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Seven years in, has the Playoff improved on the BCS?

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Let’s see if the Playoff has fixed the flaws of its much-derided predecessor.

Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

I’m going to go ahead and assume we’re all mad at the Playoff Committee for something. Maybe it’s Cincinnati not just being left out of the top four, but relegated behind two-loss Oklahoma and three-loss Florida. Maybe it’s 11-0 Coastal Carolina stuck two spots behind 8-3 Iowa State. Maybe it’s 5-1 USC, who just lost the Pac-12 Championship game to an Oregon team that didn’t even win their division, sitting ahead of a 9-1 Louisiana squad that beat Iowa State.

Like, this year. It happened.

But rather than take the Committee to task for its failings this year (my buddy Rodger Sherman already did a great job of that), I want to look at the Playoff structure more broadly. Because theoretically, this was a system put into place to fix a problem. Yes, the Playoff also happens to make a lot more money for the college football industry, but let’s set that aside and focus on competition. See, we’re already thinking like the powerbrokers of the sport!

Avoid the 2004 problem

At the end of the 2004 regular season, college football had five undefeated teams. More pressingly in certain important circles, three of those teams played in power conferences: USC, Oklahoma, and Auburn. With only two available spots in the BCS Championship Game, Auburn got left out, and the problem got worse when the Tigers beat Virginia Tech in their bowl game while the Sooners lost to the Trojans by 36.

Three schools from big name conferences going undefeated loomed as a potential problem over the rest of the BCS’s lifespan, though it never popped up again. Granted, lots of schools from less-influential conferences finished undefeated and out of the championship mix. Cincinnati, TCU, and Boise State all went without a loss in 2009, and TCU followed that with another undefeated session in 2010. None of them got to contend for a national title.

But if we’re just talking about the 2004 version of this – giving a championship shot to three undefeated power conference teams – the Playoff’s been a success. Under the BCS in 2018 or 2019, the title game would have left somebody out and caused a whole bunch of multimillionaire-Coach-with-unpaid-players-going-on-ESPN-and-hollering-about-fairness ruckus.

Good thing we don’t have to deal with that!

Make the games more interesting

As a brave truth-teller, I can say what the cowards in sports media won’t: Some of the BCS Championship Games were boring.

2012 Notre Dame barely beat Purdue, Pitt, and a mediocre BYU team; that they got flattened by one of Alabama’s best teams was in no way surprising. In theory, if the Irish had been forced to play a semifinal, they might have been knocked out before getting to face Bama at all. On paper, additional playoff rounds should separate the wheat from the chaff and lead to more competitive championship games.

About that!

Point Differential, BCS vs. Playoff Games

Game Type Halftime Margin Final Margin
Game Type Halftime Margin Final Margin
BCS 13.1 14.6
Playoff Final 9.5 13.2
Playoff Semi 11.9 21.2
All Playoff 11.1 18.6

On average, the Playoff-era championship games have been a bit closer at halftime but, like their BCS counterparts, they typically end up with one team winning by two touchdowns. The semifinal matchups aren’t bad for the first thirty minutes but have a tendency to turn into blowouts, and taken together, Playoff games aren’t tighter than the BCS ones were.

To check if these numbers are being thrown off by a limited sample size, let’s break games into a simple binary. We’ll say a close game is one decided by 16 points or less; a game that’s not close is won by 17 or more.

Using that split, the BCS had ten close games and six games that weren’t. The Playoff Championship games have split evenly (three close games, three not-close), and only four of the 12 semifinals can be classified as close. That’s far from an improvement on the BCS in the dramatics department

This makes it a lot harder to buy the argument that Group of Five teams shouldn’t get Playoff bids because they’ll just get blown out. The big fish are already gasping for air in this system; is it somehow more embarrassing if it’s Cincinnati or UCF or San Jose State losing in a blowout? (God forbid they actually win, can’t risk that.)

Expand postseason access

It’s fun to watch multiple good teams compete for a title, and the first Playoff served as a delightful example. You got to watch:

- FSU trying to defend its 2013 championship

- Oregon making one last push with maybe the best quarterback in school history, Marcus Mariota

- Alabama leaning on the terrifying 1-2 rushing combo of Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon (when they weren’t throwing bombs to Amari Cooper)

- Ohio State forced to turn to its third quarterback, who’d just blown out Wisconsin in the conference championship

A title game with just two of these teams – Bama and Oregon, based on their final rankings – wouldn’t have been as interesting, and it would have kept Ohio State from winning their first championship in 12 years. Huzzah, the promise of expanded access made real! (Please direct your emails to info@collegefootballplayoff.com, Baylor and TCU fans.)

The next season, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Michigan State joined the party with Alabama. That was good too; fresh faces, new conferences being represented. But since those first two editions of the Playoff, only four other teams (LSU, Notre Dame, Washington, and Georgia) have been awarded a postseason bid.

Compare that to the BCS (broken into two eight-year segments) and the Playoff, despite having twice the space, is somehow running close to equal in terms of unique playoff teams and behind on unique championship game representatives:

Playoff Participants, BCS vs. Playoff

Years Unique Champ Participants Unique Playoff Participants
Years Unique Champ Participants Unique Playoff Participants
1998-2005 10 10
2006-2013 10 10
2014-2020 6 or 7 11

Some of that, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, is not the Playoff’s fault. The expansion of the college football postseason happens to line up with a run of profound homogeneity in conference championships. Clemson has won six of seven ACC titles since 2014, and Oklahoma’s done the same in the Big 12. Ohio State and Alabama have won five of the last seven championships in their conferences. The only power conference with any championship variety has been the Pac-12, with most of those winners relegated to playoff afterthoughts.

At the same time … the Playoff’s completely ignored interesting undefeated G5 teams and mostly shunned less-traditional P5 schools whenever possible. 2015 Iowa took its first loss in the Big Ten Championship after Michigan State scored with 27 seconds left; the Committee promptly selected a one-loss Oklahoma that didn’t have to play in a conference title game. 2017 Wisconsin went undefeated until they lost by six to the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship; they got passed over for an Alabama team that didn’t win its division.

Individually, all of the Playoff’s decisions are at least defensible. Cumulatively, they’ve led to a system that pulls from a very narrow set of teams, but still ends with lopsided contests.

But hey, at least Cincinnati’s not coming in and ruining the party with their (scoffs) AAC resume.