O’Boyle: Searching for the perfect playoff
Daniel O'Boyle | Friday, August 28, 2015
Let’s get this straight before the college football season starts: The answer is six. Not eight, not four, not 16 — there should be six teams in the College Football Playoff.
This isn’t a reactionary solution to last year’s situation, in which six teams ended the season with an argument for a shot at the title (last season is just proof that six is such a convenient point for a cut-off), and it’s not a plan for a guaranteed spot for Notre Dame in the playoff every single year alongside five conference champions; a six-team playoff just works. It means the regular season is still incredibly important, while solving the mess that is the college football landscape.
Let me outline my proposal a little more. Six teams are selected: I don’t think there needs to be automatic qualification for “Power Five” conference champions, but I would expect them to take five spots almost every year. That would leave one spot to be fought over by co-champions, conference runners-up, independents and champions from the “Group of Five” conferences. Most years, that selection will only produce one really worthy team (the second of TCU and Baylor last year), and a second can earn a spot if they truly have a stronger case than a Power Five champion, meaning Power Five teams will still have an incentive to draw up a tough out-of-conference schedule. The top two teams would then get a bye straight into the semifinals. Will there be argument over who gets the bye? Of course, but the teams missing out get a chance to show they deserved it and still compete for the championship.
Maybe it’s because I’m not American, and I grew up watching soccer, but I don’t really love playoffs. My beloved Reading FC’s regular failures in promotion playoffs, often as the top seed, probably didn’t help either. If college football could go without one, I wouldn’t mind. It can’t because with so many different conferences and schedules a champion is never clear, but I still believe a playoff should be small. Not four teams because five power conferences fighting for four places makes no sense, but six is as big as it needs to go.
Americans love playoffs, they love to see an underdog overcome the odds and win, but do they really deserve it if they weren’t the best team over the course of the season? Would Michigan State really have been worthy national champions last year, or South Carolina the year before?
And the more teams you let in, the less the regular season matters. One thing that makes college football special in American sports is that every single game matters for a national championship contender. Lose one game, and there’s a chance your title hopes are gone; lose two, and it’s almost certain. There’s no other major sport that’s so unforgiving, and it means that every second of the season can be exciting. You never know when the next twist in the season will come. With a larger playoff, the champion is the best team at the end of the season but not always the best team over the whole season. In every other sport, you can get hot late in the season, but in college football, you have to start hot and stay hot.
With an eight-team playoff, a loss isn’t a great concern — you know one loss should see you in, and even a second isn’t a huge worry. But with six, not only are your chances of making the playoff slimmer, but you’re always fighting for that bye. That means there’s still a real reward for a perfect regular season. Not a moment goes by in the season of a contender that doesn’t have national championship implications: There’s a chance of redemption for one or even two losses, but the top teams will be fighting for a top-two spot, not just a top-six one.
Sure it’s only a two-team difference, and eight teams is probably a better option than four, but if you want every single week of college football to really matter, a playoff needs six teams: no more, no less.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.