Examining the 6 Team College Football Playoff

Anyone who has been a fan of college football for a long time knows that trying to determine a proper national champion is one of the most frustrating elements of the sport. Everyone thinks their team is deserving, especially if they’ve gone undefeated through the regular season. Not a season goes by without debates raging about strength of schedule, the “eye test,” who beat who and by how much, etc. 

The one thing that can be guaranteed with any college football season though, is that there will be controversy about who plays for the national championship when everything is said and done.

Prior to 1998 the national champion was determined by nothing more complicated than a bunch of voters submitted ballots after all the games were complete and whomever wound up first was crowned champion. Then from 1998 to 2013 we were subjected to the always controversial Bowl Championship Series, which try as it might left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans season after season as the formulas used to determine the BCS rankings were convoluted at best to the casual fan. It was better than a simple poll though, at least it picked two teams to actually play a game to determine a national champion.

We’ve taken it one step further from 2014 onward to today. Now we have the College Football Playoff which pits 4 teams against each other in a pair of semi-final games followed by a championship game. The teams are not chosen using some computer algorithm, but rather a dedicated committee of 13 individuals who rank teams 1-25 each week beginning with the eighth week of the season. It’s a pretty good way to handle things, but I think it could be better. I think it should feature 6 teams, not 4 and should regularly feature not just teams from the Power 5 conferences, but should legitimately give a shot to the best Group of 5 team each year.

Right now if you belong to a Power 5 conference in college football you can reasonably assume that if you go undefeated you have a seat at the table for the playoff. A large portion of Power 5 teams can even still get in with a single loss and a strong schedule.

Teams from the Group of 5 however… let’s just say that the way things are set up right now, I don’t think they’ll ever be allowed into the playoff no matter how well they do. Look at Central Florida’s 26 game winning streak for example. You can’t get a lot better than that but because their schedule is deemed weak because of their conference affiliation they are still on the outside looking in this season.

Here’s the proposal I have for a 6 team playoff and then a look at what the playoff may have looked like each season it’s been in place if these criteria had been in place from the beginning:

The 13 member committee will still be used to determine a Top 15 ranking of teams each week beginning with Week 8 each season.

This will allow fans and teams to track their progress as the season plays out and see where they stand week-to-week. It allows the committee to have a solid batch of games to evaluate for the first rankings as well, with enough weeks remaining to have movement and surprises. What this ranking will not do is automatically determine the teams in the playoff. Instead it will be used for other purposes within the overall playoff picture. 

Regardless of ranking, the conference champions from the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big 10, and Pac-12 automatically receive a spot in the playoff.

Conference championships should mean something. Fighting to be a conference champion is what keeps a lot of teams, coaches, and individual players motivated after that first or even second loss of the season. In my opinion it feels bad when a team that cannot even win its own division, let alone a conference title makes it into the playoff to compete for a national championship. Winning your conference should be a stepping stone to winning a national championship.

As much as I hate to admit it, there is a difference between Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences, which is why the Power 5 conferences are getting automatic bids into the playoff. I do have a road in for Group of 5 teams though, take a look…

The final spot in the playoff goes to the highest ranked Group of 5 team that is a conference champion and ranked in the Top 15 of the final College Football Playoff rankings.

I feel like this gives the Group of 5 a chance, but still one they have to earn. It still means those teams have to win their conference just like the Power 5 teams are required to do and it means they are likely going to need to be undefeated (unless they have a very high quality single loss) to creep into the Top 15 of the rankings. If a Group of 5 team does not meet these qualifications, then the rankings determine an at-large participant from the highest ranked non-champion.

We have our 6 playoff teams, but how do we seed them?

As a matter of fact, it’s fairly simple. Use the playoff committee’s rankings to seed teams 1-6 based on their place in the rankings from top to bottom. If the Power 5 champions were ranked 1,3,4,7, and 9 then you just use the same order but place them 1-5 and the Group of 5 team at 6th. An at-large Power-5 team would also always be seeded 6th.

The top 2 seeds receive a first round bye for the playoff with 3rd playing 6th and 4th playing 5th to begin. This provides incentive to finishing as a Top 2 team and avoids the albeit silly argument from the first seed of not wanting to risk their players against a Group of 5 team. It means the Group of 5 team has to play through a gauntlet of the third seed, then first seed, then another top team to win a championship. If a Group of 5 team does that on top of an undefeated record, they deserve the title.

So, with our criteria in place, let’s take a look at what each playoff might have looked like in comparison to what actually happened:

2015 Actual Teams2015 Proposed Teams
1. Alabama1. Alabama
2. Oregon2. Oregon
3. Florida State3. Florida State
4. Ohio State4. Ohio State
5. Baylor
6. TCU

There were no Group of 5 teams anywhere close to contention for the 2015 playoff, but interestingly the Big 12 didn’t have a conference title game that season, so they wound up with the co-champions of Baylor and TCU. The final playoff rankings had them right next to each other, so they both get in our new version of the playoff.

2016 Actual Teams2016 Proposed Teams
1. Clemson1. Clemson
2. Alabama2. Alabama
3. Michigan State3. Michigan State
4. Oklahoma4. Oklahoma
5. Stanford
6. Iowa

For the 2016 playoff Houston was charging hard at the end of the season and did win their conference title, but an unexpected loss to Connecticut a couple of weeks earlier cost them a shot at a Top 15 spot in order to make our new playoff. They did however defeat Florida State in a New Year’s Six bowl game, which probably helped the sting a little bit. An undefeated Houston team would most likely have replaced Iowa here under our proposed format.

2017 Actual Teams2017 Proposed Teams
1. Alabama1. Alabama
2. Clemson2. Clemson
3. Ohio State3. Ohio State
4. Washington4. Washington
5. Penn State
6. Western Michigan

Here we go! Our first Group of 5 team to make it into the playoff under the proposed format! Western Michigan won the MAC title to finish 13-0 and get ranked 15th in the final playoff rankings. Just high enough to sneak in and make things interesting. 

Western Michigan would have to play Ohio State in these circumstances, which is a tough match-up under any circumstances. Ohio State did get blanked 31-0 by Clemson in their semi-final though, and Western Michigan only lost by a touchdown to 8th ranked Wisconsin on New Year’s, so my gut tells me it might have been a toss up. If Western Michigan does beat Ohio State then they’d have Alabama up next which would have been an upset for the ages if they’d pulled it off.

I love “what if” moments though, and I’d have certainly loved to see them try and beat the Crimson Tide if they’d been given the chance.

2018 Actual Teams2018 Proposed Teams
1. Clemson
1. Clemson
2. Oklahoma2. Oklahoma
3. Georgia3. Georgia
4. Alabama4. Ohio State
5. USC
6. Central Florida

Now, here’s where things get interesting! First, you have Alabama originally getting into the playoff as a non-champion, but in our version Ohio State takes their place instead of missing out. Then a two loss USC team grabs a spot as the Pac-12 champion over a one loss Wisconsin and Alabama. Things might have been okay for Alabama to still grab an at-large spot, but Central Florida was undefeated as the AAC champion and ranked 12th, so they get the final slot instead.

This folks, is the playoff situation I dream of at night. UCF beat Auburn last year in their New Year’s Six bowl game. Could they have upset Georgia? I think it was a possibility and then things might have gotten crazy.

2019 Actual Teams2019 Proposed Teams
1. Alabama1. Alabama
2. Clemson2. Clemson
3. Notre Dame3. Oklahoma
4. Oklahoma4. Ohio State
5. Washington
6. Notre Dame

The entire situation gets weird this season. Notre Dame is not a member of a Power 5 conference, although most people consider them to be a Power 5 team due to their scheduling and overall tradition. According to our new format though, they aren’t a Power 5 champion, so they fall to the 6th seed and unfortunately that means an undefeated 8th ranked UCF team ends up on the outside looking in this time while 9th ranked Washington sneaks in as a conference champion.

Situations like these are why hard and fast selection rules fall apart every so often. Should a Washington team with three losses really get in over a conference champion who is undefeated and ranked higher than them just because they play in a Power 5 conference? I’d personally say no, that Notre Dame should have the 5th seed and UCF should have the 6th seed, but our proposed criteria doesn’t work that way.

The real solution in my mind is an eight team playoff even though I don’t think it will ever happen. With eight teams you have all five Power 5 conference champions locked in no matter what. You can allow a highly ranked Group of 5 champion in and then still have room for two at-large bids whether they be an undefeated Notre Dame and single loss Georgia this season, or something similar in other seasons.

There will always be a big debate over who doesn’t get in to a college football playoff situation, especially while there is such a division between the Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences. Working through how it might fall has been a lot of fun though and maybe sometime I’ll see how it would look if you had done eight teams instead of six and who the at-large teams would have been under those circumstances.