NCAA Football

NCAA must go to an eight-team college football playoff

michigan ohio state 2016

Ohio State picks up 4th and 1 in Double OT. Credit: Jamie Sabau, Getty Images

The college football playoff selection committee is begging for an easy way out of this one. The nightmare scenario has been brewing all season long, but really started boiling once Ohio State beat No. 3 Michigan on Saturday. Michigan looked like the superior team all game long, but with some key turnovers Ohio State hung on to a home victory, seemingly cementing their place in the playoff with Alabama.

However, then Penn State went ahead and routed Michigan State, a team Ohio State barely survived 17-16 a week ago, and whose only conference win was against Rutgers. With the victory Penn State secured their place in the Big 10 Championship next week against Wisconsin due to their head-to-head win against the consensus No. 2 team in the country Ohio State.

If Penn State prevails over Wisconsin, how could the committee possibly leave them out of the playoff? Their last loss came on the road to then No. 4 Michigan and that was back in September. They also lost a September game at Pittsburgh, currently ranked No. 24 in the country. A win over Wisconsin would give the Nittany Lions nine straight wins, and in addition to their signature win over No. 2 Ohio State, Penn State would also be able to boast a championship in arguably the best conference in college football.  That is a convincing resume, and just imagine if they rout Wisconsin the way Ohio State did in the inaugural playoff season.

In this scenario, let’s say three spots in the playoff are taken by Alabama, Ohio State and Penn State. There won’t be just one or two teams with strong arguments for that fourth spot, and that is where the case for expansion to eight teams begins.

If Washington wins convincingly against Colorado in the Pac 12 championship their resume will include the conference title to go along with an 11-1 record, with their only loss being against a quality USC team. They are currently ranked No. 4 in the AP and Coaches polls, and will likely move up to No. 4 in the CFP poll on Tuesday night with Michigan falling out.

Michigan, however, still has a compelling argument for inclusion. They beat Penn State, and looked better than Ohio State despite being on the road in the biggest game of the year. If you go by the eye test, Michigan is every bit as deserving of a playoff spot as Ohio State or Penn State. While they do have two losses, a one-point loss on the road to Iowa on a last second field goal is their only other blemish. They have been ranked in the top four all season long, and simply couldn’t pull off the victory at Ohio State, despite appearing to be the superior team. Their only hope of a playoff spot would be if Colorado can beat Washington for the Pac 12 title, and if Virginia Tech can beat Clemson in the ACC championship.

Clemson is an interesting case. Coming off a near national championship upset against Alabama last year, Clemson was highly ranked coming into the season and was able to maintain that ranking as they breezed through a schedule without many major challenges along the way. An opening night win at Auburn does stand out and Louisville had been ranked No. 3 when Clemson beat them 42-36, but Louisville has since proven to be an underwhelming team. Clemson’s best victory of the year was likely on the road at Florida State, a game the Tigers won 37-34. By strength of schedule Clemson does come in at No. 9, so I may be overstating how easy of a road it’s been, but they simply don’t have a signature win on their resume. Despite this, if they win the ACC on Saturday they are a lock to be in the CFP top four.

Last, and least, is the Big 12. Ranked No. 3 to begin the season, Oklahoma had their road to the playoff mapped out before them. But an opening night loss to then No. 15 Houston followed by a home loss by three touchdowns to Ohio State seemingly left Oklahoma looking to next year as far as the playoff was concerned. Eight straight wins later though, and Oklahoma is still holding on to a slight bit of hope to get in. Their winning streak will be put on the line as the Bedlam showdown against Oklahoma State (winners of seven straight) will decide the Big 12 title. An Oklahoma win combined with upset wins for Colorado and Virginia Tech could lead to Oklahoma having a legitimate shot at the final playoff spot.

At the end of the day, there is only one thing anyone in college football can agree on: Alabama is the best team in the country. Beyond that, arguments can be made for any number of teams depending on the results of championship weekend. The headache of sorting through this mess and coming up with four teams that no one will agree on is alleviated by simply going to eight teams. If eight teams is not possible due to scheduling restrictions, six teams would still be a huge improvement, with the top two seeds getting a valuable bye.

With the Big 12 finally adding a championship game in 2017, every power five conference will be on even footing with schedules and championship games. If it’s called the “power five” then give those conferences some actual power and let each championship award a playoff spot. The committee can then seed those teams appropriately.

In the six team scenario the committee could choose the next best team that they consider to be the most worthy of the final playoff spot. With eight teams, the committee really has free reign to select three deserving teams who may have been left out of their conference championships, but still have legitimate resumes such as Ohio State and Michigan. The seeding of these eight teams would be critical and would be another rich source of debate.

Here’s what a top eight could look like depending on how the championship games play out:

  1. Alabama
  2. Ohio State
  3. Clemson
  4. Washington
  5. Michigan
  6. Winner of Big 10
  7. Winner of Big 12
  8. ?

No. 8 gets interesting. Would the committee give that spot to a hot USC team playing their best football? Would they include Washington or Clemson if upsets happen in those conference championship games? There would be plenty of fun debate for No. 8, but the other seven teams would seem to be pretty locked in as Ohio State and Michigan clearly deserve at large bids.

In the end, money is what motivates an entity like the NCAA and money is what they would get by expanding the playoff format. More games equals more fan-bases engaged, which means more debate on the airwaves and social media, which leads to more eyeballs on the actual games. The end result of this is simply more cash for the NCAA and the programs involved.

In order to enact change though, a perfect storm like the one that has been picking up steam this season must come together and rain chaos and confusion down on the committee members. The biggest piece to this puzzle is Penn State beating Wisconsin, and hopefully they pour it on. If Penn State loses, Michigan has less of a case with their head-to-head win losing some luster. This would free up the committee to go with just one Big 10 team, even if it’s not the Big 10 champion since Ohio State beat Wisconsin.

A Penn State loss would leave two open spots in the playoff, but doesn’t quite cure the committee of possible chaos. If Virginia Tech beats Clemson, and Colorado beats Washington, then who joins Alabama and Ohio State? Michigan and Clemson would most likely be in, but that would leave the committee with three non conference champions, which really cheapens the value of a conference championship — something the NCAA will surely want to avoid.

The problem is that the selection process is clear as mud, and this season has exposed the pitfalls in the system after two clean seasons in which the committee has been able to get off the hook. The criteria either needs to be cleaned up, or the playoff field needs to be expanded. Luckily expansion is the route that will make the most money, meaning sooner or later, it’ll be here. Until then, hopefully we get to enjoy a little chaos.

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