Sunday, December 07, 2014

Settle it on the field

To everyone that thought expanding the college football playoffs to four teams would end the debate about which team got left out: I told you so. Of course this just moves the debate down to fifth place instead of third place. There are 68 teams in March Madness and people still argue about the teams that get left out. Some people are saying we should stop complaining because we asked for it. Well, I didn't.

The truth is that there's a standard way of selecting a champion from a large set of teams where it's not feasible for every team to play every other team.
  • Divide the teams into pools. (Done: these are called conferences.)
  • Select a winner from each pool. (Done, except for the Big 12's co-champion problem.)
  • Rank the teams and select wildcards to fill out the bracket. (Done: the playoff committee already ranks the top 25 teams; see below for selecting wildcards.)
Yes, this can be done without adding any games. Here's how it would work. You can read my original 2009 proposal for more discussion.
  • Eight Team Bracket:
    • The five conference champions* from the Power 5** conferences.
    • The top-ranked Group of Five** team (mid-major conferences), provided it is ranked in the top twelve or above at least one Power 5 champion.
    • Additional top-ranked teams as wild cards to make a total of eight teams, except including no more than one wild card team from a single conference.
    • Teams seeded in order of ranking with the order of the bottom four teams adjusted as necessary to avoid any team playing a rematch in the quarterfinals.
  • Matchup Week:
    • The regular season is reduced by one game and a new Matchup Week is added after the conference championship games.
    • The quarterfinals are played during Matchup Week.
    • The rest of the teams play a comparably ranked team from another conference, paired on a rotating basis. For example, teams in the SEC East might play teams from the ACC Atlantic one year, and teams from the Big 12 South another year. This provides an exciting way to compare the quality of teams between conferences head to head.
  • Bowl Games:
    • The four teams that win in the playoffs, advance to the four team bracket.
    • The remaining bowl games are scheduled as they are now, including the four teams that lost in the quarterfinals.
  • Championship Game:
As with the NCAA basketball tournament, this provides a clear path for teams to win the national championship. And it indubitably makes wins on the field more important than votes in a poll.

UPDATE: Yes, the conference championships are effectively the first round of the playoffs. So this is really a 12 team bracket. (And it will be 13 teams if the Big 12 adds a championship game again as they are considering.) However, teams that lose in the first round still get a chance to make the quarterfinals as a wild card.

* Yes, there is the unlikely possibility that a team with a losing record (and therefore not bowl-eligible) will win a conference. The conference loses its automatic bid in that circumstance but is still eligible for a wild card team.

** The set of power conferences (currently, Power 5) and mid-major conferences (currently, Group of Five) would be subject to periodic adjustment just as they are currently.

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