Complaining about the College Football Playoff has become its own form of sport for many fan bases around the country — usually those outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama, central Ohio and the southernmost Carolina. This year, those grievances grew louder, as a pandemic challenged the typical criteria for the committee, new rules were created and, as usual, several undefeated teams with solid cases on paper were shut out of title contention (looking at you, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina).
Are changes in store for the CFP format? With criticism of the playoff and its committee at a boiling point, our experts break down the weak spots in the process and propose fixes. Plus, the architect of the Bowl Championship Series weighs in on the challenges.
What do you believe is the biggest problem with the playoff as currently constituted?
Bill Connelly: Each year, I realize more clearly that the number of teams makes the selection process impossible. The CFP as an entity is extremely proud of its processes, and there’s no question that everyone involved goes to painstaking lengths to make sure that the very experienced football people in the committee room cover lots of topics and comparisons before casting their poll votes. But the committee is tasked with picking only four teams, rewarding both pure quality and résumés, assigning bonus points for conference titles but using the eye test. It’s a giant, contradictory set of qualifications, especially when you factor in the minimal presence of Group of 5 representation on the committee and everyone’s personal built-in biases. Making the committee’s job actually doable would be an incredible thing.
Andrea Adelson: I have long been a playoff advocate, because I truly hoped, and somewhat naively believed, that a playoff would open the field up to teams like Boise State, which proved in the BCS era that it absolutely belonged on the biggest stage. But alas, the power conferences want to keep all the power, and the money that goes with it — and that in itself is the largest problem moving forward. There is no equitability when the entire playoff premise is built on inequality — from the amount spent on coaching salaries, support personnel and recruiting, to the number of conference games played and the strength/quality in schedules.
It is not only the Group of 5 that has been punished, but the Pac-12, too. For that reason, the imbalance at the top has only grown starker — and the entire sport has become so regionalized, it feels somewhat impossible for those outside the elite power status or west of Oklahoma to feel any inclusion or ownership in the process. While true expansion might not fix the vast chasm that has separated the top four to six programs from everyone else, what it can do is make this feel more like a sport that values every team and more than just three playoff games every year. More spots means the ability to sell the playoff in recruiting for schools in more than just three or four conferences, for example, allowing more than just a handful of programs to get the best recruits. More spots generates more television money, which allows more schools to try to keep up with the amount Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State pour into their programs.
The greatest thing about the NCAA basketball tournament is the Cinderella story that emerges every year. The playoff, as currently constructed, leaves no room for that. As a result, the sport is suffering. Don’t look now, but the projected preseason top five next season is sure to include five teams that have made it into the playoff. Four of them multiple times.
Kyle Bonagura: For finding a national champion, the current structure is without question better than its BCS predecessor. It’s hard to make the case that the best team in the country hasn’t finished No. 1 since the College Football Playoff was hatched (sorry, UCF). But what it has done is significantly diminish everything that takes place in the sport outside the top four.
Power 5 conference titles that don’t come with a playoff berth aren’t viewed the same way as they were before. The once-proud tradition of bowl games has been diminished, often carrying the caveat: “Do these teams even care about this game?” The New Year’s Six games certainly aren’t immune as those are the games that figure to have the most NFL-caliber players, and the [smart] trend of those players opting out only figures to become more prevalent. It’s not hard to allow for the possibility the opt-outs start earlier and earlier in the season, with top players not being willing to risk their NFL futures without something meaningful to play for.
David Hale: There are two paradoxical points about the College Football Playoff that both happen to be true: The first is that the committee process is undeniably flawed, with rankings that don’t seem to add up outside the top few teams (Iowa State over Coastal Carolina was utterly perplexing this year, for example) and explanations for the rankings that often contradict themselves. The second is that the committee has, perhaps without exception, gotten the final four teams right every year, even if others have had somewhat reasonable counterarguments.
The solution to the first issue is simple: a more clarified mission statement for the committee. Is the job to find the four best teams? The four most deserving? What does “best” or “deserving” even mean? By enacting some more specific means of evaluation, we can get away from the committee chair spending hours every season trying to formulate explanations for the utterly inexplicable.
I’d also love to see a more diverse committee debating “best” and “deserving.” There’s a lot of room for a hive-mind debate when nearly every committee member comes from a similar background. Media, stat gurus, Vegas folks, heck even a smart fan or two might add some new insight to the discussions.
The concerns about who actually gets into the playoff, however, are really big-picture problems that the committee — and perhaps the playoff itself — isn’t going to fix. Expansion might help level the playing field a bit by expanding access and getting more revenue and eyeballs to teams that haven’t often fought for a top-four ranking, but it won’t necessarily fix the continual first-round blowouts or drastically expand the pool of 12 to 15 teams that legitimately have a chance to win it all in any given year.
Adam Rittenberg: This is not a national playoff as currently constructed. Beyond the not-so-subtle Group of 5 exclusion, the playoff fields have been dominated by teams from the Southeast and Midwest. The exclusivity tunes out large swaths of the country, and the repetitiveness of participants has turned the whole thing stale.
To me, it’s never been about including only the teams that can win a national title. That list is almost never more than three. By adding one more layer, the playoff can become more national and provide not only the opportunity to win (however unlikely it is) but the experience of being part of the CFP, which can be seismic for certain programs. I haven’t strongly disagreed with many of the selections, but have also long advocated for a standardized scheduling model in college football that includes more conference games, more attractive games and less duds. It’s not great when the two leagues that play each other the least — the SEC and ACC — seem to be rewarded the most.
What does your preferred, realistic playoff look like?
Connelly: I know Mark Richt’s 32-team explosion is something a lot of coaches would like, and I think I’m fine with that if the support is there, but it’s not. Realistically, an eight-team playoff is all we’re probably going to get for a while, but that’s fine — it’s a wonderful solution!
Assuming there are auto-bids for conference champions and the Group of 5 representative (which would actually make college football’s national title race inclusive for just about the first time ever), the committee’s main job would be seeding teams and picking the two most deserving teams for at-large bids. We’d still yell and scream about whom they pick or how they rank the teams, of course, but this would still be a much more manageable and realistic job for the committee to take on.
Rittenberg: As Bill notes, eight teams solves so many issues. Again, this is more about expanding opportunity than the likelihood of new teams winning championships. Until Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney and Ryan Day move on, their programs are going to claim most of the titles.
Where I struggle is the automatic bids and my desire to have all regions represented. The highest-ranked Group of 5 champion absolutely should have an automatic bid. While I don’t love the idea of a two- or three-loss Power 5 champion in there, I could live with that format. One alternative would be the committee continuing to rank the teams and requiring eligible Power 5 champions to be in the final top 12 or top 15. The top conferences would still fill the at-large spots. The regular season wouldn’t be compromised (that’s a tired argument) and more teams and areas would be under the CFP tent.
Hale: Somewhere between two and 130 is a number that both maximizes access to the playoff while minimizing devaluation of the regular season. Where’s that number? Truth is, it probably fluctuates from year to year, but the best answer would seem to be eight.
Every Power 5 league would award a playoff berth to its champion, making every conference game important. This year, for example, only two teams playing in a Power 5 title game were genuinely impacted by the…