This is the third decade in which FBS football’s had a formal championship structure with at least two teams, and for every season in those decades, we as college football fans have worked ourselves into a frenzy about how unfair or broken or ridiculous that structure is.
It’s not like this in other sports, at least not to this extent. You might argue the first round of the NBA playoffs should go back to best of five, but no one’s furious enough to rally against the NFL about the #7 seed in the NFC being left out.
College football fans just want a playoff that rewards the most deserving teams and won’t leave us constantly fighting about who deserved a spot! How hard can that be?
Well, I’m here with bad news: it’s impossible.
Here are 11 playoff models and real-life examples of how they will inevitably lead us back to complaining that they’re not working.
TWO TEAMS (the BCS model)
The structure: The two best teams play each other for the national title.
A recent scenario that breaks it: 2018, when you’d have to leave out an undefeated power —Alabama, Clemson, or Notre Dame — and be doomed to endless debates about strength of schedule and conference championships and Two Of You Got To Play Pitt.
FOUR TEAMS (the current Playoff)
The structure: The four best teams play semifinal games, and the winners advance to play for the national title.
A recent scenario that breaks it: Let’s take 2013, the last year of the BCS. Florida State gets in as an undefeated Power 5 conference champ. Auburn and Michigan State join as one-loss champions of the SEC and Big Ten. Your fourth spot can now go to:
- One-loss Baylor, winner of the Big 12 (but didn’t play a conference title game)
- One-loss Alabama (lost to Auburn and missed the SEC title game)
- One-loss Ohio State (undefeated until falling to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship)
- Two-loss Stanford, Pac-12 Championship winner (with both losses close and on the road)
SIX TEAMS, POWER CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS GUARANTEED SPOTS
The structure: Every Power 5 conference champ automatically gets in, and one at-large bid completes the pool. The bottom four teams play each other in the first round, and the winners advance to play the #1 and 2 teams.
A recent scenario that breaks it: Travel all the way back to 2017. Our guaranteed participants are Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia, and USC. You already know Alabama’s getting the sixth spot, even without making the SEC title game.
So now the undefeated Group of 5 darlings are looking at a bigger playoff ... that has teams with TWO losses making it in ahead of UCF. Very cool and fun.
SIX TEAMS, CHAMPIONS NOT GUARANTEED SPOTS
The structure: Take the current four-team structure, add two more teams to it, and otherwise play it in the Six Teams format.
A recent scenario that breaks it: This starts pretty easily in 2012. You can take five teams (Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida, Oregon, and Kansas State) and account for every Power 5 team that has one or zero losses.
But then you gotta pick a sixth participant, and there are NINE teams from BCS leagues that finished with two losses. Four are from the SEC, including a Georgia that beat Florida and gave Bama a tough test in the conference title game and the Texas A&M that gave Bama its only loss all year.
Don’t want a third SEC team? Well, now you have to choose between Oklahoma (lost to Notre Dame and Kansas State), FSU (the ACC champion), Stanford (the Pac-12 champion), Clemson (OK, yeah, you’re probably not picking them), or the Big East’s Louisville (same). Every outcome will leave large segments of fans insisting the system is biased and broken and must change immediately.
EIGHT TEAMS, CHAMPIONS GUARANTEED SPOTS
The structure: Every Power 5 winner gets a spot, as does the top Group of 5 champ, and two at-large bids round things out. This format would add a whole round of games before the semifinal/final setup we have now.
A recent scenario that breaks it: In 2014, our automatic bids are going to Alabama, Oregon, FSU, Ohio State, and either Baylor or TCU (whichever doesn’t get the Big 12’s champion slot, we’ll assign one of the at-large bids).
Our “top” Group of 5 champ is an 11-2 Boise State that lost by 22 to Ole Miss. Our final spot is probably going to 10-2 Mississippi State.
That means 10-2 Michigan State (lost to two playoff teams) is out while a non-power that lost the same number of games is in.
Also out: the Ole Miss who beat three of these playoff teams.
BONUS CHAOS SCENARIO: College football was pretty different in 2008 because the Big East got a BCS autobid, but let’s have some fun anyway.
In this year, Boise State is not getting the non-AQ bid, despite being undefeated and beating Oregon on the road. It goes to also-undefeated Utah. The Broncos would have to convince our playoff selectors to put them in over either 12-1 Alabama or 12-1 Texas, which, no.
Oh, they’re also going to watch 9-4 Virginia Tech take part in the playoff after the Hokies lost to East Carolina to open the year.
12 TEAMS, NFL STYLE
The structure: Let’s take the eight-team plan, tack four more at-large spots on, and give the top four a first-round bye.
A recent scenario that breaks it: The 2016 automatic bids go to Clemson, Oklahoma, Penn State, Washington, Alabama, and Western Michigan. We can give bids to 11-1 Ohio State and 10-2 Michigan.
And now we have to give four bids to some combination of three-loss teams and a two-loss West Virginia. Here is what everyone will yell at you if you pick these teams:
- Wisconsin: YOU ALREADY HAD THREE OTHER BIG TEN TEAMS IN THE PLAYOFF
- USC: THEY LOST TO STANFORD AND DIDN’T WIN THE PAC-12
- Colorado: THEY LOST TO USC AND GOT CRUSHED IN THE PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP
- FSU: LOUISVILLE BEAT THEM BY 43
- Oklahoma State: THEY LOST TO A MAC TEAM THAT BARELY MADE A BOWL AND I’M IGNORING HOW THAT HAPPENED
- Louisville: THEY LOST THEIR LAST TWO GAMES, TO A GROUP OF 5 TEAM AND KENTUCKY
- Stanford: THEY LOST TO COLORADO AND DIDN’T BEAT ANY RANKED TEAMS
- West Virginia: THEY LOST TO OKLAHOMA STATE AND WE’RE NOT PUTTING THREE BIG 12 TEAMS IN
The structure: Take 10 automatic bids for all conference champions (Power 5 and Group of 5), take six at-larges, seed them, and play a four-round tournament.
A recent scenario that breaks it: Let’s use the 2018 season again. Our conference champs are mostly unobjectionable, with 8-5 Northern Illinois the only team that doesn’t have at least 10 wins.
Now we have to pick five teams that didn’t win a conference, because we’re definitely taking 12-0 Notre Dame. To make it really easy on you, I’ll go ahead and take the three Power 5 teams with two losses (Georgia, Washington State, and Michigan).
Pick the rest from the following:
- Group of 5 teams with two losses: Utah State, Army, Cincinnati
- Power 5 teams with three losses: LSU, Kentucky, Florida, Penn State, West Virginia, NC State, Syracuse
- Power 5 teams with four losses, but the last one came in the conference championship: Texas, Utah
You only get to pick two of these teams, which means you will be pissing off seven or so conferences, 10 or so states, and a federal service academy.
That’s the FCS model, and people already get mad about that every year.
The structure: The 10-autobid plan, but with many more at-large spots.
A recent scenario that breaks it: Let’s stick with 2018. Good news: those 12 teams we had to choose from above are all in the playoff!
Bad news: now you have six spots to assign between these groups:
- Group of 5 teams with three losses: Troy, Georgia Southern, Boise State, Buffalo, North Texas
- Power 5 teams with four losses: Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Missouri, Oregon, Stanford, Iowa, Iowa State
By expanding the playoff to eight times its current size, you have not eliminated discord. You’ve only shifted it to a much weirder place, where we’re going to fight over whether Missouri’s loss to South Carolina was worse than Iowa State’s loss to TCU.
The structure: Just watch March Madness or listen to a Mike Leach press conference.
A recent scenario that breaks it: Why not stay with 2018? Then we can have an exciting debate about whether 6-6 Virginia Tech deserved a spot instead of 7-5 Toledo. We’ve again moved the debate to an even darker place, with eight Power 5 teams and BYU at 6-6 and five Group of 5 teams at 7-5, all right on the bubble.
Also, don’t think people would get mad about who ranks 65th? Again, just watch March Madness.
EVERY FBS TEAM
The structure: Well, I guess we’ll do a First Four-type setup so we can go from 130 teams to a clean 128, and then do a tournament like the NCAA does for basketball, but with an extra round.
A recent scenario that breaks it: None. We fixed it!*
*Assuming “it” is the worry that deserving teams will get left out of a playoff. We have not fixed seeding, the logistics involved with this mega-playoff, or the fact that we’ve either made the season significantly longer or drastically reduced the number of non-playoff games, maybe including conference championship games, which are cash cows schools and leagues won’t want to give up. But other than that, we fixed it!
The structure: We just play the regular season and the conference championships as usual, and then we do whatever we feel like when it comes to the bowl games. Maybe #1 plays #2 in a bowl. Maybe #1 plays an unranked team. Maybe #1 loses its bowl and claims a title anyway. Maybe #1 doesn’t even play a bowl. We’ll see.
A recent scenario that breaks it: Almost every year between 1869’s split championship and 1997’s split championship.