If UCF beats Auburn in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day, the Knights will expose one of the fatal flaws in college football’s latest postseason system — the College Football Playoff.
The CFP is an improvement over the Bowl Championship Series, which was an improvement over the popularity contest that preceded it.
But college football still hasn’t plugged the largest hole in its system: It’s possible to win every game you play and not be the champion of your sport. You just won’t find that in other championship systems.
Fortunately for college football, this hasn’t happened in recent years. The last undefeated bowl champion that didn’t win a national championship was TCU in 2010, when the Horned Frogs won the Mountain West and the Rose Bowl to finish No. 2 in the polls. Boise State won the WAC and the Fiesta Bowl in 2009 to finish No. 4 in the polls, Utah won the Mountain West and Sugar Bowl in 2008 to finish No. 2 in The Associated Press Top 25 and Boise State won the WAC and Fiesta in 2006 to finish No. 5.
Already, the Alabama-Ohio State debate for the fourth slot in the CFP semifinals has showcased the other major flaw — and the one that likely will lead to more of a call for action because of who it affected.
College football still relies far too heavily upon opinion to determine its champion. Two false premises maintain this link — the idea that a group of people can in any reliable way identify the “best” four teams out of 129 that play vastly different schedules with 18- to 22-year-old players whose performances spike and dip from week to week. And the prediction that expanding to eight teams would devalue the regular season.
The “best” component of the CFP is ridiculous. Even the CFP selection committee has relied time and time again on teams’ resumes when justifying its rankings (just ask UCF). Yet last weekend, the committee placed Alabama (didn’t win its seven-team division) in the playoff based on the idea that it was better than more-accomplished Ohio State (won its 14-team conference). I heard all kinds of outside, wacky justifications for this, including that Alabama would be healthier in a month than it is now (did every team submit detailed medical reports?) and that the Big Ten’s last two playoff teams were duds (which ignores that Ohio State won the title in 2014).
But none of this would have mattered if, like most sports, college football had a way for teams to play their way into the field. In that case, Ohio State would have been in as Big Ten champion and USC as Pac-12 champion. And sure, any at-large spots would have been determined by opinion. But at least then you could tell the team that didn’t get in, “You didn’t win your conference.” That sounds a lot better than, “We don’t think you’re as good as the other team.”
The solution to both of these problems is simple, of course: Expand the playoff to eight teams. And not do it, as some suggest, by getting rid of conference championship games. How do you determine the champion of a 14-team conference with eight or nine regular-season games? We’d be back to opinion again.
Give the Power Five conferences automatic bids for their champions. If someone wins the Big Ten with an 8-4 record, so what? Good for them. That’s how championships are won — on the field.
Set up a reasonable point of access for the Group of Five. I’m not sure an automatic bid for the highest-ranked champion is the right call — Boise State would have gotten in at 11-2 with a No. 20 ranking in 2014. That seems too generous.
At the least, an undefeated Group of Five team should qualify automatically and maybe a blemished conference champion in the top 12. That would have given No. 12 UCF (undefeated) a spot this year and No. 15 Western Michigan (undefeated) a spot last year but nobody else since TCU in 2010, when the Horned Frogs were in the top four anyway. Do those teams belong among the top eight? Only one way to find out.
And fill the remaining spots with at-large choices from that vaunted committee.
This year, we could have had No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 12 UCF, No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 8 USC, No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 5 Ohio State (I’d have voted Auburn ahead of Wisconsin, but that’s another story). You’d still have debate about the last at-large spot but you’re not leaving out an entire Power Five conference — or, like this year, the entire West. And this field would do nothing to damage the regular season. In fact, on conference championship Saturday, at least 11 teams would have been playing knowing that a win would get them into the playoff. Back that up a couple weeks, and you’ve got a huge swath of college football still alive mathematically in mid-November.
It has become popular among national college football writers to say during coaching searches that only 10-15 schools have a chance to win a national championship. That isn’t because of resources or recruiting territory or tradition. It’s because the sport is still decided by opinion — and it matters which uniform you’re wearing.
If you lower the bar to how many schools have a chance to win their conference championship? I’m not sure there’s a program in the country that can’t accomplish that with the right coach. And once you put that team on the field in a big game in college football, anything can happen.
Clemson — the consensus No. 1 team in the country — lost to Syracuse this year. The Orange aren’t even bowl-eligible.
So it’s silly to suggest that Ohio State, USC or UCF — three championship teams — don’t belong in college football’s championship tournament. And just as silly to pretend this year’s four-team tournament will determine anything but another mythical champ.
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at ccripe@ idahostatesman.com, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.
College Football Playoff matchups
Rose Bowl: No. 3 Georgia (12-1, SEC champ) vs. No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1, Big 12 champ), 3 p.m. Jan. 1, ESPN
Sugar Bowl: No. 4 Alabama (11-1, at-large) vs. No. 1 Clemson (12-1, ACC champ), 6:45 p.m. Jan. 1, ESPN
Power Five champs left out: No. 5 Ohio State (11-2, Big Ten), No. 8 USC (11-2, Pac-12). These teams will meet in the Cotton Bowl at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 29 on ESPN.
Top Group of Five champ: No. 12 UCF (12-0, American champ) has two wins vs. No. 20 Memphis and one vs. South Florida, which is No. 23 in AP but unranked by the CFP. UCF plays No. 7 Auburn in the Peach Bowl at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 1 on ESPN.