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College Football Doesn’t Want To Fix Its Broken Playoff System, It Wants Ratings

The people behind these playoff systems don’t want objective champions, they want eyeballs on screens.


The committee has come out with their college football playoff (CFP) selections, and really for the first time during the short history of the CFP, they are met with massive controversy because undefeated Florida State was locked out. This is the first time that an undefeated team with a Power 5 conference championship has not been selected for the college football playoff. But the truth is this controversy only exposes that college football has always been a big broken mess.

The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was the system that preceded the CFP. It used computers to rank and decide on two teams to compete for a national championship. At the time this was seen as a huge step forward because for a hundred years college football fans had wanted to see some kind of real championship grand final like the Super Bowl. Colleges would claim championships based on rankings and opinion polls. At least with BCS, there would be one champion and we’d all agree on who it was.

But the BCS system was rife with controversy. The beginning of the end for BCS was when University of Southern California was blocked out by the computers in 2003. They should have been selected to play Louisiana State University since Oklahoma had been destroyed in their conference championship game, but the BCS bat computer said otherwise. LSU went on to win the championship game and USC beat No. 4 Michigan in the Rose Bowl creating essentially a split championship which the system was supposed to prevent.

Expanding from the No. 1 vs. No. 2 format of BCS to the semifinals of the College Football Playoff was seen as a way out of that sort of controversy. And for the most part, basically until this year, the selection committee had successfully avoided debacles.

The irony is that next year the playoffs expand from four teams to 12, making it almost on par with the NFL’s playoff schedule. The controversy over Florida State University will be seen as the final argument for why they need to expand to 12 teams. But the truth is the same problem will persist because nothing about college football is even close to being objective or fair, and it never has been.

At the heart of all these championship systems is the anarchic nature of college football. Some of that is changing next year with the beginning of the mega-conference trend. In 2024 the SEC will expand to 16 teams and the Big Ten is going to 18. There will eventually be four mega-conferences at the top tier of college football, and that would have been perfect for the CFP because the four conference winners would go to the playoffs. But combining the eventual mega conferences with a 12-game playoff will not make it any more objective. It will put a lot more money on the table. It will raise the stakes, but it will not raise the objectivity or lower the controversy.

A Subjective Reaction to a Subjective Decision

This last breath of the CFP proves that controversy and subjectivity are the rule for football. Not only because a committee of experts picked the four teams that will duke it out to become champion, but because of the response from college football fans. Almost everyone seems to feel FSU was robbed even though Texas and Alabama are almost certainly better teams.

It’s a subjective reaction to a subjective decision about a game that is often decidedly random. Homefield advantage matters much more in football than the other North American sports. Referees are far intrusive in the game and can directly impact the outcome. What happens on the field can be a crapshoot.

Last year, I argued that the NFL playoffs were a terrible way to decide a champion. I made a convincing case for restructuring the NFL into a relegation-style league like the European football systems. The NFL could be broken into two 16-team leagues where every team plays every other team in a round-robin. The bottom three teams from the top go down and the top three teams from the bottom go up. This system would work even better in college football.

It would translate into a massive tiered structure of promotion and relegation. And most importantly every weekend would see the best college teams playing against the best college teams. Alabama wouldn’t be able to play crappy teams like Kentucky and Vanderbilt every year. Every weekend would be a CFP level match-up. Ohio State would have to play Georgia, Texas would have to play FSU, etc. Any other system is based on inconsistency and randomness, and this is true regardless of how many playoff games you add.

If a relegation tier format were implemented by the NCAA, college football would be greatly improved and there would be no doubt who was the best. Expanding to 12 teams just expands the controversy, and expands it in ways that will become increasingly pedantic and obnoxious.

For instance in a 12-team playoff, when will Alabama not make the playoffs? Many of the people crying over FSU’s exclusion this year are the same ones who think there’s a bias toward the SEC. That bias isn’t going to be reduced by expanding the playoffs. If anything, it will simply make it easier for powerhouses like Alabama to make it. In past eras losing a game was usually the death knell for a championship. Expanding the playoffs removes the pressure to be perfect and the SEC schools that recruit so much better than almost everyone else will be able to be better rested for the playoffs since the stakes will be lower.

The truth is that controversy and hurt feelings are good for sports media and the NCAA. Sports are the original reality TV and they thrive on drama. The people behind these systems don’t want objective champions, they want eyeballs on screens. They picked Alabama and Texas over FSU because they thought it would be more engaging. And they’ve already proven themselves right.

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