The College Football Playoffs, re-imagined

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Basically since the moment the four-team College Football Playoff system was announced, people have argued against it, with many football fans, including myself, believing it should expand to a six-, eight-, even 16-team bracket.

For the time being, however, that seems unlikely to change, in which case the focus turns to the second main point of contention: how the teams are selected. Some have argued for the top Power 5 conference winners; others say take the top polling teams; while more propose any number of combinations of the two.

Well, I finally have it, the DEFINITIVE way the four teams for the College Football Playoffs should be chosen. The rules are simple and sensical. Follow along.

  1. Only conference champions will be considered for a spot in the playoffs. No more debate over whether two SEC teams or two Big Ten teams teams should make it in. No more “Alabama, even without going to the SEC Championship game, is better than Ohio State.”
  2. Every conference must have a championship game. The Big 12 finally got around to realizing that they need a champion if they want a shot at one of the four spots, and got their act together. Any conference that hasn’t done so, consider yourself on blast. Sure, a conference can elect to not have a championship game, but they will not be considered for a spot.
  3. No independents. Notre Dame pretty much ruined any chance of an independent being selected under the current system (not that BYU would ever get within spitting distance of the championship game), but this new system puts a hard stop to that. Conference champions only. If you’re not in a conference, you can’t be a conference champion, you can’t be in the playoffs.
  4. With only conference champions being considered, that narrows the field down to 10 teams. Any of those 10 teams can make it into the playoffs. Yes, any conference champion is considered. Do I expect a non-Power 5 conference champion to be ranked higher than a Power 5 conference champion? No, not really. But hey, if the Big 12 and PAC-12 both have bad years, and there’s no non-conference-champion teams in the way, a 2018 UCF might just crack the top four.

See, simple.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s reimagine what the CFP would historically look like if these rules had been in place from the start.

(c) – conference winner, (w) – CFP winner

#1 Alabama (c) vs. #4 Ohio State (c*)
#2 Oregon (c) vs. #3 Florida State (c)
#4 Ohio State (w) vs. #2 Oregon

#1 Alabama vs. #4 Baylor
#2 Oregon vs. #3 Florida State
#1 Alabama (w) vs. #2 Oregon

Right off the bat, the CFP’s plan had holes punched into it, mainly because TCU and Baylor, both proud “co-champions” of the Big 12, split the committee, and were subsequently both overlooked for Big Ten champion Ohio State. Had the Big 12 followed Rule 2 (and assuming the result of the defenseless Baylor-TCU regular season game repeated itself), Baylor would have taken the #4 seed. Seeing as Ohio State went on to upset #1 Alabama and win the entire playoff, this change is a major shakeup for history.
Instead, Baylor would have fallen to Alabama, who would go on to give us the Alabama-Oregon match-up we’ve all been looking for. Seeing as Oregon collapsed under Ohio State, there’s no reason to suspect any different up against the SEC powerhouse. Alabama wins the 2014 CFP Playoffs.

#1 Clemson (c) vs. #2 Oklahoma (c)
#2 Alabama (c) vs. #3 Michigan State (c)
#1 Clemson vs. #2 Alabama (w)

No change

There’s not much change here. The Big 12 still didn’t have a proper championship game yet this season, but since Oklahoma was declared champion because they beat the next best team Oklahoma State in a regular season head-to-head (i.e. the same metric I would use to estimate the teams and result of a hypothetical conference championship game), they remain at their position in the playoffs. Alabama wins the 2015 CFP Playoffs.


#1 Alabama (c) vs. #4 Washington (c)
#2 Clemson (c) vs. #3 Ohio State
#1 Alabama vs. #2 Clemson (w)

#1 Alabama vs. #4 Oklahoma
#2 Clemson vs. #3 Washington
#1 Alabama vs. Clemson (w)

While the championship game and winner would likely turn out the same way as it actually did, this year features a pretty big shakeup, both in the teams and the seeding. In reality, non-conference champion Ohio State snuck in at the #3 seed, because the committee was wholly unimpressed by the Wisconsin-Penn State conference championship game. Under the new rules, Ohio State wouldn’t have been considered, but Penn State would have. In that situation, the committee would have opted for 5th-ranked Oklahoma over 7th-ranked Penn State, while at the same time bumping Washington up to the #3 seed.

If 2018’s Alabama-Oklahoma match-up is anything to go off of, Alabama would have won. Clemson and Washington is a bit of a tossup. The two teams have never faced off, so there’s no historical record to consider. Given how Clemson shut out Ohio State this year, it’s likely Clemson would have still come out on top. Clemson wins the 2016 CFP Playoffs.


#1 Clemson (c) vs. #4 Alabama
#2 Oklahoma (c) vs. #3 Georgia (c)
#4 Alabama (w) vs. #3 Georgia

#1 Clemson vs. #4 Ohio State
#2 Oklahoma vs. #3 Georgia
#1 Clemson vs. #3 Georgia (w)

This was the first year that two teams from the same conference were selected for the playoffs, which reignited the complaints about the current system and demands for a change. Under the new rules, Alabama would not be considered by the simple fact that they did not win their conference championship game (they didn’t even play in it, in fact). Instead, the #4 seed would have gone to Big Ten champion Ohio State after a great win over a previously-undefeated Wisconsin. Now, under the new rules, we haven’t seen a Clemson-Ohio State match-up in previous playoffs years, but in reality, we have: Clemson shut down Ohio State just a year earlier. Even if Clemson was less commanding this year compared to years past, the scale still tips in Clemson’s favor. That changes the championship game to a Clemson-Georgia match-up.

This we haven’t seen. The last time these two teams played each other, they split a pair of home wins. This was also in 2014, just before both of these teams became the powerhouses they are today. It’s difficult to pick a winner between them, but given that Clemson slipped against SEC-team Alabama in the semi-finals this year, I’ll give the edge to Georgia. Georgia wins the 2017 CFP Playoffs.

#1 Alabama (c) vs. #4 Oklahoma (c)
#2 Clemson (c) vs. #3 Notre Dame
#1 Alabama vs. #2 Clemson (w)

#1 Alabama vs. #4 Ohio State
#2 Clemson vs. #3 Oklahoma
#4 Ohio State vs. #2 Clemson (w)

This year is particularly difficult, because you have to dig down the rankings to find a team to replace non-conference champion Notre Dame. People argued that 5th-ranked Georgia should have been allowed in, but that wouldn’t have worked under Rule 1. So we’d be left with 6th-ranked Ohio State to fill the #4 seed, while bumping Oklahoma up to the #3 spot.

After that, there’s no match-ups we haven’t seen before in previous real CFP games. Clemson would beat Oklahoma, as they did in 2015, and Ohio State would be Alabama, as they did in 2014. Yes, I am honestly predicting that 6th-ranked Ohio State, a last-second substitute, would beat top-ranked Alabama. Why? Because it’s exactly what happened in 2014, when 6th-ranked Ohio State jumped into the #4 seed at the last second due to a technicality and upset #1 seed Alabama. Don’t @ me.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, that’s where the 2014 comparisons end. Instead, we now turn to 2016 comparisons, when Clemson shut down Ohio State (funny how often that resurfaces in these re-imaginings). Clemson wins the 2018 CFP Playoffs.

As we can see, only 2015 remains unchanged by this new system, meaning that year was the closest we have ever gotten to the best way (read: my way) of picking college playoff teams. Twice under this system the overall champion would have differed (Alabama in 2014, Georgia in 2017). We would also see far more presence from the Big Ten (mainly in the form of Ohio State), a conference that has scored a total of zero points in the playoffs in the last four years.

Nevertheless, the committee remains convinced that their way is somehow the right way. So until they admit they’re wrong, get ready for endless debates of two-team conference appearances and where Notre Dame fits into all this for the foreseeable future.


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