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Sunday, March 19, 2023

Fixing the College Football Playoff bracket

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It’s March Madness season, folks. You know what that means? We’re talking brackets.
More specifically, the College Football Playoff bracket.

As it stands now, just four teams get into the what I consider the most exclusive postseason tournament in major college sports. Men’s lacrosse and ice hockey are also very selective, with just 16 team getting into each sports’ bracket.

The Playoff’s exclusivity has proven to be quite polarizing during its first four years. Those who believe allowing just four teams in is great for the sport argue that it makes teams’ performance during the regular season incredibly important. It also allows for de facto play-in games in late November and during conference championship weekend on the first Saturday in December.

For example, when Miami and Clemson played for the ACC title last season, the Hurricanes were ranked No. 7 and the Tigers were ranked No. 1. It was widely understood that the winner of that game would have clinched a spot in the Playoff while the loser would be left on the outside looking in. Clemson smothered Miami in a 38-3 rout and were the Playoff’s top overall seed in 2017.

In the SEC Championship Game, No. 2 Auburn and No. 6 Georgia also played for the right to make the Playoff, with the Bulldogs prevailing 28-7. Despite regular season victories over eventual Playoff finalists Georgia and Alabama, Auburn was left out.

Proponents for keeping the number of Playoff teams at four believe expanding the Playoff would lessen the importance of some of these late-season games, since both teams would likely make the playoffs if the bracket expanded to 12 or 16 teams.

The argument for Playoff expansion is that it simply doesn’t allow enough championship-caliber teams to compete for the title–there are five Power 5 conference champions each year, but just four Playoff slots.

Only the ACC and SEC have gotten at least one team into the dance during the first four Playoffs. A team from the Big Ten made it the first three years, but failed to be selected last season, while the Big 12 and Pac-12 have sent a team to just two of the four.

It seems as though last season we reached a breaking point. Two teams from the SEC got into the Playoff, while the Pac-12 and Big Ten each got stiff armed. The outrage centered on Alabama getting in despite not having signature win on its schedule, winning its conference or even making an appearance in the SEC title game.

My biggest problem with the current setup is how the Playoff is completely closed off to teams from the Group of 5. Over the last decade or so, some of college football’s best moments have come from teams like Boise State getting a chance at one of the big guys. We’ll never see that again unless things change.

Just last year, Central Florida was 11-0 when it entered the conference championship weekend, but the Knights were ranked all the way down at No. 14 in the College Football Playoff poll. With all of the money at stake in the Playoff, there’s just no way the selection committee will put a mid-major team in over a Power 5 conference champion.

My solution to the Playoff’s problems is simple. First, expand it to six teams–the five Power 5 champions and the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion–with the top two seeds getting a first-round bye. This would still allow for marquee late-November games to act as play-in games, and make the regular season just as important as it is now.

Second, eliminate all conference championship games and send whatever team wins the regular season crown to the Playoff. This is where things would get tricky, though, since so much money is involved with the Power 5 conferences that would be lost if this happened.
But think about it, last season Oklahoma played in a completely worthless conference title game against TCU. Winning the game meant absolutely nothing for the Sooners’ Playoff chances, but were still forced to take part. Imagine if Baker Mayfield or another one of Oklahoma’s star players got seriously injured in that game and would be out for the rest of the season? It’s going to happen eventually.

If my format were adopted last year, the Playoff teams would have been Clemson, Auburn, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, USC and UCF. The Sooners would’ve played the Knights while the Badgers and Trojans faced off. I think this would’ve been fantastic. It’s also worth noting that last year’s champion, Alabama, would not have met the criteria, and it would place an emphasis on winning the conference.

It’s clear the Playoff has its issues, but I disagree with those who want it expanded to four or more times the number it has now. A few tweaks to the system, like the ones I suggested above, and I think the Playoff would be even better.

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