propose fixes. Plus, the architect of the Bowl Championship Series weighs in on the challenges.

What do you believe is the biggest problem with the playoff as currently constituted?

Bill Connelly: Each year, I realize more clearly that the number of teams makes the selection process impossible. The CFP as an entity is extremely proud of its processes, and there’s no question that everyone involved goes to painstaking lengths to make sure that the very experienced football people in the committee room cover lots of topics and comparisons before casting their poll votes. But the committee is tasked with picking only four teams, rewarding both pure quality and résumés, assigning bonus points for conference titles but using the eye test. It’s a giant, contradictory set of qualifications, especially when you factor in the minimal presence of Group of 5 representation on the committee and everyone’s personal built-in biases. Making the committee’s job actually doable would be an incredible thing.

Andrea Adelson: I have long been a playoff advocate, because I truly hoped, and somewhat naively believed, that a playoff would open the field up to teams like Boise State, which proved in the BCS era that it absolutely belonged on the biggest stage. But alas, the power conferences want to keep all the power, and the money that goes with it — and that in itself is the largest problem moving forward. There is no equitability when the entire playoff premise is built on inequality — from the amount spent on coaching salaries, support personnel and recruiting, to the number of conference games played and the strength/quality in schedules.

It is not only the Group of 5 that has been punished, but the Pac-12, too. For that reason, the imbalance at the top has only grown starker — and the entire sport has become so regionalized, it feels somewhat impossible for those outside the elite power status or west of Oklahoma to feel any inclusion or ownership in the process. While true expansion might not fix the vast chasm that has separated the top four to six programs from everyone else, what it can do is make this feel more like a sport that values every team and more than just three playoff games every year. More spots means the ability to sell the playoff in recruiting for schools in more than just three or four conferences, for example, allowing more than just a handful of programs to get the best recruits. More spots generates more television money, which allows more schools to try to keep up with the amount Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State pour into their programs.

The greatest thing about the NCAA basketball tournament is the Cinderella story that emerges every year. The playoff, as currently constructed, leaves no room for that. As a result, the sport is suffering. Don’t look now, but the projected preseason top five next season is sure to include five teams that have made it into the playoff. Four of them multiple times.

Kyle Bonagura: For finding a national champion, the current structure is without question better than its BCS predecessor. It’s hard to make the case that the best team in the country hasn’t finished No. 1 since the College Football Playoff was hatched (sorry, UCF). But what it has done is significantly diminish everything that takes place in the sport outside the top four.

Power 5 conference titles that don’t come with a playoff berth aren’t viewed the same way as they were before. The once-proud tradition of bowl games has been diminished, often carrying the caveat: “Do these teams even care about this game?” The New Year’s Six games certainly aren’t immune as those are the games that figure to have the most NFL-caliber players, and the (smart) trend of those players opting out only figures to become more prevalent. It’s not hard to allow for the possibility the opt-outs start earlier and earlier in the season, with top players not being willing to risk their NFL futures without something meaningful to play for.

David Hale: There are two paradoxical points about the College Football Playoff that both happen to be true: The first is that the committee process is undeniably flawed, with rankings that don’t seem to add up outside the top few teams (Iowa State over Coastal Carolina was utterly perplexing this year, for example) and explanations for the rankings that often contradict themselves. The second is that the committee has, perhaps without exception, gotten the final four teams right every year, even if others have had somewhat reasonable counterarguments.

The solution to the first issue is simple: a more clarified mission statement for the committee. Is the job to find the four best teams? The four most deserving? What does “best” or “deserving” even mean? By enacting some more specific means of evaluation, we can get away from the committee chair spending hours every season trying to formulate explanations for the utterly inexplicable.

I’d also love to see a more diverse committee debating “best” and “deserving.” There’s a lot of room for a hive-mind debate when nearly every committee member comes from a similar background. Media, stat gurus, Vegas folks, heck even a smart fan or two might add some new insight to the discussions.

The concerns about who actually gets into the playoff, however, are really big-picture problems that the committee — and perhaps the playoff itself — isn’t going to fix. Expansion might help level the playing field a bit by expanding access and getting more revenue and eyeballs to teams that haven’t often fought for a top-four ranking, but it won’t necessarily fix the continual first-round blowouts or drastically expand the pool of 12 to 15 teams that legitimately have a chance to win it all in any given year.

Adam Rittenberg: This is not a national playoff as currently constructed. Beyond the not-so-subtle Group of 5 exclusion, the playoff fields have been dominated by teams from the Southeast and Midwest. The exclusivity tunes out large swaths of the country, and the repetitiveness of participants has turned the whole thing stale.

To me, it’s never been about including only the teams that can win a national title. That list is almost never more than three. By adding one more layer, the playoff can become more national and provide not only the opportunity to win (however unlikely it is) but the experience of being part of the CFP, which can be seismic for certain programs. I haven’t strongly disagreed with many of the selections, but have also long advocated for a standardized scheduling model in college football that includes more conference games, more attractive games and less duds. It’s not great when the two leagues that play each other the least — the SEC and ACC — seem to be rewarded the most.

What does your preferred, realistic playoff look like?

Connelly: I know Mark Richt’s 32-team explosion is something a lot of coaches would like, and I think I’m fine with that if the support is there, but it’s not. Realistically, an eight-team playoff is all we’re probably going to get for a while, but that’s fine — it’s a wonderful solution!

Assuming there are auto-bids for conference champions and the Group of 5 representative (which would actually make college football’s national title race inclusive for just about the first time ever), the committee’s main job would be seeding teams and picking the two most deserving teams for at-large bids. We’d still yell and scream about whom they pick or how they rank the teams, of course, but this would still be a much more manageable and realistic job for the committee to take on.

Rittenberg: As Bill notes, eight teams solves so many issues. Again, this is more about expanding opportunity than the likelihood of new teams winning championships. Until Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney and Ryan Day move on, their programs are going to claim most of the titles.

Where I struggle is the automatic bids and my desire to have all regions represented. The highest-ranked Group of 5 champion absolutely should have an automatic bid. While I don’t love the idea of a two- or three-loss Power 5 champion in there, I could live with that format. One alternative would be the committee continuing to rank the teams and requiring eligible Power 5 champions to be in the final top 12 or top 15. The top conferences would still fill the at-large spots. The regular season wouldn’t be compromised (that’s a tired argument) and more teams and areas would be under the CFP tent.

Hale: Somewhere between two and 130 is a number that both maximizes access to the playoff while minimizing devaluation of the regular season. Where’s that number? Truth is, it probably fluctuates from year to year, but the best answer would seem to be eight.

Every Power 5 league would award a playoff berth to its champion, making every conference game important. This year, for example, only two teams playing in a Power 5 title game were genuinely impacted by the outcome: Clemson and Ohio State. Others either weren’t getting in regardless or had already punched their ticket. It also helps cut back on the regional bias, making sure every fan in the country has some stake in the playoff. One spot is awarded to the highest-ranked Group of 5 team, and two wild cards are added to the mix. It’s an elegant solution because it would actually increase the amount of meaningful regular-season games, eliminate the constant debates over which conference is best, give all 130 teams a genuine shot at the playoff, and preserve the intrigue of committee rankings which would determine the wild card, the Group of 5 entrant and the seeding.

Most importantly, every team will have a chance to earn its way in by what happens on the field of play, and that is the very definition of a playoff.

Bonagura: I think it’s time to split FBS into two divisions and go to eight-team playoff fields for both the Power 5 and Group of 5. For a long time, I’ve been a proponent of an eight-team field that includes the Power 5 champions, two at-large bids and a Group of 5 team (if it meets a certain threshold — say, undefeated with a No. 12 ranking or higher), but it’s probably just time to drop the illusion the Group of 5 is competing on a level playing field. And that’s fine!

Look at high school football. Divisions are broken up by enrollment, for the most part, to ensure competitive equity in the state playoffs. It’s the same concept here. Can a team like San Jose State or Ball State — both conference champions this year — ever expect to compete for a national title? Absolutely not. So why not give them a title to play for among programs more similar in stature? Maybe there is a mechanism where a Group of 5 team can apply to move up a division, but that’s a small detail that could be rectified down the line.

Under this format, every conference champion would receive an automatic bid to the playoffs, which would make every conference relevant up until the end of the season. Bowl games in addition to these two playoff fields don’t seem necessary, but it’s fine if they stick around, too. No one will be complaining about more football on TV, even if they’re glorified spring games.

Adelson: I lean toward a six-team playoff because I do think in most years there are only five or six worthy teams up for consideration. Each Power 5 conference gets an automatic bid, preserving the regular season and the importance of the conference championship game. Then the top-ranked Group of 5 team gets an automatic bid, easing the questions that have come up surrounding UCF and Cincinnati — two teams worthy of inclusion. The top two seeds would get a bye, so they get a slight advantage for the strength of their seasons, and two more bowl sites get looped in on a rotating basis — helping to at least draw more interest to games outside the current playoff structure.

Getting more representation into the field will be hugely beneficial for the entire sport, and that needs to be the top priority. But the best part might be this: A six-team playoff largely eliminates the biggest source of outrage in the current selection process — the power of the selection committee.

The architect of the BCS weighs in on the CFP debate

Roy Kramer predicted all this when college football first ventured down the playoff road.

In short, when it comes to determining a national champion, there’s always going to be debate, conspiracy theories and unrest no matter what system is in place or how many teams are involved.

“As soon as you leave somebody out, there are going to be people saying you need to do it another way,” said Kramer, the architect of the onetime BCS. “College football will never be the NFL. It will never be Major League Baseball. That’s not what college football is about.

“You can’t set up a system like that because you’re forcing people to be in different conferences, and everybody plays different schedules. That’s just the way it is, so you’re going to have a subjective decision somewhere in there at some point.”

Kramer, who turned 91 in October, said he has chuckled more than once when the gnashing of teeth reverberates all over the country from administrators, coaches and fans as soon as the four College Football Playoff teams are announced.

“I guess they’re still having a little controversy, but that’s not all bad,” Kramer said. “You’ve heard me say this 100 times: It brings a discussion and brings an interest to the game that I think is healthy.”

Much of the criticism of the BCS, which used a combination of human polls, computer rankings and strength of schedule metrics to determine the two teams that would play for the national title, was that it tilted toward the same brand-name schools and wasn’t inclusive enough.

Well, since the College Football Playoff’s inception following the 2013 season, a simulated version of the BCS shows that the old BCS formula would have produced the same four teams as the CFP selection committee each of the past seven years.

Not only that, but of the 28 playoff spots awarded since the CFP’s inception, 22 have been gobbled up by the same five teams: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Ohio State. Alabama and Clemson have both been in the playoff every year but one.

So has a lot really changed in the transition from the BCS to the College Football Playoff?

“The farther you go down, the more controversy there is because then you’re picking teams that lost two games, maybe even more, and then it becomes, ‘Who did you lose to?'” Kramer said. “The farther you go down, the tougher it gets.”

Kramer, the former SEC commissioner and former Vanderbilt athletic director, understands the appeal of a Group of 5 team getting into the playoff. But he doesn’t think expanding the playoff is going to break the stranglehold of the usual suspects who win the championship every year.

“Look at basketball when you have that upset in the first week, but then you get down to the Final Four, how many of those are not the teams that were the strongest in the beginning?” Kramer said. “You don’t solve anything that way. It sounds good. But when you get down to it, you’re going to almost always end up with the same two teams playing.”

To his point, even in a four-team playoff format, rarely have the semifinal games been close. Ten of the 14 semifinal games to this point have been decided by 17 or more points.

Kramer believes the playoff committee has gotten it right most years and wasn’t surprised to see Ohio State get in this year despite the Buckeyes’ playing only six games. And regardless of any potential changes that might be coming to the playoff, Kramer hopes this year, with all the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, isn’t used as a gauge.

“You’ve got to set this year aside and forget it,” Kramer said. “You’re not ever going to have again, hopefully, somebody playing five or six games and somebody else playing 10 or 11. That’s just a creation of the situation we’re in now with the virus.”

Kramer still loves to tell the story of a phone call he received from a media member in 2011 when Alabama and LSU played in a rematch for the BCS title. Kramer, like most around the college football world, contends that’s the game that once and for all steered the sport to a playoff.

“He was talking about how terrible it was that Alabama and LSU would be in that game,” Kramer said. “I asked him if he voted in the AP poll, and he said that he did. I asked him who he voted No. 1 and No. 2 in the final poll [before the release of the final BCS standings], and he said it was LSU and Alabama.

“He quickly let me know, though, that he didn’t think those two teams should be playing in the championship game. I told him I always thought that was the purpose of it, to get the two best teams into that game.”

And one other thing, as Kramer noted, is that both Alabama and LSU would most certainly have been in the playoff in 2011 had there been one back then.

“No matter where we go from here in determining a champion, it’s still a great game and there’s still a lot of excitement that makes college football unique,” Kramer said. “It’s different and it should be.

“We can’t force it to be something that it isn’t.”

— Chris Low

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