Addressing the Playoff System
By Jacob Shoor
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Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson, who earned his spurs at FCS powerhouse Georgia Southern, thinks the FBS should move to a 16-team playoff.
One of my recent mantras is that once the euphoria wanes over getting a playoff larger than two teams for FBS football, we will see increasing demands for a playoff larger than four teams. Right on time, several ACC coaches have said at the ACC meetings that they prefer a larger playoff.
Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson, who earned his spurs at FCS powerhouse Georgia Southern, thinks we should move to a 16-team playoff, which FCS football had before expanding.
“You take 11 [conference champions] and then you add five at-large [teams], give ’em a chance,” Johnson said this week at ACC Media Days. “If your conference hasn’t done well, you become the 16th seed. You have to go play against No. 1, but at least you had a chance.”
Johnson's stance is one of absolute egalitarianism for conferences. Every conference champ deserves to get into the playoff simply because it is a conference champ. That logic is the way the NCAA basketball tournament has 31 set bids, with at least a half dozen of those conference champs every year not deserving to be part of the now 68-team field.
As the disparity between conferences in football is considerably greater than it is in basketball, a football playoff that guarantees all league champs a spot in a 16-team field would be as insane as if the NCAA basketball tournament gave two automatic slots to every conference.
If you doubt that assertion, make a case for why any Sun Belt champ in history deserved, based on the quality of the team, to be in a playoff ahead of the sixth best SEC team that year. The more you persist, the more college football fans with common sense will see you as well meaning in a socialist affirmative action sense and absolutely crazy.
Miami's Al Golden, UVA's Mike London (who won an FCS national title at Richmond), and NC State's Tom O'Brien all have expressed a preference for an eight-team playoff.
“If you win a conference with 10 wins, then you ought to be able to play for a national championship,” N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien said. “If you go to eight teams, you can probably accommodate something like that. At four, that might not be good."
Inherent in O'Brien's measured statement is that the more we see champions of Major conferences with at least 10 wins left out of the four team playoff, the more proliferation of hatred for that playoff we'll see, with demands it be expanded.
If the NCAA gains control of the FBS football postseason, it will impose its idea of equality, which will mean that all conference champs get an automatic bid to the playoff. That will necessitate a 16-team playoff. Wake Forest's Jim Grobe fears that even an eight-team playoff would lead to the regular season cut back to 11 games. As the loss of even one regular season game will cause major hardship to many athletics departments, that change should be untenable.
And that means that any talk of a 16-team playoff is wasted breath, unless it is used to try to nudge people - such as college presidents - to accept eight teams as a compromise.
With Major conferences moving toward playing nine-game league slates, we will have even less ability to adequately rate the relative strengths of conferences. If, for example, Big 12 teams have played few non-conference games against teams from other Major conferences, how can we be certain if its second place 11-1 team deserves to be part of even an eight-team playoff?
If Pac-12 teams have played precious few games against quality teams in other Major conferences, and in the Pac-12 Championship the 9-3 underdog upsets the 12-0 second-ranked team in the country, how can we be certain either belongs in a four-team playoff?
To get even more pointed: how can we know that a 12-1 Big Ten champ deserves to be in the playoff ahead of the 10-3 SEC runner-up? Or, how can we be certain that a 10-3 ACC champ is less deserving of a playoff slot than the 12-1 Big Ten champ whose league was 1- 4 against ranked teams from other Major conferences?
The best we can do is make certain that each region of the country is guaranteed a presence of at least one team by conference membership. That with at-large bids will make the best possible playoff.
And to have that, the playoff must be one of eight teams.
When the BCS began, it marked six Major conferences that collectively covered the country, making certain that all regions would feel a stake in the system. With the Big East permanently demoted, the ACC having taken its four schools with the most football history (Miami, Pitt, Syracuse, and BC) as well as its largest football fan base (Virginia Tech), we have five Major conferences. The ACC adding the northeastern states MA, NY, and PA, as well as the Miami Hurricanes who when good have TV audiences in NYC and Philadelphia within sight of those of Notre Dame, the ACC has become the Major conference that represents the northeast.
An eight-team playoff with automatic bids going to the champions of the ACC, Big Ten, BIg XII, Pac 12, and SEC would begin by representing the entire country through conference ties. Every region of the continental nation would have a stake guaranteed every year. The committee that seeds the eight teams also would choose the three at-large teams.
To help the non-Major conferences buy into the system without a huge payout, there probably would need to be a minimum 10 win requirement for the automatic bids and a restriction to no more than two teams per conference.
We may be stuck with a four-team playoff for the duration of the contract, which runs through the 2025 season. But contracts may be rewritten when the parties see a need to do so.