Why college football got it right with four-team Playoff
We start, today, with a question.
Take the four teams in the College Football Playoff: Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma.
Add these four teams that were left out: Ohio State, Stanford, Notre Dame and North Carolina.
Put them in one eight-team tournament.
Now comes the question: Would it surprise you even a little bit if the champion came from the other four? Heck, Ohio State might be the favorite, period. Notre Dame nearly beat top seed Clemson at home. North Carolina might have actually beaten Clemson if officials had not blown an offside call in the ACC Championship Game. Stanford might be in the playoff if not for one bad morning (Pacific Time) against Northwestern in September. (You could throw Iowa into this discussion, too, after the Hawkeyes came within inches of beating Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.)
Our point? Well, it's certainly not that the committee got it wrong. Everybody with six working brain cells, plus the guy who made that offside call, can agree the committee got it right. Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma are not just the right choices. They are the obviously right choices.
And this is the beauty of the Playoff. Those four did not get in because they are clearly the four best teams. They got in because they earned their way. They won their leagues, which matters and should. All four essentially won elimination games against tough teams in their final games: Clemson over UNC, Michigan State over Iowa, Alabama over Florida, and Oklahoma over Oklahoma State.
This is how it is supposed to work. College football has never been a slow grind to see who the clear-cut best team is. If you want that, go watch the NBA playoffs, or a baseball pennant race from before 1969. College football is about seizing the moment, avoiding calamity, and playing great football from the start of the season. The Playoff retains that, while providing a fairer format for determining a champion.
College football will always be quirky—even if you only count teams from the Power 5 leagues, there are twice as many teams as in the NFL, and fewer games. Sure, sometimes a team will overwhelm everybody. But in most years, the season just does not provide enough data to determine who the best team is in early December.
It can, however, tell us which teams are among the best. And then we can use the performances of those teams to determine who belongs in the playoff.
Michigan State is not in the Playoff because it is a lot better than Ohio State, but because the Spartans found a way to beat the Buckeyes. Stanford can say it was a couple of botched snaps away from beating Oregon and making the Playoff, but so what? Those snaps were botched. That's life. Notre Dame was just a few plays away from being undefeated, and one away from having just one loss, but that's life, too.
Alabama needed a little help and some stellar performances after it lost to Mississippi early, but the Crimson Tide got the help and provided the stellar performances.
And this is why, for this year at least, the College Football Playoff was perfect. Remember: Just two years ago, under the despotic rule of the Bowl Championship Series, we would all be screaming at each other right now.
Some crazy system would have spit out two teams; the best guess is Alabama and Clemson, but it's hard to say because maybe the system would have been tweaked in the last two years to reflect strength of opponents' opponents' opponents' opponents' campus-bar bouncers or something. And then Oklahoma and Michigan State would be furious at being left out, and they would be right.
For a while, I thought an eight-team playoff was inevitable. Four teams feels right. It preserves the riveting nature of the regular season. It means that, somebody might get screwed, but in most years, nobody will get ROYALLY screwed—if four teams end up ahead of you, then you probably messed up somewhere along the way.
Of course the final four won't be so obvious every year. They weren't so obvious last year. Next year we may be screaming at each other again. But for now, let's enjoy some hard-earned peace and harmony before these young student-athletes start causing a ruckus again.