The College Football Playoff: Broken, But Not Beyond Repair
By Abram Erickson
It was early 2018, and the University of Central Florida (UCF) football team was celebrating their 13-0 season with a massive ceremony. Fans cheered as players were presented with championship rings and a large parade led the team into the stadium. Once they arrived, players and fans alike watched as the staple of any championship ceremony unfolded before their eyes: On the stadium wall, a banner dropped, revealing the words “2017 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS.”
The only problem was, they weren’t.
At least not according to the College Football Playoff (CFP) Committee, who earlier in the year had ranked Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama as the four top teams in the nation.
After two semifinal games, the CFP National Championship featured Alabama and Georgia. The Jan. 8 game saw Alabama pull out a 26-23 victory, and as the confetti rained down and the Crimson Tide were awarded the National Championship Trophy, the majority of the college football world crowned Alabama, not UCF, the 2017 National Champions.
So what was UCF doing when it was clear Alabama was the championship team?
UCF claims to be the victim of a broken system. The College Football Playoff Committee, the entity that ranks college football teams and determines which teams make the CFP, didn’t even give UCF a chance to compete for the National Championship. UCF is not known as a powerhouse football school and doesn’t play in one of college football’s Power Five conferences, so despite their perfect 13-0 record, they were overlooked by this committee.
UCF is right; the College Football Playoff is a broken system. It is too subjective, it’s categories for qualifying are too vague, and it too heavily favors football dynasties.
The good news is, it wouldn’t be hard to fix.
Replacing An Earlier System
The CFP was introduced in an attempt to improve the outdated Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system, which was filled with problems of its own.
The main complaint of the old system was in the way it selected teams to play in the BCS National Championship Game. The BCS used expert polls, computer rankings, and a strength-of-schedule formula to select the two best teams and send them to the championship game. However, this often caused controversy because it allowed only two teams the chance to compete for the national title. On top of this, it made Division I NCAA football the only sport that lacked a postseason playoff.
When the CFP was introduced, it was specifically created to remedy these issues. Under the new system, the CFP committee, instead of selecting the two top teams, selects the top four, and pits them against each other in a bracket, guaranteeing that the best team will rise above the other three.
In this way, the CFP is an improvement on the BCS. The problem is it still isn’t good enough.
Flaws of the CFP
The CFP was introduced in 2014, and will soon complete its fifth season, which has proven equally polarizing as the previous four. With the final rankings released this week, plenty of teams and fan bases are feeling as if they should have been selected. The four teams that were chosen: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, are perennial contenders, and three of the four are Power Five Conference teams.
This illuminates the first problem with the CFP; it is biased towards Power Five teams. The Power Five Conferences are the Big Ten, Big 12, PAC-12, SEC and ACC, and they often make up the majority of the top college football teams. Notre Dame is technically an independent team, choosing not to participate in a conference, but is often considered part of the Power Five based on prestige.
Since the start of the CFP, none of the 20 teams selected to participate in the playoff have been from outside the Power Five.
The CFP Committee also has problems with being too subjective and too vague in how they determine the rankings. The only information on this process is found on the official website of the CFP, which states, “The selection committee ranks the teams based on the members’ evaluation of the teams’ performance on the field, using conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, and comparison of results against common opponents to decide among teams that are comparable.”
The makeup of the committee itself is another point of concern. Made up of 13 people, it includes former players, former coaches, journalists, and most curiously, current athletic directors. Even more curious is the fact that all but one of the current ADs on the board are athletic directors of Power Five schools.
A New System
It’s obvious that the College Football Playoff is a flawed system, but what isn’t obvious is how to fix it. Luckily, I have some ideas. With four simple changes, I have a plan to create a system that will provide more opportunity to a larger number of teams, encourage greater transparency in the selection process, and make for an overall more exciting college football postseason. Here it is:
1. Expand the Playoff to Eight Teams
This is a no-brainer. The goal of any selection committee should be to do as much as possible to make sure that the best team in the country wins the National Championship. Allowing more teams in the playoffs equals more chances to get the championship game right. It’s the same reason the CFP expanded to four teams from the BCS system of two, and it would double the chance that the best team of all is truly crowned National Champions.
Plus, more playoff football means more exciting football!
2. Regulate the Makeup of the Eight Teams
As previously mentioned, the Power Five teams dominate the CFP. So instead of pretending like every team has a fair shot, let’s just allow the best team from each of the Power Five conferences have an automatic bid in the new playoff system. Each conference has their own championship game, so the winner of each conference title will be included automatically.
This takes up five spots and leaves us with three, and this is where my plan separates itself from systems of the past. These three spots will now be up for grabs to any team in the country and will be awarded to the best three teams that aren’t already in. This means that they will either go to qualified teams from other, smaller conferences (This means you, UCF), or for teams that didn’t finish first in any of the Power Five conferences but are still determined to more qualified than teams outside the Power Five.
For example, if Michigan State wins the Big Ten Championship, they’re in the playoff automatically. But Ohio State, even though they finished second in the Big Ten, still has a chance to make the playoff if they are deemed one of the three best remaining teams.
How will these last three teams be decided on? I’m glad you asked because next, we’re going to:
3. Reform the Selection Committee
I want to get out of the way the fact that I believe the members of the current selection committee’s hearts are in the right place. I truly believe that they want to do the best job possible. Despite this fact, I can’t allow current Athletic Directors on the committee of my new playoff system, no matter how much integrity they may have. So they’re gone immediately.
The committee has 13 members, and I think that’s a good number to stick with. Currently, it consists of five athletic directors, five former head coaches, one college/university president, one member of the media, and one former player.
In my opinion, former players and head coaches have the most experience and knowledge on the subject, so I want more of them on my committee. Apart from that, I’m taking away the ADs and adding more members of the media.
In all, the new composition of my committee will be:
Five former players
Five former coaches
Three members of the media
How are the specific members determined, you ask? Good old democratic election. We’ll set term limits at five years, and if you fit one of the categories, you can put your name in the hat to run for one of the positions. The only people allowed to vote are Division I head coaches.
4. Be Transparent about How Teams Are Ranked
The three non-automatic bids still need to be decided on by the committee. One of the nice things about the old BCS was that it laid out exactly how rankings were determined; polls, computer programs, and a statistical formula. The CFP doesn’t do that. Instead, they just say they use “conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, and comparison of results against common opponents to decide among teams that are comparable.”
In my system, the most important thing is being as transparent as possible and having the public know the teams are selected with as little bias as possible. To do so, I’m putting half of the work on the computers and half on the committee.
First, we’ll use a computer formula that takes into an account overall record and strength of schedule, wins against ranked opponents, and point differential, (in order of importance) to rank the top ten remaining teams. Each team gets a score based on their rank, so first place gets 1 point.
Next, each member of the selection committee takes that list of ten and ranks them in their desired order. Then, we average the rankings of the 13 members to give each team another score. These numbers could be decimals, and let’s say the team with the highest average ranking among the 13 earns a 1.7.
Finally, we add the computer-ranked score (1) to the human-ranked score (1.7) to get our final score (2.7). The three teams with the lowest scores make the final three playoff spots.
That’s my plan. I believe it addresses all of the problems of the current system and improves each one drastically. It is more transparent for the fans, more fair for the teams, and more exciting for all.
College Football’s current contract with the College Football Playoff system runs until 2026, so we’re unlikely to see any changes until after it expires. When it does, be certain I’ll be waiting, phone in hand, to call and present my system. Until then, I’ve got some time to think about the most important part of any system: the perfect name.
Off the top of my head, I think the Perfect Playoff System has a nice ring for now. Luckily, I’ve got plenty of time to narrow it down.
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