Automatic bids and an eight-team playoff? Not in this era of college football
Five automatic qualifiers, three at-large bids and an eight-team playoff.
Sounds pretty easy doesn’t it?
That’s been the rallying cry for most who have clamored for the College Football Playoff to expand over the past several days. On the surface, that might look like a pretty strong argument.
Why go through all the drama of a four-team playoff?
Why not allow most of this national championship chase to be determined on the field rather than in a cluttered board room with 12 committee members hashing it out over the nitty-gritty details that separate a few teams?
Because as easy as that sounds, it’s not that easy.
We live in an era when one game determines a conference champion. Where, in that final showdown, the records become irrelevant and the final score means everything. It’s borderline irresponsible to believe the outcome of that single contest should carry the weight of an automatic playoff bid.
Take a look at this year’s SEC Championship Game, for starters.
If Florida had pulled off an unthinkable upset against Alabama, it would be a 9-3 Gators team that would lock up one of those automatic bids. Not the 12-1 Crimson Tide who took care of business all season long.
Does anyone believe that Florida’s body of work proved it belonged in a championship race even if it mustered the strength to knock Alabama from its SEC throne? Losses to Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida State would argue otherwise.
If you’re not a fan of that hypothetical scenario, let me throw out some other, actual examples.
A 9-3 Kansas State team took down top-ranked Oklahoma in 2003 to claim the Big XII (back when the conference was actually 12 strong). That one significant win – in this automatic qualifier proposal – would’ve locked up a spot for the Wildcats.
Other instances have occurred more recently.
How about Florida State claiming the ACC title with an 8-4 mark after beating No. 5 Virginia Tech in 2005. Clemson nearly copycatted that same feat in 2011.
Wisconsin did it in 2012. Thanks to NCAA sanctions against Ohio State and Penn State, the Badgers played for a B1G title despite a 7-5 record, including a 4-4 mark in conference play. A 70-31 win over Nebraska would’ve solidified a playoff berth for the average-at-best Badgers.
The argument to give conference champions an automatic bid worked this year. Alabama, Penn State, Clemson, Washington and Oklahoma all had two or fewer losses and added a league title to their name. Any teams hoping to stir up any controversy whiffed on the chance.
That doesn’t mean that’s how things will play out every year.
No matter how rare, anomalies happen. Upsets happen. I’m not willing to surrender the committee’s judgment to make way for a middle-of-the-road conference champion who will get molly-whopped in the first round.
That’s never been the attitude of this playoff.
Selecting the best eight teams isn’t a merited idea, either.
Sure, you can make a case for Penn State, Michigan, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, maybe even Colorado and USC. There was no question all those programs were worthy of consideration. Each team’s resume was worthy of a glance.
But does anyone honestly believe those teams can compete with Alabama?
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On a neutral field, I’m not sure they could. I’m not convinced the other three teams that DID make the College Football Playoff can do that.
Essentially, when you get to teams in those No. 7 – N0. 10 spots, you’re dissecting which teams had better losses and who finished the season stronger. College football has always emphasized important victories over good losses. It’s valued the entirety of the regular season more than any other sport. Why alter that way of thinking?
Moments after James Franklin led Penn State to its first B1G outright title in 22 seasons, the head coach rightfully politicked for his team to receive consideration in the playoff discussion. But when he was asked if the playoff should be expanded to eight teams if the Lions were on the outside, Franklin didn’t think it was necessary:
We’ve been having these debates for years, there’s always going to be challenges with it. There always will be. You look at the basketball tournament, how many teams are there, like 65 or something like that? [68 teams make the NCAA tournament]. And 66, 67 and 68 are complaining they should have got in. There’s no perfect system
Do we really want to travel down the path that will eventually lead us to a gridiron version of March Madness that comes three months early?
Just as we prefer our libations strong, the College Football Playoff is best enjoyed if it remains elite. Throwing too many ice cubes into the playoff cocktail will eventually water down the flavor.
And don’t let that ill-conceived notion that Penn State, Michigan, Oklahoma and Wisconsin had to settle for lesser bowl bids consume your thought process. Maybe they won’t be playing for a national title, but bids to the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl are still fairly prestigious destinations.
Those teams shouldn’t be pitied. Those aren’t consolation prizes.
There’s no practical alternative to the current four-team system.
Expanding the playoff doesn’t eliminate any problem, it magnifies it. Someone will always be left out. When we came to that realization, would we be bellowing for the eight-team bracket to expand to a 16-team tournament?
While all those eight-team supporters want to convince you this could be an easy solution, it most definitely is not.
2003 Kansas State doesn’t make it easy. 2005 Florida State doesn’t make it easy. 2012 Wisconsin really doesn’t make it easy.
Automatic bids and an eight-team playoff has no place in college football.