When the BCS came along in 1998, its entire premise was to put the #1 team and the #2 team against each other. In this mold, the BCS absolutely succeeded. Where it failed was that teams, knowing the computer ranking systems, because to manipulate the system. Blowouts (wins by more than 21 points) were a factor. When those were removed and wins against ranked teams became a metric, teams vyied and lobbied for rankings, with the SEC somehow dominating the rankings conversation. Stil, at the end of the year, we had a game where the #1 team and the #2 played each other for a “unified” national title. Then we ran into a scenario with three undefeated teams and broke the system. Talk began about playoffs and “expansion” and eventually we got a four-team model where the four teams were decided by a committee.
I must admit I was wrong here. I originally said and thought a diverse committee would do a better job of picking those teams and we would be arguing about the fifth best team. In one sense, that has held true but I was unaware of how much I would come to think inclusion, rather than exclusion, is the model we should follow. When Ohio State broke into the playoffs because of a championship game instead of Baylor and TCU, it became obvious that the blue-bloods were going to dominate the scene even more than they ever had before. Now, it became imperative that we find a way to value the product on the field and reduce or eliminate the idea of the “best” and instead start to reward the most “deserving”.
Here we are, several years into the playoff format and we are talking about expansion. There is a current model that would expand the playoffs to 12-teams - six conference champions and six at larges. If 12 teams seems odd, that’s because it is. A 12 team format would work with the top four teams receiving a first round bye, then teams 5-12 playing each other.
YOU DONT NEED 12 SLOTS
Let’s just get to the root of the problem, an expansion to twelve teams is not needed. You already have a 20-team playoff right under your nose and it would require one simple rule:
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS ONLY
There. In three simple words, we’ve solved nearly every problem with the playoffs. Win your conference, play for a national title. There are currently five Power conferences (P5) and five non-power conferences (G5). If you put the caveat that all conference champions will play for the national title, you have created a twenty (20)-team playoff. Each conference championship will now be a de facto playoff play-in game. This immediately creates a 10-team playoff scenario where you have two “play-in” games between 10 vs 7 and 9 vs 8, then immediately you get 4 quarterfinal games, 2 semi-final games and a championship game.
Here is what such a proposal would have looked like in 2019 (I’m ignoring 2020 since COVID doesn’t give us a complete picture of teams).
Eight of the ten teams are ranked in this scenario and teams like Appalachian State and Boise State are rewarded with playoff games rather than some meaningless bowl game played on December 20th.
But what about the best teams, the high ranked SEC or B1G teams?
What about them? Let’s take a look at Florida in 2019. They played 3 ranked teams - #7 Auburn, #5 LSU (who would go on to become #1) and #8 Georgia. They lost two of those games. They finished second in the SEC East, behind Georgia (who they lost to). Georgia in turn lost to LSU (whom Florida also lost to in the regular season) in the SEC Championship. So, why should the 2nd best teams in the SEC East, who lost to both division winners in the regular season, be rewarded with a playoff game? What did they do to earn an invitation to the playoffs other than being Florida?
I bring up Florida because the SEC is the most egregious of the offenders of the “eye test” and “best teams” scenario. Every year the SEC cannibalizes itself and because #6 preseason beats #4 preseason, those two teams swap and because #4 lost a close game on the road, they don't drop far and don't play another ranked team for 6 weeks.
By allowing conference champions to play in the playoff, you remove the worst part of the current playoff system, and the worst parts of the BCS and the Bowl Alliance. The human element. You remove biases. You remove any pre-conceived notion and allow teams to settle it on the field. If Kansas State beats Oklahoma in the championship game, this time it actually has consequences! Continuing the same pattern of allowing so many at-large teams really only means that the SEC and Big Ten will send more of their teams rather than giving the other teams a shot.
The other benefit of a conference championship only model is that the regular season actually means more to more teams. Instead of one loss deciding your season and then eventually waiting for the playoffs to begin after week 9 when the seasons are all but decided, now more teams still have a chance. Conference games mean that much more. One loss doesn’t define your season but can still be the difference between your chance to play in the title game.
It’s time to stop beating around the bushes and do what every other sport does - automatic bids for the conference winners and settle it on the field.