The Case For… Playoff Expansion

These days, the NCAA rarely does anything right.  From arbitrary penalties for trivial rule violations, to absolute ineffectuality when it does try to enforce its rules fairly, it’s clear that the organization needs major reforms.  However, the NCAA has made one unquestionably good decision in the past few years: the institution of the College Football Playoff to begin next season.

For those who aren’t familiar, the NCAA used what I believe is the most idiotic system in existence to determine its national champion every year.  It was so terrible that it’s hard to even call it a system; essentially, each team played out the regular season and voters would vote in the Associated Press and Coaches’ Polls, and their ranking of the top 25 teams would be released each week.  Teams accepted a bowl game invitation at the end of the season if the organizers deemed them worthy.  Higher-tier bowls, such as the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, would invite the better teams in the nation to square off in their games, while lesser bowl games would invite second or third-tier teams.  These matchups would not be determined by teams’ rankings or standings, but rather by which teams could attract the most fans, and which conferences the respective bowls were affiliated with.

The national champion was determined by the standings of these polls in their final iteration, after the bowl games had taken place.  This turned out to be a haphazard exercise, since many of the top teams had not played each other, so unless one team had a better record than everyone else, the national champion was determined by the arbitrary vote of a few journalists and coaches and not earned on the field.  Also, the two polls would frequently disagree, resulted in a tangled mess where several schools “claimed” multiple national championships in some years.

Under the old system, a set of rankings would determine the national title, like this set from 2008. These rankings also underscore the current system's unfairness to non-power conference teams, as you can see undefeated Utah (who was in the Mountain West then), being ranked behind a one-loss Florida team.

Under the old system, a set of rankings would determine the national title, like this set from 2008. These rankings also underscore the current system’s unfairness to non-power conference teams, as you can see undefeated Utah (who was in the Mountain West then), being ranked behind a one-loss Florida team.

In 1978, college football split into two subdivisions: the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS, formerly Division I-A) and the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly Division I-AA).  This separated the richer and bigger schools from the smaller schools with less money for athletics, and kept the competition on a level playing field.  The organizers of the FCS had the right idea.  They pitted their teams in a single-elimination tournament to determine their champion, which eventually expanded to include 24 teams.

Unfortunately, the stupid poll system continued in the FBS.  The system was improved somewhat in 1998, when officials realized, “Hey, wait, shouldn’t the top two teams play each other for the national championship?!”  A radical idea, that one…  Anyway, the BCS used a set of computer-generated rankings to determine the national champion, taking into account factors such as the strength of teams’ schedules, the quality of their wins, and their rankings in several different polls to determine the two teams who would play for the championship.  While an improvement, the BCS often created more controversy than it solved (type “BCS controversies” into Wikipedia and you’ll find a whole article devoted to just that).  The most glaring example of this was in 2003, when three teams finished the regular season with one loss: Oklahoma, USC, and LSU (nobody finished undefeated).  Despite Oklahoma’s being routed 35-7 by Kansas State in their last game of the season, the Big 12 Championship Game, they remained at #1 in the computer rankings.  LSU was awarded the #2 spot, and defeated Oklahoma 21-14 in the Sugar Bowl to win the BCS championship.  However, USC won its bowl game as well, defeating #4 Michigan 28-14 in the Rose Bowl.  The ensuing controversy resulted in the AP poll voting the Trojans as #1, while the Coaches’ Poll picked the Tigers, and the NCAA decided to award both schools a national championship.  The BCS ended up creating the very situation it was designed to avoid, and once again, deserving teams were deprived of a shot at an undisputed championship.

Finally, in June 2012, after fifteen years of BCS debacles, the College Football Playoff system was finally instituted, and will begin next season.  For the first time in its history, college football will determine its national championship on the field, rather than through a mythical and abstract system.  The playoff will feature four teams, and several top-tier bowl games (Rose, Fiesta, Sugar, Orange, Peach, & Cotton) will rotate hosting semifinal games.  The other bowl games will still be played, and are free to invite whichever teams become bowl-eligible by winning at least six regular-season games.  Participants for the playoff will be selected by a committee consisting of such diverse personalities as former Secretary of State and Stanford provost Condoleeza Rice, former Stanford/Notre Dame/Washington coach Tyrone Willingham, and former NFL and Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning, and current West Virginia AD Oliver Luck.  This is similar to how the NCAA Division I basketball tournament is organized.  While deserving teams may still get left out of the playoffs, that is the danger with any playoff system, and this system is much fairer than any one that has come before it.

Former Secretary of State and current Stanford provost Condoleeza Rice will serve on the College Football Playoff’s selection committee next year.

While I applaud this decision, I have one question: Why stop there?  The FCS has a 20-team playoff system; the FBS could certainly expand its playoff to include 8 or eve n 16 teams, and I think it should expand to at least 8 soon, after we can be sure the playoff format will work.  First of all, expanding the playoffs would be more lucrative for schools and TV networks.  Fans would be much more likely to travel to multiple playoff games if they knew their team still had a shot at the national championship, which would mean increased ticket sales and fatter ratings numbers on TV.

On a related note, an expanded playoff would keep more fans engaged in college football for a longer time.  Many fans tend to gradually stop watching a sport when their favorite teams never seem to have any success.  Many Pittsburgh fans had stopped following Major League Baseball for years until this season, when their beloved Pirates finally made the playoffs again.  While college football fans are generally more passionate than MLB fans, giving more teams a shot at the championship would keep fans glued to their seats and TV screens, maintaining the high national profile the sport has attained.  Fans of teams outside the six “power conferences” would also have more of a reason to watch, as the likelihood of a Cinderella run through the playoffs to a championship would be increased, especially given the increased parity between power conference schools and non-power conference schools these days.  It would break up the “good old boy network” that results in only around 30 or so of the over 120 FBS schools having a legitimate shot at a title.

Oklahoma and LSU playing for what ended up being half of the national championship in 2003.

Oklahoma and LSU playing for what ended up being half of the national championship in 2003.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a situation like 2003 would have little chance of happening under the playoff system (and even less chance in an expanded playoff field).  This playoff system virtually guarantees that all undefeated power-conference (and most non-power conference) teams would have a chance to play for the title.  Some one-loss teams might get left out, but again, this is a danger in any playoff system.  I’d rather have debates about who is the fourth or eighth-best team in the nation than who is the best.  As we see in the NCAA basketball tournament selection process (which has 68 teams, and should not be expanded anytime soon), these debates never fully go away, but aren’t quite as heated.  Fewer teams will be left with a bad taste in their mouth, thinking that bureaucratic process, not their play on the field, kept them from a shot at the title.

Speaking of Major League Baseball, they are another league that could do to expand their playoffs a little further.  MLB’s playoffs are already too narrow, and many good teams are unable to play for a chance at the World Series.  The Toronto Blue Jays, for instance, have posted nine seasons with winning records since 1993, and have not qualified for the playoffs even once.  While MLB took a step in the right direction by adding a second Wild Card spot for each league, the playoff between the two wild-card teams for a spot in the main playoffs is only one game.  Baseball is the sort of sport where a single game can be won or lost through fluke occurrences.  In a sport where the regular season is 162 games long, one game is too small a sample to truly prove that one team is better than another.  So I think this should be expanded to a best-of-three series, and MLB should consider expanding the playoffs further to include more teams.

The Toronto Blue Jays have posted nine winning records since their last World Series win, but have zero playoff games to show for it.

The Toronto Blue Jays have posted nine winning records since their last World Series win, but have zero playoff games to show for it.

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3 thoughts on “The Case For… Playoff Expansion

  1. As a note for your post, JP, the FCS playoffs expanded to 24 teams this season. And I agree with everything you said. I’ve created a playoff system before based on BCS rankings with top 8 and top 16 teams and the top bowls rotating title game, semifinal games, and “best” quarterfinal matchup. finally they are listening to us haha. and totally agree about baseball’s playoffs. the silly one-game WC game is basically a tiebreaker. it needs to be a 3-game series.

    • Indeed, you are right sir. I went in and corrected it. Guess I need to check my sources better. The playoff system you’re talking about would make a good blog post… maybe you could plug this season’s teams into it toward the end of the year and make predictions about who would emerge victorious. What are your thoughts on MLB’s playoffs expanding to include more teams?

  2. Pingback: Playoff-Bound Birds |

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