This is about the time each season when some TV talking heads and a smattering of fans begin rallying for an expansion of the College Football Playoff. Four teams, they will say, are not enough, and eight or 16 teams should be included in the field.
The fact of the matter is that college football’s playoff system already includes all 128 teams at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. It is precisely what makes college football’s regular season the best of any major sport in the country.
Former longtime coach Lefty Driesell was ahead of his time in the mid-1970s when he called for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to include every program at the Division I level. Driesell’s cry came shortly after his Maryland team lost the 1974 ACC tournament championship game to eventual national champion N.C. State. Under the rules of the day, only N.C. State represented the ACC in the NCAA tournament.
At that time, only 25 teams received invitations to the NCAA tournament, and not every conference conducted a postseason tournament to determine its champion. The field has since expanded to its current 68-team format, and every conference except the Ivy League plays a postseason tournament.
Essentially, the conference tournaments are an extension of the NCAA tournament, meaning that every team (with the exception of those in the Ivy League) has an equal chance to win the national championship by participating in the postseason.
In college football, all 128 teams begin the season with a chance to play for and capture the national championship. The only inequality that exists in college football is that some programs are eliminated from the chase after one loss and others can stay alive until a second regular-season loss.
There are no official rules for the way college football’s playoff system works, but generally it goes like this:
▪ Every member of a Power Five conference – the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, plus independent Notre Dame – is eliminated following a second loss;
▪ Every member of a non-Power Five conference – the AAC, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt, plus independents Army, BYU and Massachusetts – is eliminated after one loss.
That breaks down to 65 teams that are permitted one loss to stay alive in the playoffs, and 63 that get the playoff boot after a single setback. The season lasts 14 weeks, including 12 games, one bye week for all teams, and another week for conference championship games.
Week by week, the field is whittled. As a result, every week features games that are extremely important to the final playoff picture. Twenty-two teams were eliminated by losing the opening week of the season.
Now, after nine weeks of play, 12 teams remain in the playoff hunt. They include unbeaten Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, Washington and Western Michigan. One-loss teams still alive include Baylor, Florida, Louisville, Nebraska, Ohio State, Texas A&M and West Virginia.
Many of the remaining teams will eventually be eliminated by either not participating in their conference championship games, or by not winning those title games. Ohio State, for instance, can still win its remaining games, capture the Big Ten championship and still likely be included in the four-team playoff field. Louisville and Texas A&M, though, could win their remaining games and likely be left out of the ACC and SEC championship games, thus making it highly unlikely to make the playoff field.
The College Football Playoff committee will release its initial weekly rankings Tuesday. Unfortunately, those rankings will include some two-loss teams, which makes no sense because they cannot make the final four-team playoff field. The committee rankings should include only those 12 teams still alive in the playoff race.
If the committee truly wanted to further show the great importance of the regular season, it should release weekly rankings from the season’s outset to show how many teams remain in the playoffs each week. So, the first week’s rankings would have included 106 teams, the second week 86, etc., down to the current 12.
One could argue that many teams are eliminated early in the season, thus effectively ending their seasons. The counter argument would be that college football allows more than half of its teams to participate in postseason bowl games, so there is something for nearly every team to play for all the way to the conclusion of the regular season.
Yet another reason why college football’s playoff (regular season) is the best of any major sport.