The College Football Playoff must change for the betterment of college football


Dalton Hartmann

The College Football Playoff system as it’s currently contracted actively works to exclude non-Power 5 schools from being able to compete for the national championship.

Ryder Martin, Sports Editor

When the College Football Playoff began its first edition in 2014, the buzz was palpable. After years of clamoring, fans were finally getting what they wanted: a playoff that determined the best team in college football the old-fashioned way, on the field head-to-head. No longer would a national championship be awarded via a poll of the media or determined in one final matchup decided in part by a computer. It marked a bold new era in which everyone, based on merit of performance, had a fair shot at a national title. It’s fair to say almost eight years later, that dream is dead.

The discourse surrounding the College Football Playoff today carries none of the hope and optimism from 2014. What has emerged is a system further separating the haves from the have-nots and killing what we love in college sports; rooting for the underdog. In its current form, the College Football Playoff is composed of a four-team field. The teams are seeded one through four and play in a semi-final game, the winners of those games move onto the championship game and the winner of that game is the national champion. While this appears fair on the surface, there are a number of problems with the format.

For starters the number of teams that make up the field, four, is far too small. As things stand, there are four spots available and there are five so-called “Power 5” conferences: the ACC, the Big 10, the Big 12, the PAC 12 and the SEC, comprising the higher-prestige universities in college athletics. In a good year, each of these conferences produces a worthy conference champion, meaning already one team will end up snubbed. This doesn’t even take into account “Group of 5”: the AAC, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt conference teams that every few years produce a team contending for a title. This also provides a challenge when a conference produces two teams worthy of a playoff spot. There just aren’t enough spots to go around in a given year.

Going back to the Group of 5 schools’ plight, the College Football Playoff has only further served to keep them down. Since 2014, 28 teams have qualified for the College Football Playoff. Of those 28, 20 spots have gone to the same four schools Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma. 26 of the 28 spots have gone to teams from Power 5 conferences, with the other two going to Notre Dame, an independent school that functions as a pseudo-member of the Power 5 elite. A worthy Group of 5 contenders, UCF in 2017 and Cincinnati in 2020, finished the regular season and were left out in the cold. Even this year, an undefeated Cincinnati ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll finds itself at no. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings currently, behind three one-loss Power 5 schools Alabama, Oregon and Ohio St., and undefeated Georgia. Cincinnati should count itself lucky though, fifth is the highest a Group of 5 school has ever been ranked. 

This comes as little surprise, as the field is set by a committee of 13 people, most connected to college football in some manner Of the 12 committee members with explicit ties to college football, 10 of them are affiliated with a Power 5 school, one is affiliated with the Mountain West conference and the last is affiliated with NCAA Division II school Virginia Union. While the committee members are recused from discussing matters concerning their own specific school there is nothing stopping them from propping up their own conference or other Power 5 schools. With the current format, the chances of a Group of 5 school ever getting a fair shake is low. 

So how does one fix this mess? Currently, people spend more time talking about who was left out of the playoff than they do about who got in. A number of possible fixes have been floated around, but personally any system that closely mirrors the NCAA’s own March Madness basketball tournament is good in my book. That tournament gives all conference champions, no matter how small a conference, a shot in the big dance and has led to some of the most enduring memories and upsets in sports history. Something similar in college football could work as well. A format with a 16-team playoff, with each conference champion automatically qualifying and six teams receiving at-large bids, strikes a balance between giving every conference a fair shot at the playoff and allowing multiple teams from the same conference to earn a chance at the championship if they’re deserving.

Certain tweaks to the schedule will be needed for this reformatting. A 16-team playoff means the two teams that appear in the championship game will have played four extra games in their season, two more than they hypothetically could with the current format. A reduction of the regular season by cutting one non-conference game and playing an eight-game conference schedule is a fitting compromise. 

While this system isn’t perfect, I believe it represents an improvement over the system currently in place. It restores the mystique of the underdog in college football and perhaps more importantly, it puts the focus back on the field instead of behind the closed doors of a boardroom.