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Thomas: Are we there yet? When will the College Football Playoff Committee expand the field?

| Monday, November 4, 2019

No disrespect to September and October, but November is the month that makes the college football playoff season as great as it is. Yes, those first two months supply us with some storylines and a few major upsets, but their main purpose is to prepare our palate for a month of heavyweight battles, rivalry weekends, teams making a run at their conference championship and, for a select few, a desperate surge to make the College Football Playoff.

Which of course, brings us to what truly defines November: controversy and the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. Unfortunately, the two go hand-in-hand, and the controversy creates a bevy of storylines that sadly overshadow some of the great football that is played. Tuesday’s rankings should — likely — have very little controversy. Four of the top five teams were on bye, and Clemson played Wofford.

A few questions, however, linger. How will the committee view Clemson, which has been consistently devalued by the AP Poll by virtue of a weak schedule and very tight win over North Carolina? Who will be No. 1? With five undefeated teams locking down the top five slots, where does the committee rank Baylor and Minnesota, undefeated squads with lower-profile resumes, and who is ranked as the top one-loss team? 

The reason we can’t answer any of these questions is simply because the committee has not provided any sort of blueprint for making the College Football Playoff. Some days, it seems that the “eye test” is the most critical point, while other times it seems avoiding a bad loss is critical. They’ve seemingly made a point that no two-loss teams will make the field, but even that creates controversy (see Georgia, 2018-2019).

There’s a million questions, and a committee made up of 13 members can only answer so many of them. Inevitably, there will be controversy in the coming month, and, after the championship, people will bemoan how their team that fell just short of the Playoff would have fared better, and we will enter another offseason wondering how we can improve the current system.

So what’s the best way to fix the Playoff? I’ll offer a few ideas:

First off, expand the committee. Thirteen people is not enough to reach a consensus, in any way. Moving from the automated BCS system was critical, as computer formulas simply were never going to be able to truly tell the best teams. However, to hand over this job to just 13 individuals is highly flawed. The AP Poll uses 65 voters — five times as many as the committee. There’s no reason not to make the committee bigger, and, like any vote, the results will be more accurate with more people. 

Secondly, expand the playoff field, but with a method. People who say that an eight-team playoff can fix the controversy have the right idea, but simply expanding the current system to the “eight best teams” will do very little other than to create controversy around the teams finishing 8th and 9th, rather than the teams finishing 4th and 5th. So let’s create a plan for an expanded playoff. 

Ten slots are saved for the Power-Five conference champions and runners-up. Five slots are reserved for Group of Five champions, because every playoff is more fun when you have the little guys taking their best shots at the top dogs. And that leaves 1 at-large bid. However, there are exceptions to the auto-bid slots: If a Power-Five team has more than 2 losses, they’re eliminated from playoff contention. That prevents teams like the 8-4 2018 Northwestern team from making the field. And for any Group of Five team that takes a second loss, they are also excluded from the Playoff. For every auto-bid that is forfeited, an at-large bid is added. Thus, every conference gets their representative (unless they’re so bad that every team has 3+ losses).

Now certainly there is still room for controversy with the at-large bids, and how to rank the auto-bid teams. But this places value on both the regular season, winning your division, and your conference championship. Now this evidently adds two more games to the schedule for those who make it through the 4-game playoff bracket, which might be unreasonable. So let’s simply eliminate a non-conference game from the regular season schedule. Because nobody wants to see Clemson play Wofford on Nov. 2, or Alabama play Western Carolina on Nov. 23. Would you rather watch one of those games? Or see a chance for 8-1 Memphis to take on LSU in a first-round playoff game?

The four-team playoff has scared teams away from scheduling competitive non-conference games, which makes the regular season less fun. It has essentially devalued conference championships, by repeatedly taking one-loss non-champions over two-loss champions, and it has completely neglected the Group of Five teams. So let’s see a change: expand the committee, create a blueprint for how you select teams and expand the playoffs. 

But this is all wishful thinking for now: the Playoffs will remain four teams for the foreseeable future, and for this year, the first rankings come out on Tuesday. So enjoy November football, and let the controversy begin.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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