SALT LAKE CITY — It’s Year IV of the College Football Playoff, and by now this much is clear: It is pretty much the same hot mess it’s always been — nonsensical, muddled, subjective.
“College Football Playoff committee blew it: Alabama the wrong choice.” — USA Today.
“College Football Playoff committee got it right with Alabama over Ohio State.” — Gainesville Times.
As usual, there is plenty of debate and disagreement about the field that was chosen for the Final Four of college football — Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama. This debate has become a national pastime, repeated every December.
Who can make sense of it? On the national playoff committee’s own website, it states: The selection committee ranks the teams based on the members’ evaluation of the teams’ performance on the field, using conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, and comparison of results against common opponents to decide among teams that are comparable.
Then, they threw all that out the window and selected Alabama — an also-ran in the SEC whose schedule ranks 56th according to the Sagarin ratings. ′Bama was chosen over Ohio State, the Big Ten champion.
Alabama struggled to beat Mississippi State and LSU and then suffered a convincing 26-14 loss to Auburn in the regular-season finale. Ohio State had two losses, including a 31-point decision to unranked Iowa. But the Buckeyes did win the Big Ten championship by beating previously unbeaten Wisconsin. And aren’t P5 conference championships worth something?
So, to recap, Alabama advanced to the playoffs (1) without even being the best team in its conference, and (2) without playing a game on the final weekend of the season. You could even say that Alabama’s loss made the road to the playoffs easier. If the Crimson Tide had lost to Georgia in the SEC championship, they would be on the outside. Instead, they qualified for the playoffs by sitting on the couch.
As a result, the SEC has two of the four finalists in the field, and two among the Power 5 conferences are not represented — the Big Ten and the Pac-12. This is a first. Three of the four teams are from the Deep South.
And the rich get richer. Last year’s playoff teams collected $6 million to be divided by their conferences. That means the SEC — the Rockefellers of football — will divide $12 million. That’s more money for recruiting, more money for facilities, more money for coaches, more money for winning and controlling college football. The mid-majors are falling further and further behind every year.
Well, the solution is so simple that even Congress could fix it. Maybe even the glacially slow-acting people who run college football could fix it, but probably not. The solution is not an original idea. Everyone knows the answer. The playoffs absolutely require an eight-team format. A four-team format for a 129-team competition is simply too small.
In the NBA, 16 of 30 teams advance to the playoffs (53 percent of all teams). In the NFL, 12 of 32 teams qualify for the playoffs (38 percent). The NCAA basketball tournament includes 68 of the 347 teams (almost 20 percent). The national college football playoffs include just 3 percent of all teams.
But it would push the end of the season further into January, playoff officials will cry. Nonsense. Instead of taking the traditional and nonsensical break in the action during December, fill it with playoff games using already-existing bowls, culminating with the championship on New Year’s Day. Simple.
An eight-team field would almost always guarantee that the deserving teams will have a chance to play for the title. A four-team field will always fall short. In the NCAA basketball tournament, the championship has been won by an eighth seed (Villanova in 1985), a No. 7 seed (UConn in 2014) and two No. 6 seeds (North Carolina State in 1983 and Kansas in 1988).
In the NFL, six wild-card teams have won the Super Bowl — the 1980 Raiders, the ’97 Broncos, the 2000 Ravens, the ’05 Steelers, the ’07 Giants and the ’10 Packers. All of those teams proved that they belonged in the playoffs; none of them would have had a chance in college football. And polls had nothing to do with the selection of the finalists at any stage.
While they’re at it, the powers that be in college football should eliminate as much subjectivity in the selection process as possible. Again, it’s simple (and not original): The winners of the Power 5 conferences are automatic qualifiers. The next three teams will be at-large selections.
A 12-year TV contract for the current playoff format means an expanded playoff is still a long way from happening. But given that it took decades to convince the college game to adopt something as sensible as a playoff means it's time to start beating the drum every year for eight teams.