Op-Ed: The case for a six-team playoff
Now that the college football season is officially over, I’ve begun to reflect on some of the debates I have had the past few weeks over the future of the postseason. I think we can all agree that whatever keeps the door open for more games, like Monday night’s all-time title rematch and last week’s Rose Bowl, is the way to go. After listening to a friend insist on the need for an eight-team playoff and my dad suggest the return of a one and two seed title rather than an expansion of the playoff, I figured I’d throw my two cents out there.
Some argue that if a team isn’t among the top four in the country, why would they deserve to even be in the conversation? Not the worst point, especially given the past two title games have been between teams that would have faced each other regardless of there being a playoff in the first place. Others are adamant that an eight-team playoff is both the right thing to do and an inevitability.
Let me preface this by saying there are strong arguments for keeping the College Football Playoff as is, but here’s where my argument comes in: If an expansion of the CFP is in our future, there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. In my opinion, a six-team playoff would preserve many of the elements that have made the current playoff such a success, while providing an answer to what it has left many of us to want. My vision is as follows.
The format would include the top six teams in the country and a maximum of two teams from a single conference. This year, the six teams would have been Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Washington, Penn State and Oklahoma. (Sadly, this structure would have still kept Michigan out of the playoff this year). That’s one from each of the five major conferences, and a second from the Big Ten, which was measurably the strongest conference at the end of the regular season.
Contrary to some people’s presumptions, Power Five conference champions should not be automatic qualifiers. Think of it this way: Had Alabama dropped this year’s Southeastern Conference championship, a three-loss Florida still wouldn’t have been worthy of a spot in the playoff. Instead, they would earn a Bowl Championship Series bowl over Auburn, and a 12-1 ‘Bama would remain in the playoff as a high seed. Conferences would still be free to decide whether or not they schedule a championship game.
The one and two seeds would have byes while two quarterfinal games would be played in mid-December between the three seed and six seed, and the four seed and five seed. From there, the playoff would proceed as it stands. The top team would play the lowest remaining seed, and the two seed would play the other quarterfinal winner at the end of December or beginning of January. The championship would then occur on Monday the following week.
Arguments against an eight-team playoff
When considering doubling the four-team field, there are a few realities one must accept. First and foremost, it would make other BCS bowls less meaningful, while diluting the playoff itself. With four quarterfinals on the same weekend, ratings for each game would likely drop (casual fans won’t watch 15 hours of football in one weekend), while both the caliber and prestige of BCS bowls not part of the playoff would lower. A six-team playoff would allow for two or three high-stakes BCS bowls, as they would still include the second-best teams of each conference (or the third best from the strongest conference in a given year).
Second, the top two teams in the country shouldn’t be given another additional postseason game against a lower-ranked opponent. Nick Saban would’ve been livid if his 13-0 Crimson Tide had been forced to add three-loss Wisconsin to their already difficult path toward the title. The top two teams in the country should be rewarded for their consistency and dominance throughout the season.
Finally, it would lower the stakes for each year’s biggest rivalry games. With an eight-team playoff, this year’s Michigan versus OSU game would have just been a battle of seeding, as opposed to the fight for a title.
Arguments against a four-team playoff
In my opinion, the strongest argument against keeping the playoff as it stands is one of injustice. After seeing Clemson’s thrashing of Ohio State — and given Penn State’s performance in the Rose Bowl — it’s fair to argue that Oklahoma could have won a rematch against Ohio State, and Penn State could have taken out Washington. But neither the Nittany Lions nor the Huskies — two of the hottest teams in the country alongside Southern California — were given a chance to prove themselves in the College Football Playoff at the end of the season. At the same time, Ohio State arguing against not getting a bye in the six-team format would still be better than Penn State — who beat the Buckeyes and won the Big Ten Championship — being excluded from the playoff entirely.
Another striking characteristic of the four-team playoff is that there’s essentially a four-week gap in high-stakes Football Bowl Subdivision games. Between the conference championships the first weekend of December and BCS bowls at the end of the month, we go from watching the gripping twelve-week regular season to four weeks without a consequential top-tier college football game. Adding two quarterfinal games to the middle of that month would be a major moneymaker for the schools involved and the NCAA.
The final weakness of the four-team playoff is its implicit exclusion of Group of Five teams. Right now, a non-Power-Five team has little to no dream of making the four-team playoff, let alone a title game. Houston may have had an argument if they had gone undefeated this season, but even with their strong out-of-conference schedule, the selection committee would have been hard-pressed to pick an undefeated Houston over a one-loss major conference team. Creating the possibility of a five- or six-seeded Group of Five team getting a chance to fight their way to a title opens the door for the football story of the century.
On top of a five- or six-seeded Group of Five team having a chance, adding two teams to the current four-team tournament would provide an incentive for other dominant Group of Five teams to add one or two strong Power Five opponents to their out of conference schedules. This regular season, 13-0 Western Michigan’s only Power Five opponents prior to the Cotton Bowl were an unranked Northwestern and an Illinois team whose only wins were against Rutgers, Michigan State and a Football Champion Subdivision team with a losing record. Still, in years that a Group of Five team doesn’t crack the top six (which would probably be most), they would still have a team guaranteed a BCS bowl, but just this possibility of inclusion might quell Group of Five independent playoff conversations.
Again, in my eyes, it wouldn’t be a crime for the four-team playoff to continue in perpetuity, but both the appeal and apparent inevitability of an expanded playoff field has led me to consider the six-team format to be the most fair, practical and exciting route to take. Sure, one could argue that forcing the three and four seed to play a quarterfinal puts them at a disadvantage in a semifinal against the well-rested top seeds. But just look at the NFL: Plenty of wildcards and lower-seeded division winners make it to the Super Bowl. In an NCAA that for years has only given two teams the chance to compete for a title, the two most dominant teams should still be rewarded for their consistency throughout the season. A bye would be the best way to do that, while mid-December quarterfinal games between the next four teams would be an exhilarating, lucrative and just way to determine who gets a shot at the teams that would have already been in the national championship only three years ago.
With this six-team format, BCS bowls would remain consequential, and games like this year’s Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl would remain a possibility. With an eight-team playoff, these all-time classics would be a thing of the past, as most of these bowls — and some of the teams playing in them — would probably be absorbed into the tournament. Furthermore, in a six-team playoff, a dominant Group of Five team would be given a palpable chance to contend for a national title. The NCAA is missing out on money while we, the viewers, are missing out on potential stories and matchups in December that the four-team playoff has simply not provided. If an expansion of the College Football Playoff is what you want, then I have no doubt that the six-team format is the way to do it.
David Donnantuono is an LSA junior.