For the first time in forever, you can argue that college football has a more reasonable playoff system than the NFL.
Consider this: It is possible the Green Bay Packers could tie for the best record in the NFL at 12-4 and still have to play three road games to get to the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the league will give a home game to whoever doesn’t lose the NFC South. The most likely candidates are the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, who are 5-8. Meanwhile, a team that finishes 11-5 but wins its division could get a bye in the first round while the Packers play a road game.
The College Football Playoff will at least feature four elite teams (Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, Florida State) with a fair chance to win the whole thing. Nobody is forcing Florida State play at Mississippi State. That’s basically what the NFL is doing.
And yet, there is more outrage about the college playoff, which is not surprising. College football does outrage better than any other sport; sometimes, it seems like it exists only as a vehicle for outrage. And yes, it’s true that while the NFL makes it unfairly hard for some contending teams to win the Super Bowl, at least all of the best teams are invited to the party. TCU and Baylor don’t even get a shot.
The bigger issue, though, is that the NFL has clear rules to determine its playoff teams, and as a society, we generally respect rules. Oh, we might not follow them all of the time. But we understand they are there and aren’t really negotiable. Cornerbacks might think that modern rules give receivers an unfair advantage, but there is not much they can do about it. You might think it’s silly to fill out a time card at work, but if that’s the rule and you want to keep your job, you fill out the card.
College football’s playoff committee, like all the poll systems before it, does not have rules. Forget the spin about the committee being unable to choose between Baylor and TCU because the Big 12 did not designate one as a champion. That’s ridiculous. The committee knew what those teams did on the field, and the week before, it ranked TCU third in the country. If the committee decided Ohio State’s 59-0 win over Wisconsin was so impressive, the Buckeyes deserved to jump TCU, then that’s fine. But don’t blame the Big 12’s rules for it.
We can argue that the committee got it right or wrong, but there is no end to that argument; there is just more arguing. You have your opinion, I have mine, all of the committee members have theirs. The problem is that their opinions determine who plays for the national title.
There is a simple solution to all of this, and it is so obvious that it seems inevitable: Go to a six- or eight-team playoff.
The Power Five conference champions all get in automatically. (The Big 12 would actually have to pick one, but it could easily come up with a system for that or just follow its rules for selecting a Sugar Bowl representative.) Then you add one or three at-large teams, depending on whether you prefer the six- or eight-team option.
In a six-team playoff, two teams get byes. In an eight-team playoff, you seed the teams one through eight and place them in quarterfinals (ideally on campuses).
Either way, everybody knows exactly what has to be done to get into the playoff: Win your conference. And it allows for some at-large teams, which covers the committee if the two best teams in the country happen to be in the same league.
It ain’t perfect, but neither is my grammar. Of course there will be screaming and whining about the at-large bids. But that’s a chance you take if you don’t win your league. And of course teams will complain about seeding, but that is unavoidable. At least they will be in the hunt. (This would also mean that two teams play 15 games, which may be unreasonable and unfair to the “amateur” athletes. But since when did that bother anybody? Forget I even brought it up.)
Also, this would dilute the occasional regular-season matchup; if No. 1 and No. 2 actually meet in a conference championship game, both teams would know they are getting in. But with seeding on the line, the game would still mean something.
When the four-team playoff was announced, it felt like an end point to a century of discussion. It wasn’t. It was just another improvement of the system.
A generation ago, college football had postseason rules. If you won your league, you went to a certain bowl, and opinion polls were just that: opinion polls. The championship matchmaking of the last 20 years changed that. Starting in the 1990s, opinions no longer judged the biggest matchups; opinions determined the matchups. That was supposed to quell playoff talk, but it only increased it.
As it turned out, even a playoff didn’t quite squash the controversy over a playoff. The only sensible competitive solution is a system with clear rules and guidelines. If college football expands its playoff and includes automatic bids, people will mostly accept the system, even if they have some quibbles with it. Ask the NFL.