Nebraska coach Scott Frost led the country’s only unbeaten team at UCF in 2017. But the Knights didn’t sniff the College Football Playoff, driving them to claim the national title for themselves while the four-team event continued to not pay much mind to any mid-majors.
People have spilled a lot of ink and said a lot of words about expanding the Playoff beyond four participants. That’s been going on since the Playoff came into existence for the 2014 season. Naturally, the idea floated most often is to double the field size to eight.
An eight-team playoff could work without a lot of tinkering. Here’s Frost, running through the specifics at Big Ten Media Days:
It’s hard to look at last year’s college football season and not feel like an eight-team playoff isn’t where we should go. I think that’s my opinion. I think it should be five conference champions and three at-large teams. That would give a surprise conference champion that plays well at the end of the season a shot. It might give a team like we had at UCF last year a shot.
I think you could start the playoff earlier in December, not have to make the semifinal like a bowl experience. That would allow the season to end about the same time that it does with the national championship game. I don’t think it takes away from the regular season and the importance of those games. And as great as the evolution of that playoff has been, I’m always going to be an advocate for eight teams.
Frost has supported an eight-team Playoff for a while.
It’s almost the same approach Bill Connelly laid out in his 2017 campaign platform to be college football’s commissioner.
Connelly used 2016 as an example:
Quarterfinals around December 17, semifinals on New Year’s Eve/Day, and finals around January 15. If you want to get bowls involved, fine, but giving early home-field advantage to the top four seeds would make regular-season games as meaningful as possible.
Here’s an example, using the 2016 season.
-8 Western Michigan (G5 rep) at 1 Alabama (SEC champ)
-5 Penn State (Big Ten champ) at 4 Washington (Pac-12 champ)
-6 Michigan (at-large) at 3 Ohio State (at-large)*
-7 Oklahoma (Big 12 champ) at 2 Clemson (ACC champ)
* When possible, teams would be adjusted by one (and no more than one) seed to avoid regular season rematches. This produces a Michigan-Ohio State rematch, stemming from the fact that Ohio State has also played the No. 5 and 7 teams, but if we simulate two more years, you see that is a rare rematch.
The lone difference in Frost’s system and Connelly’s is that Connelly’s has a specific carveout for a mid-major rep. The basics, though, are the same: Put all the Power 5 champions in the field, and find three teams from the rest of FBS to fill in the gaps.
Unlike a lot of other expansion ideas that sound good in theory but get messy on paper, this eight-team system wouldn’t torpedo the schedule.
Washington State coach Mike Leach has been asking for a 64-team field for more than a decade. That sounds just like March Madness and therefore sounds fun. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun has advocated for a pre-Playoff playoff, where a bunch of teams battle to be the Group of 5 rep in the main event. That sounds like it’d make more games important and create beautiful chaos in a sport that thrives on it.
The problem with those ideas is the calendar. The season starts Labor Day weekend, and moving it up to accommodate a longer postseason would mean having Week 1 games before most students are even on campus.
The season could always just last longer, but if it goes any later than January 15 or so, it gets awfully close to the National Signing Day on the first Wednesday in February. The new Early Signing Period in December might make that less of a big deal, but coaches have already spoken at length about the difficulties of needing to sign their classes in the middle of bowl season. Packing in more postseason games into that month wouldn’t help matters there.
Beyond that, making the Playoff bigger than it is now forces a fundamental choice: Make players play more games, or shorten the regular season. Given how important the regular season is in a sport where most teams have no real shot at a national championship, it’s hard to see a lot of momentum behind a shorter year than 12 games. And ongoing conversations about how to make the sport safer for players don’t lend themselves to forcing the championship team to play a 16-, 17-, or 18-game season.
Those issues could all be dealt with if everyone got together, but the easiest Playoff expansion is just what Frost describes.
Let eight teams in, and use what’s currently a layoff between conference championships and the big bowls to play the extra round of Playoff games.