Column: 4-team playoff is fine, but 8 would be perfect
ATLANTA (AP) Naturally, the four coaches on the podium were happy with the system the way it is.
They’ve all got a shot at the national championship.
But, as Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Alabama’s Nick Saban, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Georgia’s Kirby Smart gathered at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, it was clear that others should’ve been up there with them.
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, for sure.
Southern Cal’s Clay Helton, too.
Central Florida’s Josh Heupel , as well. (Or Scott Frost , if he had chosen to stay with the Knights a bit longer to take a run at a title.)
The final spot could’ve gone to either Paul Chryst of Wisconsin or Gus Malzahn of Auburn.
More isn’t always better, but in this case it would be.
There’s no good reason not to expand the College Football Playoff to eight teams.
”I’m not opposed to it,” said Swinney, the only one who seemed open to the idea.
But, he quickly added, ”I kind of like what we have.”
An eight-team playoff makes so much sense, we’re likely to go years before the inevitable happens.
But, rest assured, that day is coming.
Might as well get to it.
All five Power Five conference champions should get an automatic spot, which would make every one of their title games a playoff before the actual playoff. That was essentially the case this year, with Clemson (Atlantic Coast), Oklahoma (Big 12) and Georgia (Southeastern) all getting in by winning their respective leagues.
Made for a pretty thrilling day, didn’t it?
But Ohio State (Big Ten) and Southern Cal (Pac-12) were left out. Instead, the selection committee handed the fourth playoff spot went to once-beaten Alabama, which didn’t even win the SEC West.
Now, this isn’t a knock on the Crimson Tide, which has been college football’s dominant program for the past decade and very well could win the fifth national title of the Saban era. Alabama (11-1) was ranked No. 1 all year by The Associated Press – until a 26-14 loss at Auburn in the regular-season finale , which was enough to knock the Tide out of the SEC championship game as well.
On paper, at least, Bama probably deserved the nod over Ohio State (11-2) and certainly Southern Cal (11-2).
But conference titles should be the first point of entry for any playoff system, and that has always been the most glaring flaw with a four-team playoff and five major conferences.
”There’s never going to be a magic number. If we have eight, (Nos.) 9 and 10 are going to be upset. If we have 16, 17 and 18 are going to be upset,” Riley said. ”I think the final four has been great. I think the biggest thing to me is people need to have realistic expectations. You’re not going to go to the playoff every single year. Only four teams can do it.”
But let’s envision how much better an eight-team playoff would be.
The five Power Five champions would be in automatically, seeded 1 through 5. This season, that would’ve been Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia, Ohio State and Southern Cal. The best of the rest, from the so-called Group of Five, would also be guaranteed a berth. What a story that would’ve been with Central Florida (or, as they prefer to be called, UCF), who won the American Athletic Conference with a perfect 12-0 mark just two seasons after going 0-12 .
Wouldn’t it have been great to see the Knights get a shot at the big boys, just like those Cinderella teams that add so much appeal to the NCAA basketball tournament?
That still leaves room for two wild-card berths. Alabama would’ve been an easy choice, and Wisconsin (12-1) likely would’ve gotten the last spot after a perfect regular season was marred only by a loss to Ohio State in a Big Ten title game that went right to the wire.
Auburn (10-3), which had victories over both Georgia and Alabama in the past month, also could’ve made a pretty strong case.
As Riley said, there’s always going to be plenty of room for debate and controversy no matter how many teams you take.
Nothing wrong with that.
”I don’t care if we have 68 teams in it,” Saban said. ”We’ll still have a two-hour show on who shouldn’t have got in it, just like they do in basketball.”
An eight-team playoff would hardly dilute the postseason product, other than making the bowls even more irrelevant than most of them already are. Frankly, we consider that another huge plus (sorry, fans of the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl).
Holding the quarterfinals around Christmas (this year, Dec. 23 would’ve been the date) seems to work just fine within the constraints of the academic calendar, since everyone has completed exams and gone on their holiday break anyway. If an extra round of games is deemed too much to ask of the players (yeah, like that’s ever been a concern), eliminate one of those meaningless regular-season games (Alabama vs. Mercer we could do without).
If the six major bowls – Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Peach and Fiesta – want to have a truly meaningful game every season, they could divvy up the quarterfinals and semifinals instead of settling for a semi once every three years. Or, if three rounds of neutral-site games is deemed unfeasible, hold the quarterfinals at campus sites, with the top four seeds getting home games.
This season, it would’ve looked like this in the opening round: Clemson vs. Central Florida, Oklahoma vs. Wisconsin, Georgia vs. Alabama, and Ohio State vs. Southern Cal.
Sounds like a plan.
Let’s get to it.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
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