Picking Playoff Teams Doesn't Have to be so Hard
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Picking Playoff Teams Doesn’t Have to be so Hard

December 05, 2016

The latest issue of Hail Varsity is rolling off the presses and will be on newsstands and in mailboxes shortly. This issue features a review of the Huskers’ 2016 football season, coverage of Nebraska volleyball’s Big Ten title and the opening rounds of NCAA Tournament play, the ultimate guide to Big Ten rivalry trophies and a handy bowl schedule among other highlights.

Aaron Babcock

The column below also appears in our upcoming issue and we wanted to give some of our loyal online readers a special preview of the type of stories we publish in the magazine. If you’re not a print subscriber, you can sign up today. Or, if you’re still looking for the perfect holiday gift for a Husker fan or two, gift subscriptions are available. Thanks for reading.

Alternate playoff scenarios are like opinions, everyone has at least one. The four-team playoff was supposed to make determining college football’s national champion easier, or at least more thorough. No more computers, no more bowl tie-ins at the very top, just four teams with a shot to win a shiny new trophy.

The price for this new clarity at the end of the season? Months of arguing over resumes and rules that don’t exist. The only mandate the committee has is to pick the four best teams, so that’s what it tries to do and everyone has a different way to define “best.” All that bickering has led to plenty of ideas to improve the process, but what about the easiest one: Just do what they do in the Football Championship Subdivision.

The FCS playoff is 24 teams. Eleven conference champions earn automatic bids and the remaining thirteen are selected by a, you guessed it, selection committee. Minus the championship game, all of the playoff games are played at the home field of the higher-seeded team. It’s pretty basic and boy is it fun.

The FBS schools could follow the same format pretty easily. Champions of the 10 conferences get in. This year that group would include: Temple, Clemson, Oklahoma, Penn State, Western Kentucky, Western Michigan, San Diego State, Washington, Alabama and Appalachian State. We’d have to figure out what to do with the independents – be great if you guys could join a conference already – but say those schools have to hit a ranking threshold. BYU would be the closest this year and probably wouldn’t make it.

That would leave the committee to pick 14 teams and, if you go by the final CFP rankings, it gets every team from No. 3 Ohio State to No. 20 LSU in the playoff. The top eight seeds get a first-round bye and it’s going to take five weeks to play this thing, ending in early January just like it does now, so you probably have to chop a week off the regular season.

What are the potential problems? The number of games is cited as one in the CFP’s founding document, “How to Select the Four Best Teams.” The conference commissioners wrote in 2012 that “the physical impact of the game on student athletes prevents elaborate playoff systems of multiple games.” Just not for the guys at the lower levels who have smaller rosters, fewer football amenities and less access to first-class travel, I guess. Not buying that one.

What about the bowls? The bowls largely go away. They served their purpose for a long time, but now their primary value is as a piece of programming. You can try to keep around some of the historic ones and use them as sites for the quarterfinals and beyond, but it’s not very fan friendly. Do we want full stadiums and fans to be able to see their teams in person or nostalgia? I guess if two non-playoff teams want to get together in Shreveport, Louisiana, and play a game in December, that’s fine. We know some network will put it on TV.

What about the 25th best team? It should have won another game, I guess. If you were doing this in 2016, that conversation would have been about teams like Stanford, Utah, LSU, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh. It’s a much different conversation when it’s further down the rankings. It becomes the equivalent of March Madness snubs — people note them, talk about them on Selection Sunday and then move on.

Compare that to Penn State finishing fifth in the final rankings, which one Philadelphia columnist tweeted (and since deleted) was the “biggest American sports tragedy of all time.”

I don’t know about you, but I no longer want to be a party to committing such tragedies going forward. Or I’m just tired of trying to make sense out of a process that cannot ever objectively be understood.

It doesn’t have to be this hard. Or loud. Or tragic, I suppose.

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