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2017 is exactly why college football needs an expanded Playoff ... and exactly why it doesn’t

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When there are few true standout teams, does that mean more or fewer deserve a shot at the national title?

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve spent a good portion of the last few months reminiscing about the magical 2007 college football season and attempting to will a 2017 encore into existence.

We almost got our way. The sport is dealing with more parity than at any point since ‘07, but despite seeing both the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the Playoff rankings lose during Rivalry Week (and despite one of those upsets involving Pitt, just like 10 years ago), we came a few upsets short of outright chaos.

Depending on how you look at it, though, 2017 has also produced either the most or the fewest worthy title contenders since that glorious autumn.

2017 is a perfect example of why we don’t need to expand the College Football Playoff.

I’m on the record endorsing a potential expansion of an eight-team playoff, as long as it includes a representative from the Group of Five conferences. Access to a national title should be requisite to membership in anything, and the bottom half of FBS is just about the only bloc that doesn’t have it. If nothing else, UCF’s current plight — winning eight of 11 games by 25 points but failing to rise beyond 15th (to date) in the CFP rankings — has reproved that.

That endorsement doesn’t come without hesitation, however. For one thing, knowing what we know about FBS’ power structure, an expansion to eight teams probably wouldn’t include the G5. The sport has never been kind to the have-nots. For another... honestly, four teams is pretty good. Most of the time, there aren’t many more than four truly deserving title contenders.

Back in 2013, after the announcement of the CFP’s formation, I went back through the BCS era and took a look at who would have made a hypothetical Playoff, breaking the field into “relatively obvious Playoff teams” and “contenders.”

On average, I designated about 2.9 teams per year as “obvious” title teams, along with about 4.7 “contenders,” a list that included quite a few mid-majors that we now know would not have been seriously considered (not even you, 2004 Utah or 2009 TCU).

Eliminate the mid-majors from the list, and you’re looking at three obvious teams on average and a fourth coming from a pool of three or four pretty identically blemished contenders. That’s not too bad, is it? If anything, it might be an indirect endorsement for expansion to a six-team playoff.

In 2017, though? At the moment, we’re looking at three teams with obvious résumés (and one more opportunity to add a blemish to said résumé) — 11-1 Clemson, 11-1 Oklahoma, 12-0 Wisconsin — and a host of teams with pretty obvious flaws:

  • Auburn, Ohio State, TCU, and USC have two losses
  • Georgia and Alabama (the latter of which won’t play for the SEC title) recently got thumped by Auburn
  • Miami was underwhelming against mediocre teams for most of the year
  • Penn State has two losses and no shot at the conference title.

Add to this the whole “no truly elite teams” thing, and you’ve got a year that suggests allowing four teams a shot at a ring is too many. Why expand to eight when we can’t find four, right?

2017 is a perfect example of why we absolutely need to expand the College Football Playoff

If the title is intended to go to the team that has truly distinguished itself from the others, how the hell can we stop at four this year?

  • Clemson has been a better version of Miami, doing as little as possible for half the year and tripping up against a pretty bad Syracuse. (Don’t tell me about Kelly Bryant’s injury, either — Clemson was losing when he went down.)
  • Oklahoma has by far the worst defense of the contenders and will need an all-world performance from Baker Mayfield to have the title. (Mind you, the Sooners might get just that.)
  • I can tell you how Wisconsin, at No. 3 in S&P+, has proved itself despite the weakest schedule of any primary contender, but all most will see is that the Badgers’ best win might have been against Florida Atlantic.

How do we know these three teams are deserving instead of Auburn (best team in November)? Or Alabama (best team for most of the year)? Or Ohio State (highest ceiling, albeit with an increasingly inexplicable blowout loss to Iowa)? Or Penn State (steadiest team)? Or USC (uh, power conference champion)? Or TCU (all the defense that OU doesn’t have)?

Might we need a larger field to truly determine the best team?

Here’s what an eight-team playoff might look like in 2017, if all the conference title game favorites win this coming weekend:

  • 8 UCF (G5 rep) at 1 Clemson (ACC champ)
  • 5 Ohio State (Big Ten champ) at 4 Alabama (at-large)
  • 6 USC (Pac-12 champ) at 3 Auburn (SEC champ)
  • 7 Wisconsin (at-large) at 2 Oklahoma (Big 12 champ)

You could make a case for including Penn State or even a two-loss Georgia over Wisconsin, but we’ll go with this.

I simulated this combination 50,000 times using S&P+ win projections, and here are the title odds for each of these eight teams:

  1. Alabama 18 percent
  2. Ohio State 18 percent
  3. Auburn 16 percent
  4. Wisconsin 15 percent
  5. Oklahoma 12 percent
  6. Clemson 10 percent
  7. UCF 9 percent
  8. USC 3 percent

That’s seven of eight teams with between a 9 and 18 percent chance. And even if you think S&P+ is overvaluing UCF (currently eighth overall), that’s still six teams what amount to extremely similar odds.

When there’s no standout tier of teams, isn’t that a good reason for a larger field? Or the exact opposite? I’ve waffled about 13 times in the course of writing this.


Big Play Watch

Note to coaches looking to turn things around in 2018: Find your explosives.

Here are the six offenses that have managed at least 10 plays of 60-plus yards this fall:

  • Oklahoma State 13
  • Florida Atlantic 12
  • Arizona 11
  • Notre Dame 11
  • Toledo 11
  • Missouri 10

OSU is 9-3, Toledo is your likely MAC champ, and the other four teams on this list improved from a combined 14-34 to 32-16. There you have it. Go big early and often. #Analysis

Now, pardon me for a moment while I dream about an offense that features quarterback Khalil Tate (Arizona), running backs Josh Adams (ND) and Devin Singletary (FAU), and receivers James Washington (OSU), Emanuel Hall (Mizzou), and Diontae Johnson (Toledo).

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Western Kentucky
Devin Singletary
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Elon Watch

Elon became noteworthy at the FCS level by both winning and doing it creatively: The Phoenix were at one point 8-1 with a negative scoring margin. They lost by 34 points to Toledo in the opener, then won by three, two, three, six, eight, one, five, and three points.

You can probably guess how the story ended: with some regression-to-the-mean losses. They lost 16-6 to New Hampshire and 31-3 to James Madison, and in the first round of the FCS playoffs, their season ended in a poetic way: with a close loss. Furman 28, Elon 27.

Still, what a damn ride for Curt Cignetti and his squad.

Gunner of the Year Watch

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Brigham Young
Dayan Ghanwoloku
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Out of pure curiosity, I’ve been tracking special teams tackles this year. Maybe we’ll give a pretend award out to whoever has the most at the end. Winner of the award gets it named after him.

With one week remaining before bowls, here’s a complete list of every player who has made at least 9.5 special teams tackles this year. (Note: The punt return and kick return totals might not add up to the tackles totals because, while I give only half-credit for an assisted tackle, you were either involved in the return or you weren’t.)

Gunner of the Year

Player Team ST tackles PR PR Avg KR KR Avg
Player Team ST tackles PR PR Avg KR KR Avg
Alex Grace Western Michigan 12.5 5 7.4 9 19.3
Kyron Johnson Kansas 12 5 13.0 9 26.8
Nilijah Ballew Bowling Green 11.5 3 3.0 9 11.6
Trevor Apsey Central Michigan 11.5 7 12.7 7 12.6
Blake Cashman Minnesota 11 4 6.3 8 23.8
Cole McCubrey Massachusetts 11 2 6.5 11 20.4
Mo Osling III UCLA 11 4 7.8 7 24.7
Deonta Moore South Alabama 11 3 8.0 10 18.8
Grant Cunningham Ohio 11 3 11.0 11 14.7
Zach Matthews Georgia Tech 10.5 3 1.7 10 24.8
Darren Palmer UNLV 10.5 1 6.0 11 26.7
Joey Blount Virginia 10.5 4 13.0 9 30.1
Dayan Ghanwoloku BYU 10 4 -1.3 8 18.4
Mathew Sexton Eastern Michigan 10 5 2.2 7 15.1
Tyler Gullett Ohio 10 3 3.3 9 26.6
Tre Thomas Colorado State 10 1 4.0 13 22.0
Nate Ferguson South Florida 10 3 5.7 9 21.1
James Jackson Louisiana Tech 9.5 2 7.5 8 24.0
Ezekiel Turner Washington 9.5 1 16.0 9 15.2
Richie Grant Central Florida 9.5 0 11 19.6
Kirk Tucker Oklahoma State 9.5 0 10 22.7

Of this list, here are, in my opinion, your top five gunners with one week remaining:

  1. Dayan Ghanwoloku, BYU
  2. Alex Grace, WMU
  3. Mathew Sexton, EMU
  4. Nilijah Ballew, BGSU
  5. Kyron Johnson, Kansas

Ghanwoloku was a late riser, but he has made his tackles count, blowing up some punt returns and producing one of the better kick return averages as well. Grace and Johnson were the best from a quantity perspective, Sexton’s a quality-over-quantity guy, and Ballew is a mix of the two.