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When college football switched from two to four playoff teams in 2014, it was seen as a move whose ripple effects would benefit the game in leaps and bounds. Viewers were guaranteed three massive games every year instead of just one. Teams would be more compelled to fight till the end, since a single loss wouldn’t signify a death sentence. Sure, there would be controversy about teams being left out, but this already existed in the old format.
However, the new schematic glossed over a grave factor: the prevalence of conferences. For starters, the system is compromised by simple arithmetic. There are five “power” conferences but only four spots available. This may seem like a trivial concern; just omit the least of the five conference winners. Doing so though diminishes the purpose of having conferences at all.
Take for example the 2017 Pac-12 championship pitting USC against Stanford. Though the winner will lock up a major bowl appearance, the match is meaningless in the context of the playoff. Such a game garners immensely more intrigue if it can actually potentially impact who the national champion would be. College basketball understands this; all conference champions make the tournament, meaning each conference slate will eventually culminate in game to keep one team’s season alive.
The current landscape begets another issue: the two best teams in a conference don’t always play in the conference championship. Auburn will face Georgia in the SEC championship, despite Alabama having one loss while Auburn has two. The system in place rationalizes this by virtue of Auburn having beaten Alabama head-to-head. If Auburn had three losses, Alabama would play Georgia. But because they’re “close enough” in record, Auburn gets to go. The logic is arbitrary and inane, yet it rarely seems to get called into question.
Just last year the committee proved its lack of interest in honoring conference success. Two loss Penn State, in vein of the aforementioned issue, made the Big 10 championship over one loss Ohio State due to a head-to-head victory. Penn St would beat Wisconsin to win the conference, but Ohio State made the playoff while Penn State did not. There’s no problem if record is the only thing that matters. But college football is constructed such as to place an emphasis on conference play; when it mattered, however, this was thrown out the window.
Hypocrisy and contradiction run rampant in the committee’s thought process, but it’s not necessarily their fault. With no objective guidelines as to who gets in, they’re forced to make things up as they go along. Rather than the four-team playoff being a jubilant hype-beast, it’s become a petri dish for retroactive debate that detracts from the games themselves. It also mars the bowl games featuring teams that appeared to be snubbed; if one wins in convincing fashion, it reinvigorates the notion that they should’ve been in the playoff. The converse applies for the playoff games; if a questionable team gets rocked, the banter seismically shifts to how they should not have been there.
Some issues may arise yet again given this season’s parameters. By putting Ohio State in last year, the committee decided that record is more important than being a conference champion. This year, however, it’s possible that two teams, Alabama and Wisconsin, could have better records than teams that won their conferences. This would leave just two conference champions in the playoffs, meaning three would miss. If more conference champions miss the playoffs than make it, it makes the existence of conferences virtually meaningless.
I am not proposing abolishing conferences. I’m proposing expanding the field to eight teams. I believe it’s the only way to give proper credence to both conference performance and overall record. The field would include the five conference champions as well as three wild cards. If a team misses the playoffs, they can’t use the quirky conference framework as an excuse; they simply weren’t good enough. If an objective outline for getting in were available with 4 teams, I would see no need for a change. But such a rubric seems impossible to create the way things are.