What if the CFP committee honored conference champions?
It – “championships won” – is the number one item listed under “criteria that must be considered” by the committee. It’s a part of a document titled “How to select the four best teams to compete for the College Football National Championship” on the CFP website.
More from the “how to” guide on the importance of titles:
We believe that a committee of experts properly instructed (based on beliefs that the regular season is unique and must be preserved; and that championships won on the field and strength of schedule are important values that must be incorporated into the selection process) has very strong support throughout the college football community.
Before delving any further, it’s only fair to let the committee off the hook on one key point. By design, one Power conference champion will be left out of the mix as long there are five Power leagues and only four bracket spots. This omission is down to how the scheme was setup initially.
Where the committee has deviated from its protocol is when it ignores on-field achievements and leaves two Power conference champions out of the mix. It’s something that has happened each of the last two seasons.
In 2016-17, Penn State won the Big Ten outright by beating Wisconsin 38-31 in the title game. Instead of rewarding the Nittany Lions with a playoff bid, the committee selected Ohio State. The pick was even more dubious given that PSU had beaten the Buckeyes in a head-to-head game earlier that same season. Ironically, this also violated the committee’s third pillar of criteria “head-to-head competition (if occurred).”
So, Ohio State, without a title of any kind, ascended to the playoff along with SEC champion Alabama, ACC champion Clemson, and Pac-12 champion Washington. Also left out of the mix was Oklahoma, which had swept its conference slate and won the Big 12.
Of the five Power conference champions, only three made the bracket.
Speed ahead to this season and a similar scenario unfolds, only this time Ohio State is on the receiving end of the shaft. The Buckeyes beat Wisconsin 27-21 in the Big Ten title game only to be left out of the bracket in favor of Alabama, a team that didn’t even play in the SEC Championship. Are the Tide “better” than the Bucks? That’s up for discussion. What’s not is the fact that Ohio State played and won an extra game against an undefeated Power Five opponent.
So, this year, again, we have a four-slot playoff bracket that features only three of the five Power conference champions.
The ACC (Clemson), the Big 12 (Oklahoma), and the SEC (Georgia) are all in. The Big Ten (Ohio State) and the Pac-12 (USC) are out.
The only true fix – if the goal is to honor championships – is to expand the playoff bracket. This is logical because no matter how you manipulate it, you can’t fit five Power conference champions into four slots.
That leads to the next set of questions – how far to expand and how to fill the new spaces?
Though it’s tempting to move from four to eight, which would include all five Power conference champions and three additional teams (selected by the committee as the “best” of the non-champs) – why not let the decision be totally made on the field?
In other words, only teams with a title qualify for the bracket. That takes the number of slots to 16. Here is how they are filled:
5 – Conference champions from the Power leagues – ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC.
5 – Conference champions from the non-Power leagues – American, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt (This finally, at long last, gives the non-Power schools a legitimate, viable route to a national title. It’s the moment that the FBS truly becomes one division).
5 – Division champions from the Power leagues (those teams who LOST in the conference title games, the runners-up) – ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.
1 – An “at-large” bid – to be filled at the discretion of the committee. This is the best team in the country that DIDN’T win a conference/division championship.
It would mean that all the selections – less one – would be decided on the field. The CFP committee would have the unenviable job of SEEDING the tournament. Runners-up and non-Power teams would presumably be seeded lower than the Power league title holders.
The air of drama and expectation is still there, plus people watch the division races in the Power leagues and the conference championships in the non-Powers like they’re play-in games. Because they are.
If you’re thinking “how can the champion of the MAC make it in, even as a 16 seed, while a solid 10-2 team from the SEC stays home?” you have a valid point. First, the 10-2 team from the SEC would have an opportunity to earn a slot, and be seeded higher than the MAC champ, with the “at-large” bid.
Next, if it’s decided the MAC team shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the Playoff then the non-Power leagues should break off and form their own division. At some point, coaches of ALL the teams in the FBS should be able to get up in front of their teams at the beginning of the season and confidently say, “if we win all our games, we’ll have the opportunity to play for a national championship.”
What about Notre Dame?
That’s simple. The scenario forces the Irish to live in the real world. In other words, if they want to be in the Playoff, they can join a conference like everyone else. If not, they can hope for making a case for the “at large” bid.
Here’s what the bracket would look like this season. The seeding is done using the latest CFP rankings and/or votes in the AP Poll (for unranked teams).
1 vs. 16 – (1) Clemson vs. (16) Troy/Appalachian State (the Sun Belt will have a title game in 2018)
8 vs. 9 – (8) USC vs. (9) Miami, FL
4 vs. 13 – (4) Alabama (at-large bid) vs. (13) Boise State
5 vs. 12 – (5) Ohio State vs. (12) TCU
2 vs. 15 – (2) Oklahoma vs. (15) FAU
7 vs. 10 – (7) Auburn vs. (10) UCF
3 vs. 14 – (3) Georgia vs. (14) Toledo
6 vs. 11 – (6) Wisconsin vs. (11) Stanford
Though the initial matchups for the top four teams look less than savory – the first round, by design, rewards two key groups. First, the top teams in the nation are, because of their on-field achievements, credited with a “gimmee” game. Next, the conference champions from the American Athletic, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt are afforded a legitimate on-field opportunity to compete for a national championship.
It’s the College Football Tournament of Champions.
And it is – perhaps – the GREATEST thing that ever happened.