Improving the College Football Playoff (if you're not interested in excising an immoral rot in American sports)

December 20, 2020

Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (2); Oklahoma defeated UCLA 48-14, Sept 14, 2019, Pasadena, CA.

College football gets a lot wrong. On the most fundamental level, I don’t think the NCAA should exist, but even setting that aside, in the summer, college football leaders wished the virus wouldn’t affect their season and then when cases and deaths kept piling up they struck forward anyway, unnecessarily risking the lives of participants, laborers, and spectators alike because it’s a business where people gotta get paid (but not the players, no sir).

All that said, if you’re willing to tolerate blood lust and sociopathic greed to get your kicks watching young people bash each other’s brains to prove your school-associated in-group is superior to others, the College Football Playoff and the specific idea of a committee choosing which teams will play for an official national championship is a great idea.

Deciding which groups of exploited college football players and their overpaid administrators and managers will compete for a championship is hard because there are a lot of teams and necessarily too few games to allow direct competition to determine the outcome. Ever since the days when colleges, as a matter of policy, would only recruit white players, fans and journalists have been evaluating college football teams, comparing them to each other, and arguing about which one is the best. The CFP committee has the power of inviting teams to play it out on the field so that people who don’t compete on the field can split billions of dollars generated by the fan interest, which I think we’ve collectively forgotten is an amazing upgrade over previous systems.

Perhaps there are a few people who preferred the system where competing groups around the country did ranked-choice votes and then at the end of the season there were bowl games where maybe one of the top teams in various polls would play another to provide some on-field clarity about which one was directly better. But if the goal is to get the consensus best teams together to compete directly with each other and enrich people who organize the games while sticking it to the people actually risking their bodies for fans’ entertainment, then the committee that invites four teams for a brief playoff is far better. It dilutes the risk of “leaving out” a deserving team by making the difficult choice the one between the fourth-and fifth-best teams rather than the second-and third-best, which is more fraught, and adds the benefit of an extra pair of games to the administrators who can now inflate the value of the advertising and television rights even more.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. If I were to become a brazen capitalist intent on sucking the full monetary value out of college football, I’d make the following changes:

1) Institute a 14-team seeded single-elimination playoff bracket, with the top two teams getting first-round byes.

2) First-and second-round games would be played at home fields, with the semi-finals and final at neutral sites. So, when the 3 seed hosts the 14 seed, it’ll be at the 3 seed’s home stadium. Re-seed after each round, so if the 14 seed pulls the upset, they’re still on the road for the next round of games and would have to go play the 1 seed.

3) Qualification is simple. Win your conference, and you’re in, plus three at-large selections by a committee, which then seeds the teams, too. If teams break off and create, like, five more conferences, that’d have to be addressed, but you could put in place incentives to keep the number of conferences stable.

4) Here’s the big change. Teams can choose to play non-conference games before their conference slates, but they should be strongly discouraged from doing that by the committee process. Instead, teams should play their full conference schedules over the first nine or 10 weeks of the season, followed by a championship game, if they’ve got one, in a week which would act as a bye for everyone else. Under this model, in 2020, if the season had started with games on August 29, that would mean the conference season would have ended October 24 or October 31.

That bye week is important because it would be the period when teams would finalize their non-conference schedules, which would be played in November. The beauty of this is that teams would have the freedom to choose how to approach their non-conference schedules already knowing their standing in the playoff, with a better idea of what they might need to do to impress for a given bowl invitation, or what they might have to work on for the next season. Players who are looking ahead to the pros might choose to bail at this point if they don’t have anything left to play for, and coaches might make that choice themselves and give younger players an extended look if they’re completely out of competition for higher honors. Conferences and schools might reach informal understandings before the season for tentative matchups, which they’d adjust if anything changed, so it wouldn’t be a total scramble.

There would be a few downsides, of varying severity depending on your point of view. Conferences would gain a lot of power, since being an independent program simply wouldn’t work anymore for scheduling. I’m also not sure if a middling program like, say, Arizona, would garner less interest for its non-conference November games than it would for its lame-duck conference games under the current system. Finally, I don’t know what this would do to college football’s financial model, as I believe certain schools would still gladly pay other schools to come play them in non-conference, but the television partners (blech) might not appreciate a conference schedule compressed into the early fall. Then again, they might appreciate it! And schools and conferences might strike their own television deals for non-conference games. Either way, there’s enough money to be made from largely unpaid labor that I’m sure the suits would figure something out.

(Photo: "NCAA Football: Oklahoma vs UCLA, Sept 14, 2019, Pasadena, CA" by Steve Cheng, Bruin Report Online. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)