How an 8-team playoff would make this college football weekend even more insane

We’re two days, four major conference championship games and one Big 12-deciding rivalry game away from setting this year’s College Football Playoff. But while there’s still plenty to be sorted out between now and Sunday, the fact is that only two or three matchups from this weekend’s packed docket will have a measurable impact on which teams make up the committee’s final four.

It’s a shame, to say the least, that teams like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Colorado, Florida and Virginia Tech will be playing for so much and so little at the same time, but that’s the reality of life with a four-team playoff — which, we should note, is better than no playoff at all. Still, it’s fair to wonder how the playoff (and this weekend) might make for more compelling theater with the benefit of the eight-team field that so many fans of the sport desire.

With that in mind, we decided to take a look at the impact that a hypothetical eight-team playoff would have on the 2016 conference championship slate. And while there are differing opinions as to how an eight-team playoff might be constructed — each of them with their own inherent flaws — we’re operating using two models: One that awards automatic bids to the five major conference champions, plus the top-ranked Group of Five team, and one that’s essentially an eight-team version of what we already have.


One popular school of thought suggests that any potential eight-team playoff would include tie-ins for each of the five major-conference champions, a slot for the highest-ranked Group of Five team, and two wild-cards to round out the field.

In that scenario, three-loss division winners such as Florida or Virginia Tech, neither of whom are in contention for a top-four finish under the current system, would suddenly be one win away from turning the entire playoff on its head. And if you’re into chaos and looking for a reason to watch an otherwise incidental blowout, the risk of such an outcome is the perfect excuse.

The framework, under this proposal — and in this case we’ll assume that there’s no minimum standard for teams to meet in order to receive an automatic bid — would look something like this (current records in parentheses):


SEC: No. 1 Alabama (12-0) or No. 15 Florida (8-3)

ACC: No. 3 Clemson (11-1) or No. 23 Virginia Tech (9-3)

Pac-12: No. 4 Washington (11-1) or No. 8 Colorado (10-2)

Big Ten: No. 6 Wisconsin (10-2) or No. 7 Penn State (10-2)

Big 12: No. 9 Oklahoma (9-2) or No. 10 Oklahoma State (9-2)


No. 17 Western Michigan (12-0, needs a win over Ohio in the MAC championship) or No. 19 Navy (9-2, would need wins over Temple in the AAC championship and Army and a WMU loss)


No. 2 Ohio State (11-1) or a conference championship loser

No. 5 Michigan (10-2) or a conference championship loser

Using this format, it’s likely that the losers of the Big Ten (Saturday, FOX, 7 p.m. ET), Pac-12 (Friday, FOX, 8 p.m. ET) and de facto Big 12 championship games would be out of the field altogether, although two-loss Washington could make a compelling case for bumping two-loss Michigan from a wild-card spot should the Huskies end up the only favorite among the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 to go down.

It’s less cut and dry, however, in the SEC and ACC, whose aforementioned championship games pit a massive underdog against a team that was previously assumed to be a playoff lock.

With respect to the SEC, one has to assume that Alabama would be in an eight-team playoff regardless of its conference championship fate — and almost certainly at the Wolverines’ expense in the unlikely event of a loss to the Gators. And there would likely be few complaints with that arrangement should the ACC game go as expected.

That said, a Clemson loss to Virginia Tech in addition to an Alabama upset would leave the committee to decide whether a one-loss Ohio State team that did not win its division is more worthy of a playoff spot than a two-loss Clemson squad whose second defeat came in a conference championship game the Buckeyes weren’t required to play.

There would also be a hearty bit of discussion, should Clemson be the only favorite to fall, as to whether the Tigers or Michigan were more deserving of the final at-large nod. However, if we simply assume that the heaviest favorites take care of business, the resulting eight-team playoff probably looks something like this:

1. Alabama

2. Clemson

3. Ohio State

4. Wisconsin

5. Washington

6. Oklahoma

7. Michigan

8. Western Michigan

Meanwhile, the nightmare scenario — one including conference championship game losses by both Clemson and Alabama — could resemble this:

1. Ohio State

2. Alabama

3. Wisconsin/Penn State winner

4. Washington/Colorado winner

5. Oklahoma/Oklahoma State winner

6. Florida

7. Virginia Tech

8. Western Michigan

In either case, an eight-team playoff attaches national title implications to every conference championship game, and that’s to say nothing of the impact that losses by Western Michigan and Navy in their own title games could have on the standings. As an added bonus, snoozers like Clemson-Virginia Tech and Alabama-Florida suddenly become significantly more intriguing — at least until things get out of hand — making for a more compelling championship weekend all the way around.


Of course, the calculus changes a bit if automatic bids are removed from the equation — and there would be strong pushback arguing that they should, if the NCAA were to seriously consider a move to an eight-team format.

For starters, Western Michigan and the rest of the Group of Five would be out of the picture altogether, as would both Florida and Virginia Tech, as none of those teams have a case to be in the top eight. That’s true even if we assume stunning conference titles from the Gators (over No. 1 Alabama) and Hokies (over No. 3 Clemson) and a million-point blowout by the Broncos in Friday’s MAC Championship Game in Detroit.

With those four teams no longer in play, Ohio State and Michigan become virtual locks to make the eight-team field without having to play on Saturday (although Ohio State’s standing in a four- or eight-team system was never really in doubt). Additionally, Alabama and Clemson are likely in no matter what happens in their respective games, as are the Big Ten and Big 12 winners.

At that point, the only real question to be answered is whether the Big Ten gets three or four teams into the field, which probably shakes out like this:

1. Alabama

2. Clemson

3. Ohio State

4. Wisconsin/Penn State winner

5. Washington/Colorado winner

6. Oklahoma/Oklahoma State winner

7. Michigan

8. Wisconsin/Penn State loser or Washington (should the Huskies lose), or USC

Yes, with this setup you’d at least have to entertain the idea that USC could get in. The No. 11 Trojans are among the hottest teams in football and in no way resemble the unit that stumbled to a 1-3 start. Plus, at least three teams ranked ahead of them will lose a conference championship game, and in the case of the Pac-12, USC beat both Colorado and Washington in the regular season.

Even if the committee gave USC the edge over Washington, it would still have to pick the Trojans over the Penn State-Wisconsin loser in order for them to get in, but stranger things have certainly happened. And if we were so lucky as to get an Alabama-USC rematch in the first round of the playoffs, it’s probably safe to say it would be more competitive than the Tide’s season-opening beatdown at AT&T Stadium.

Overall, this model is not all that different from the current format, but if nothing else, the eight-team version of the existing four-team system gives fans a reason to care who wins this weekend’s games. Right now, the Big Ten is the only championship game in which both teams have hopes for a spot in the four-team playoff, and while winning a conference title is great, it’s not the same if you know you’ve got no shot at the ultimate prize. This format would add that same winner-take-all intensity to the Pac-12 and de facto Big 12 championship games as well, and that’s not nothing.


Just for fun, we kicked around one more idea that has made the rounds among fervent college football fans: What if the NCAA got rid of conference championship games and replaced them with a playoff play-in weekend instead? (As a disclaimer, we’ll note that this would never happen, but let’s allow ourselves to live in fantasy land for a minute and consider how much fun it would be.)

In this alternate universe, the top four seeds based on the Week 14 CFP rankings would be locked into the eventual eight-team playoff field after receiving the equivalent of a first-round bye. Behind them, the teams ranked 5-12 by the committee would battle it out NCAA tournament-style to fill the remaining four spots.

Now, to parse out this particular plan using this particular season, we’ll have to first make a couple assumptions. First, we’d have to figure that the Big 12, in a world with this 12-team playoff, would move up the schedule so its regular season is complete after Week 13. And for simplicity’s sake, we’ll say the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State winner stays at No. 9, while the loser is out altogether.

From there, we’d slide USC and Florida State up one spot, and based on the current rankings, Louisville would sneak in as the No. 12 seed despite losing its last two games, giving us this lineup for this weekend:

No. 1. Alabama (bye)

No. 2. Ohio State (bye)

No. 3. Clemson (bye)

No. 4. Washington (bye)

No. 5. Michigan vs. No. 12. Louisville

No. 6. Wisconsin vs. No. 11. Florida State

No. 7. Penn State vs. No. 10. USC

No. 8. Colorado vs. No. 9. Oklahoma/Oklahoma State

In addition to giving us two unique and intriguing matchups — Penn State and USC last met in the 2009 Rose Bowl and Florida State and Wisconsin have only played once, in 2008 — this proposal, in 2016, would revive an old Big 12 rivalry left by the wayside when Colorado joined the Pac-12 and also bring into the fold a potential Heisman winner in Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. And you’re lying to yourself if you say you wouldn’t want to see Jackson face Michigan at the Big House.

More importantly, it would make every one of this weekend’s games matter in the way that every random 12-5 matchup has us glued to our TVs in March. And while there are a million reasons it’ll never happen — a statement that could be true for any one of these suggestions — it’s immeasurably better than what we currently have.

And ultimately, that’s the point of this entire exercise. A four-team playoff is great, and we’re fortunate to at least have that, but imagine how insane this weekend would be if we had 10 teams fighting for eight spots instead of five teams fighting for two. Unfortunately, that concept will remain a pipe dream for the foreseeable future, but should it ever come to pass, we’ll finally get a true taste of how incredible conference championship weekend could be.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at