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Bad Idea Time: the Undefeateds-Only Playoff

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Since it’s impossible to craft a perfect College Football Playoff system, let’s ponder the actual benefits of trying something silly.

Getty. Banner Society illustration

People unhappy with FBS football’s existing championship structure frequently argue that it devalues the regular season. Today, I present to you a bold plan that overly addresses that problem: only let undefeated teams contend for the national title.

You probably have some concerns, so let’s begin by dismissing those.

What about strength of schedule? Aren’t you rewarding teams who play easier slates?

Yes, but strength of schedule isn’t really what we base things on now, either. Going off Sports Reference’s numbers, two-loss 2017 Notre Dame had a significantly harder schedule than undefeated 2018 Notre Dame, but you already know which one made the Playoff and which one didn’t.

This way, we’re being honest about strength of schedule not mattering all that much! We’re also turning every supposed power-conference advantage on its head. You think the SEC is this impossible gauntlet of challenges? Welp, that’s a bad thing now.

Hey dummy, you know there aren’t always seasons with multiple undefeated teams, right?

Yup! I’m okay with getting to the end of the regular season and just giving the title to the only team that hasn’t taken a loss. I’m also fine with a flexible tournament that grows or shrinks to accommodate as many undefeated teams as it has to. We’ll have some sort of committee in charge of seeding, when that’s needed, but they’ll have no power as gatekeepers.

Let’s see what the Undefeateds-Only system would have looked like over the last 10 years:

  • 2009: Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU, Boise State
  • 2010: Auburn, Oregon, TCU
  • 2011: LSU wins
  • 2012: Notre Dame vs. Ohio State, whether the NCAA likes it or not
  • 2013: Florida State wins
  • 2014: Florida State wins
  • 2015: Clemson wins
  • 2016: Alabama vs. Western Michigan
  • 2017: UCF wins
  • 2018: Clemson, Alabama, Notre Dame, UCF

That SEC dynasty? Partly intact (depending on who makes it through multiple rounds in 2009 and 2010), but now we have a little ACC dynasty right after it, an SEC-MAC title game, an undisputed UCF championship, and UCF having to defend that title in a four-team playoff.

And yes, 2007 Hawaii is now your undisputed national champion.

What’s to stop teams from watering down their schedules to tiptoe into a championship?

Fear and money.

Say you’re the AD for State Tech. You load up on cupcakes and refuse to schedule archrival State University, even though they kill you in the press. You don’t care, because you just want to avoid regular season losses. But now that you’ve set a cowardly precedent, nothing is stopping State University from doing the same thing and then beating you in the title game.

And if you go down the all-cupcakes road, you’re betting a lot of money on it working out. There’s the money you’ll have to pay inferior teams to come play you, the money you’ll lose on ticket revenue, and so on.

Maybe you make all that money back with a national title, but it’s a risk. And if your competition tries the same thing, guess what: those cupcake games get more expensive, because New Mexico State is a hot commodity now. Guess you have to go play Bama just to make ends meet.

This favors independents and other teams without a conference championship!

And for two reasons, that might be a good thing.

Reason One: Independents often play really fun schedules. BYU plays Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota, Missouri, and Stanford in 2020. In 2021, they play Arizona, Baylor, Washington State, Virginia, and USC, plus repeat games against Arizona State and Utah.

This is how lots of teams used to schedule. 1984 South Carolina beat Georgia, Kansas State, Notre Dame, FSU, and Clemson before they had a championship bid ruined by Navy in Annapolis. 1990 Miami played BYU, Cal, Iowa, Notre Dame, and Texas Tech ... in their first seven weeks! Independence made every season feel different.

Reason Two: Super-conferences suck; 14-team leagues leave us with a bunch of arguments over which conference are better, and our data points are a small handful of inter-conference games and bowl games. But teams know they’re usually better off winning a Power 5 conference title as a two-loss team than going undefeated in the Group of 5, so they all try to crowd into the same conferences.

Let’s talk about some of the benefits the Undefeateds-Only system presents.

Upsets matter again!

In the Playoff era, seeing a traditional power get upset has lost some of its joy. We briefly think, “They’re out!” ... and then remember that no, no they are not. Under Undefeateds Only, you just get instant, lasting glee.

Newer (and fewer) arguments!

Every current argument exists within the terms of the current system (fighting about who should get the four spots) or is about changing the system very slightly (expansion). And they all reinforce the idea that some conferences matter significantly more than others.

Likewise, the incentives for each team are stale. Currently, we do these two things every year:

If we switch to Undefeateds Only, this changes. We water down every opportunity to politic. You either win your games or you don’t.

This silly format might actually better fit some seasons than the arbitrary four-team model!

We don’t have to argue about playoff size, because it’ll be whatever it ends up being; maybe it’s one team, maybe it’s two, maybe a bunch of teams play easy schedules and we have to figure out an 11-teamer.

That flexibility might sound absurd, but the current system doesn’t necessarily reflect how many true contenders a given season has. LSU shouldn’t have had to face a rematch in 2011. TCU and Baylor were worthy of making 2014 a six-team field. We could have left Washington out in 2016 and just had three teams. It would’ve been fun and reasonable to give Ohio State and UCF spots in 2018. And so on.

Whether you like Undefeateds Only or not, having a flexible system would make for a better postseason.

No more preferential treatment for teams who happened to join rich conferences a long time ago!

Sun Belt, Big Ten, Mountain West, ACC ... none of these labels matter any more. Just win all your games and become eligible. No other proposed system has that level of equality; even if you expand the current CFP and guarantee a spot to a Group of 5 school, that’s still limited access based on conference affiliation.

Might some sneaky school decide to descend from the Power 5 to a Group of 5? Yes, and Conference USA member Texas is a thing I would like to see.

By taking away the postseason value teams get from playing in a Power 5 conference (and, really, by playing in a conference at all), we’re undermining the competitive advantages of those conferences. Don’t like the Pac-12 because you have too many conference games? Leave, because all wins are the same! Frustrated that you’re in the AAC, where you can’t get any respect and don’t have the flexibility to schedule bluebloods? Go independent and begin your assassination spree!

I have no idea exactly how this would play out, but I suspect we’d get smaller conferences, more independents, and more variety in scheduling.

At the end, we’d get to watch all the undefeateds get together, no matter how tough their roads to the postseason were, and (stop me if you’ve heard this one) settle it on the field.