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Why a Champions League Model Is What the College Football Playoff Needs

If the sport’s postseason is going to expand, exclusivity should matter. The removal of conference divisions will make it possible.

While the UEFA Champions League has expanded over the years to its current format, its core ethos up until the mid-1990s was simple: The champion of each European country played its way into a prestigious club competition after winning domestic leagues of varying strength. With its 2021–22 final coming up Saturday, the original “one champion, one berth” concept provides college football an opportunity it should seize amidst the broader upheaval about how conferences work their way to a champion. The opening is to turn the College Football Playoff into, well, an actual Playoff by letting teams play their way into it.

The NCAA recently opened the floodgates for change in how college football conferences crown their champions when the Division I council relaxed rules to no longer require divisions or a full round-robin schedule to be played to hold a conference title game. It would allow the incorporation of conference championship games into the CFP, whether explicitly (as a proper first round) or implicitly (by forming a conference champions–only Playoff—or at least an overwhelmingly majority-champion filled system—with the 10 teams). By definition, this is expansion given that it adds more teams to the existing four-team system, but it retains exclusivity with the conference champion stipulation. Let’s work backward.

Georgia’s Stetson Bennett kisses the CFP trophy; Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea holds the Champions League trophy

Georgia’s Stetson Bennett kisses the CFP trophy; Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta holds the Champions League trophy.

The Pac-12 has already announced its championship game participants will be determined by conference winning percentage. Translation: The two most deserving (you can argue what constitutes “best” amongst yourselves) teams play on championship Saturday in early December. It’s too late to change its 2022 schedule, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the Pac-12 will probably ditch divisions soon.

The Big Ten has arguably the most stacked division in the sport with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State taking turns smoking the West’s entrant in the title game every year since the East/West alignment was established in 2014. The ACC is also sending signals that divisions will soon be dead, and it’s an inevitability for the SEC once Texas and Oklahoma enter the league. Only the Sun Belt and MAC appear to be holding on to divisions for the foreseeable future out of the 10 FBS conferences, and it seems like even though the leagues will still differ in scheduling philosophy, the removal of divisions means the best two records in nearly all 10 will be guaranteed to play in each conference championship game.

Under a Champions League–esque CFP model, the college football regular season that so many find so important is preserved here by continuing intrigue throughout the season and building across a season-long campaign with something to actually play for beyond a conference championship. Conference title games are already lucrative for the leagues to sell to their TV partners as standalone events. Divisions can sometimes produce a dud on paper—think the 2018 ACC title game, which featured 12–0 Clemson against 7–5 Pitt. While simply removing divisions might not have changed the participant, a more balanced schedule outside of the divisional structure could have. A guarantee of better matchups would likely come at a higher price tag thanks to a more stacked championship weekend. This also does the unthinkable: providing the smaller conferences with a pathway to a national title and not forcing the Mountain West champion to play in a game against the Pac-12’s fourth-best team a week before Christmas. Give them something to play for and make a national sport actually national.

The CFP selection committee can still exist in a diminished role with a mandate such as seeding teams 1–10 on Selection Sunday, with teams 7–10 playing a first-round game on the third Saturday in December in the home stadiums of Nos. 7 and 8. After that round, they could reseed the teams as the NFL does. Lowest remaining seed plays No. 1 in the first round and the higher remaining seed plays No. 2. Teams can still schedule aggressively out of conference given the risk/reward of a seeding boost at the end of the season.

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Quarterfinals would be on Dec. 26. Semifinals on New Year’s Day (let the Rose Bowl host every few years and otherwise host the Pac-12 and Big 12 conference title losers if they demand their precious Jan. 1 perch). The national championship game remains as it is now on the next Monday night so the season doesn’t stretch into the NFL’s wild-card weekend.

This is all a tweak to the favored expanded Playoff format, which is dead for now after the CFP brass failed to agree on it—that plan had six at-larges and 12 teams. The point is that to enhance the conference season races and the conference title games, the Playoff should stay exclusive. Creating a closed system based on some sort of merit should be the reason why we play the games in the first place.

Which brings us to Notre Dame, and the biggest snag. The most straightforward answer would be for the Irish, and their other independent cohorts, to simply get with the times and join a conference. This happened in 2020 by necessity for Notre Dame, and the fabric of the sport didn’t crumble. This could also be used as a brute-force way for the rest of the sport to get the Irish to fall in line.

In reality, given that Notre Dame’s president and athletic director are on both of the committees that run the CFP, the Irish would likely have to agree to this change in Playoff format. That means one team will continue its outsized influence on the very structure of how the sport determines its champion, which could take the form of two wild cards to take the system to 12 teams.

If you must have at-larges, limit it to two because exclusivity matters. By doing so, some of the CFP’s nearly agreed-upon format could be borrowed: the four highest-ranked champions getting a first round bye and teams 5–12 playing on-campus first-round games (higher seed hosts) works well to stop early blowouts.

There is no Playoff system that’s going to stop the lopsided results we saw with Georgia vs. Michigan or Cincinnati vs. Alabama in 2020, but that is not something a postseason can solve unless you roll it back to the BCS era of two teams only. College football needs an egalitarian championship system if it wants to try and claw back some of its manifest destiny as a nationwide sport. U.S. sports fans demand the finality of one champion, so the sport should use the examples we have to play our way there. But in doing so, it will have to resist the same temptations that befell the Champions League as that competition looks to expand yet again in the near future.

Wild cards are simply parachutes for coming in second. If you really want to enhance college football’s postseason, focus on exclusivity. To the extent possible in the system, if you want to win the national title you should have to win your conference along the way. 

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