It’s All About The Madness: The Case For a 16-Team Playoff in College Football
With the lone exception of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the lone NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Independent for this coming season, every other team competing in D1 Men’s Basketball this year will have the opportunity to earn a guaranteed spot in the NCAA tournament, no matter what the voters or selection committee think. All they have to do is win their conference. This is what makes college basketball so beautiful: Everybody has a chance and controls their own destiny, from Kentucky down to Grambling State.
Unfortunately, college football has not been able to offer these same opportunities. Ever since the inception of the BCS in 1998, every year has been filled with chaos as only two teams can be selected to compete for the national championship at the conclusion of the season. It is very rare for there to be two clear-cut teams ahead of the rest; this has caused outrage as teams with one tough loss, or in some cases undefeated teams, have been snubbed from getting a chance to compete for the national championship.
Throughout the past decade, there have been several undefeated teams that did not play in the national title game, including Auburn in 2004, Boise State in 2006, 2008, and 2009, and Utah in 2008. Besides being undefeated teams that were not given a spot in the national championship, these teams also all scored wins over Top-10 teams in their BCS bowl games. These teams just scrape the iceberg of great teams that have not been given justice. Many one-loss teams have suffered one close away loss in a tough environment and watched their championship hopes be taken away. One great example of a team that did not receive equal opportunity was the 2006 Michigan Wolverines. Their only regular season loss was against #1 Ohio State by three points. On the road. And yet, that was it for them.
Let’s circle back to the comparison to college basketball and take a look at the proportion of teams that qualify for the tournament. There are 349 Division 1 basketball teams, and 128 in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Look at it this way. Even with the expansion to a four-team playoff, about three percent of college football teams will make the tournament. If college basketball was as exclusive, only 11 teams would qualify for March Madness. Many past winners of the big dance have come from outside that top eleven heading into the tournament, and one can only imagine the outrage over which teams would be snubbed. It is incredible that people think anything more than four teams is too many, and yet they are fine with 68 teams in basketball.
While all of these teams last year except for one eventually lost, envision if Clemson, Ohio State, Oregon, Louisville, Baylor, and Alabama all went undefeated last year. How would the selection committee be able to justify to some of these teams their lack of an invitation to the National Championship? Alabama would have scored victories over Virginia Tech, LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn, and the beast of the SEC East; Ohio State would have a second straight undefeated season with wins over Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and a Big Ten title; Clemson would have victories over Georgia, Florida State, and Miami/Virginia Tech. The list goes on. It would be chaos.
After looking at how absurd it is to have just a championship or even a four-team playoff, eight teams is not enough either. Rather, a 16-team playoff is the way to go. Obviously, there is a lot of criticism towards this idea, and rightly so. However, for each point against a playoff this expansive, there are good reasons to justify 16 teams.
With the rise in concussions and other issues involving the impact of playing football, the strongest argument against the 16-team playoff may be that it would lead to some teams playing too many games, with teams playing up to seventeen games. This argument reveals the flaw in the comparisons of NCAA football to NCAA basketball have a huge and very legitimate flaw: Football players take on a much greater beating and greater risk for injury from every additional game than do basketball players. However, this is not asking for 64 teams and the potential for six extra games. Four extra games is a lot, but it is certainly manageable. Yes, two teams could end up playing seventeen games (if they have a conference championship game in addition to their 12 game regular season schedule). However, the Football Championship Subdivision, also known as the lower division of Division 1, had a 16-team playoff for years, and has now increased all the way to twenty-four teams. The best FCS teams have been playing 15 or 16 games for a long time, and no one has complained. These extra games should be added at the FBS level at the same time that these football players receive the stipends they deserve from the NCAA. Practice time would not be increased, as teams with bowl games in January have to practice for many extra weeks anyways. With this playoff starting in the third week in December (two weeks after conference championship games), the championship would take place at about the same time as the BCS national championship.
Some critics who value competitive balance believe that a tournament of this size would let in teams who have no chance of winning the title, and therefore do not see a purpose. However, having these teams with such low expectations can only create more excitement for college football. March Madness includes a heap of at-large teams that are assumed to have no chance (which Connecticut slammed the door on this year), as well as conference winners that have no chance, and yet the tournament is incredibly popular. College football should follow suit and not just accept the top 16 teams, but instead give conference champions an automatic spot in the tournament, even though a couple of these teams may very well be far from the Top 25. This truly makes it that EVERYBODY has a chance to start the year, outside of the Independents, who can most likely earn their way to a spot with an unblemished record regardless. It can be as simple as this: win all your games, and you are most certainly “dancing”. Most years, the non-AQ conferences have at least one strong team (teams like Northern Illinois, Boise State, Utah of the past), so in reality only one or two weak teams will most likely make it. With 10 conference champions, all six at-large teams should be very capable of beating the best.
Traditionalists who feel that the winner should show no weaknesses believe that teams that lose a game, and especially two games, had their chances and they should have taken care of business in the regular season. This is a ridiculous argument. Sometimes teams have calls go against them, heartbreaking losses, one bad quarter, or anything in between. This does not justify a team losing their right to be crowned the best team of that year. Let’s throw out this scenario. Imagine if Georgia had not had injuries pile up this past year. After a 3-point loss in Death Valley, let’s say Georgia beat South Carolina, LSU, Missouri, Florida, and even Alabama in the SEC Championship, and yet Florida State and a possibly undefeated Ohio State team earn deserving bids to the National Championship. One three-point loss on the road should not take away a team’s opportunity to control their own destiny. Imagine if a basketball team like Duke did not make the tournament just because of a couple road losses at, say, Virginia, North Carolina, and Syracuse. There are even certain two-loss teams that should sometimes earn the opportunity.
Those who understandably want to see the best out of teams in the regular season maintain that the regular season would lose importance. This is always a concern when playoffs are expanded in any sport. However, with only six at-large teams, earning a playoff spot will still be tough. Teams will also be fighting for seeding and home-field advantage. In addition, out of conference scheduling will greatly improve, as teams will look to schedule tough matchups in order to increase their chances of being selected to make the field of 16 with one or even two losses. Teams like Alabama will start scheduling AQ-conference teams rather than Georgia State and Western Carolina.
Finally, those resistant to chance reason that there are too many logistics to figure out, such as locations of games and what will happen with teams that do not make the tournament. There will obviously need to be a variety of things figured out. One possible idea is for the first and second round games to be played at the home site of the better seed, with the semifinals and finals played at neutral locations. The only rule for teams making the field is that there should be a limit of three teams per conference. In terms of making the matchups, two teams from the same conference should not be paired in the first round and two teams that have already played each other should not be matched up. Conference champions would receive the top four spots to make winning your conference more important. Finally, one big problem is what to do with the other 60 teams that do not make the tournament that otherwise would have received the bowl bid. Holding bowl games for the rest of the teams would be a fine option, but it would be very cool if eight-team tournaments could be created for the next crops of teams, similar to the NIT, CBI, and CIT in college hoops.
So what would this theoretically look like? If the 16-team bracket existed last year, here is what it may have looked like:
#1 Florida State (ACC Champ)
#16 Louisiana-Lafayette (Sun Belt Champ)
# 8 Missouri (At-Large)
#9 Oregon (At-Large)
#4 Stanford (Pac-12 Champ)
#13 Fresno State (MWC Champ)
#5 Alabama (At-Large)
#12 UCF (American Champ)
# 3 Michigan State (Big Ten Champ)
#14 Bowling Green (MAC Champ)
#6 Baylor (Big 12 Champ)
#11 Clemson (At-Large)
#7 Ohio State (At-Large)
#10 Oklahoma (At-Large)
#2 Auburn (SEC Champ)
#15 Rice (C-USA Champ)
Would Louisiana-Lafayette get blasted in Tallahassee? Absolutely. but it is not like anyone expected Cal Poly to put up a fight versus Wichita State this year in basketball, and yet everyone was OK with them being in the field. For these teams, just making this tournament would feel as good as winning the national title.
With a theoretical NIT, we could still see heavyweight teams such as South Carolina, Oklahoma State, Arizona State, LSU, UCLA, Louisville, Wisconsin, and Fresno State.
On top of all of the added excitement from the fans’ perspective, this appears to be a smart financial endeavor for the NCAA. College sports, just like other sports, have become all about the money. A tournament like this would bring in unseen amounts of revenue, particularly through TV contracts. Whether for the right or wrong reasons, it makes a lot of sense for the NCAA to heavily consider this.
No solution to this problem is perfect. There are flaws with every size of playoff. There will always be teams that feel like they got snubbed. However, 16 teams gets college football as close to perfect as they can get. Every team has a chance through winning their conference, and every team that is realistically good enough to win it will get their shot.
This tournament is the fairest system college football can offer. With the exceptions of permanent independents such as Notre Dame, Army, and Navy, every team starts the season knowing that they control their destiny to joining the Winter Madness.
nathanalevy View All
United States Men's National Soccer Team Writer. I am currently a student at the University of Virginia. I was raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I dream of a major league sports team coming to the area. I love all UVa athletics, Old Dominion football and men's basketball, the Green Bay Packers, whoever is playing the Miami Heat, and, of course, the USMNT. Follow me on Twitter @nathanalevy.
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