7. January 2021

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ESPN staff

Complaining about the college football playoffs has become a sport of sorts for many fans across the country – especially outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, central Ohio and South Carolina itself. This year, those demands became more pressing as the pandemic challenged the committee’s usual criteria, new rules were created and, as usual, several undefeated teams with strong paper records were eliminated from the title race (I’m looking at you, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina).

Are the changes retained for the CFP format? Our experts critique the playoffs and their boiling point committee, analyzing flaws in the process and suggesting ways to correct them. In addition, the architect of the championship series comments on the challenges.

What do you think is the biggest problem with the playoffs in their current form?

Number of channels: Every year it becomes more and more clear to me that the number of teams makes the selection process impossible. As an organization, the CFPB takes great pride in its processes, and there is no doubt that everyone involved makes every effort to ensure that the highly experienced actors in the committee room cover many topics and comparisons before they are voted on. But the committee is responsible for selecting only four teams and rewarding them for their quality and curriculum vitae, with bonus points for conference titles, albeit with a points test. This is a huge and inconsistent set of qualifications, especially given the minimal presence of a group of 5 committees and the personal biases of each individual. It would be an incredible effort to make the committee’s work really feasible.

Andrea Adelson: I’ve long been a fan of the playoffs because I sincerely hoped, and somewhat naively believed, that the playoffs would open the field for teams like Boise State, who proved at the time of BCS that they absolutely had a place on the biggest stage. But unfortunately the power conferences want to keep all the power and the money that comes with it – and that in itself is the biggest problem for the future. There is no equality when the entire premise of the playoffs is based on inequality – from the amount spent on coaches’ salaries, management personnel and recruiting, to the number of conferences played and the strength/quality of the schedule.

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It’s not just the group of 5 that gets punished, it’s the Pac-12. As a result, the imbalance at the top has only increased – and the entire sport has become so regionalized that it somehow becomes impossible for those who don’t have elite power status or who live in western Oklahoma to feel included or participate in the process. If true expansion can’t bridge the huge gap between the first four or six programs and everyone else, it could give the impression of a sport that values every team and more than three playoff games a year. More seats means you can sell playoffs for schools in more than three or four conferences, allowing more than a handful of programs to get better recruits. More ads generate more money for television, so more schools can try to keep up with the amounts Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have put into their programs.

The biggest highlight of the NCAA Basketball Tournament is the Cinderella Story that takes place every year. The playoffs, as currently constructed, leave no room for this. As a result, the sport suffers. Don’t look now, but next season the five teams that made the playoffs will definitely be in the top 5. Four of them repeatedly.

Kyle Bonagura: To find a national champion, the current structure is undoubtedly better than its predecessor BCS. It’s hard to deny that the best team in the country hasn’t been No. 1 since the College Football Playoff (sorry, UCF). But what she did has significantly diminished anything that happens in the sport outside of the top four.

Power 5 Conference titles that are not in the playoffs are not considered the same way as before. The once glorious tradition of bowling has been curtailed, often with reservations: Do these teams even care about this game? The six New Year’s Eve games are certainly not a sure thing, as these are the games with the most NFL-caliber players, and the [intelligent] tendency for these players to simply give up the numbers is becoming more commonplace. It’s not hard to get waivers at the beginning of the season when the best players aren’t willing to risk their future in the NFL without playing something meaningful.

David Hale: There are two paradoxes in playing college football, both of which are true: The first is that the committee process is undeniably flawed: Rankings that don’t seem to be about the best teams (Iowa State on the Carolina Coast this year, for example, was absolutely stunning), and explanations of rankings that often contradict each other. The second is that the committee, perhaps without exception, gets the final four teams every year, even when others have reasonable counterarguments.

The solution to the first problem is simple: a clearer mandate for the committee. The task is to find the four best teams? The four most valuable? What do you mean by better or more dignified? The introduction of more specific evaluation tools will allow us to get rid of a committee chair who spends hours each season trying to explain what is completely inexplicable.

I would also like to see a more diverse committee to discuss what is best and most worthy. There is a lot of room for discussion with the hives when almost all members of the committee have a similar background. The media, the statistics gurus, the people of Vegas, even one or two smart fans can shed new light on the discussion.

But worrying about who will make the playoffs is a very important problem that the committee – and perhaps the playoffs themselves – will not solve. Expansion can help level the playing field a bit by increasing access and bringing more revenue and spectators to teams that haven’t often struggled to get into the top four, but it won’t necessarily fix the constant irregularities of the first round or significantly expand the group of 12 to 15 teams that have a legitimate chance to win it all in any given year.

Adam Rittenberg: These are not the national playoffs as currently constructed. With the exception of a tighter group of 5, the playing fields are dominated by teams from the Southeast and Midwest. Exclusivity represents a large portion of the country, and the repetition of participants caused everything to stagnate.

It was never my goal to only include teams that could win the national title. This list almost never contains more than three. The addition of another level could make the playoffs more comprehensive across the state, offering not only a chance to win (however unlikely that may be), but also a CFP experience that could be seismic for some programs. I was not categorically against many of these decisions, but I have long advocated for a standardized programming model in college football, with more reads, more attractive games, and fewer duds. It’s not pleasant that the two leagues that play each other the least – the SEC and the CCA – seem to be rewarded the most.

What is your favorite realistic goal?

Channel: I know Mark Richt’s 32-team explosion is something many coaches would love, and I think I agree with the endorsement, but it’s not. Actually, an eight-team playoff is all we have for a while, but it’s good – it’s a great decision!


National College Football Championship presented by AT&T
Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, FL)
Monday: 20:00 ET on ESPN and the ESPN application.

University Football Playoff Semi-Final at Rose Bowl
AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Alabama 31, Notre Dame 14

Ohio State Sugar Bowl College Football Playoff semifinals
Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
Ohio State 49, Clemson 28

Assuming there is a conference champion and a Group of 5 representative (which would make the race for the national college football title inclusive), the committee’s main task would be to identify the teams and select the two most deserving teams for the top bids. Sure, we’d still be screaming and yelling about who they pick or how they evaluate teams, but it would still be a much more manageable and realistic task for the committee.

Rittenberg: As Bill points out, there are eight teams working on so many issues. Again, it’s more about empowerment than the likelihood of new teams winning a championship. As Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney and Ryan Day continue, their programs win the most titles.

Where I have problems is with automatic bidding and my desire to see all regions represented. It is very important that the top champion of Group 5 has an automatic bid. While I don’t like the idea of a Power 5 champion with two or three sleepers, I could live with this format. An alternative would be for the committee to continue to rank the teams and require the respective Power 5 champions to finish in the top 12 or 15. The best conferences will continue to take important places. The regular season will not be affected (this is a strong argument), and there will be more teams and more space under the CFP tent.

Hale: Between 2 and 130 is the number that maximizes playoff access while minimizing the devaluation of the regular season. Where is this number? The truth is that it probably varies from year to year, but the best answer seems to be eight.

Each Power 5 league assigns a playoff spot to the champion, making every conference game important. For example, only two teams participating in the Power 5 title race this year have really felt the impact of the result: Clemson and Ohio State. Others didn’t sit down or already punched their ticket. It also helps reduce regional bias by ensuring that every fan in the country has some interest in the playoffs. A place will be awarded to the team with the highest score of 5, and two wildcards will be added. This is an elegant decision because it increases the number of meaningful regular season games, eliminates the constant debate over which conference is best, gives the 130 teams a real chance to make the playoffs and retains the intrigue of the committee review that determines wild card, Group 5 and seeded play.

The important thing is that each team has the opportunity to take advantage of what’s happening on the field, and that’s what the playoffs are all about.

Bonagura: I think it’s time to split the FBS into two divisions and move to eight-team playing fields for the Power 5 and Group 5. I’ve long been a proponent of an eight-team field that includes the Power 5 champions, two at-large teams and a Group 5 team (if it reaches a certain threshold – say, undefeated in 12th place or higher), but it’s probably time to get rid of the illusion that Group 5 plays on a level playing field. And it’s beautiful!

Look at high school football. To ensure competitive parity in the state playoffs, divisions will be divided by the number of entries. It’s the same concept here. Can a team like San Jose State or Ball State – both conference champions this year – have any hope of claiming a national title? I’m not going to do that. So why not give them a title to play between programs of the same scope? There may be a mechanism for a Group 5 team to be promoted to the top league, but this is a minor detail that can be dealt with afterwards.

In this format, each conference champion gets an automatic bid to the playoffs, making each conference relevant for the rest of the season. Bowling matches in addition to these two playoff spots don’t seem necessary, but it’s good if they stay as well. No one is going to complain about the multiplication of football games on television, even if they are glorious spring games.

Adelson: I’m leaning towards a six-team playoff because I think most years only five or six teams are valid. Every Power 5 conference receives an automatic offer, while maintaining regular season and conference championship game importance. The top team in Group 5 will then receive an automatic offer, which will alleviate the questions that have arisen around UCF and Cincinnati, two deserving teams. The top two seeds will be eliminated, giving them a slight advantage based on their playing time, and the other two spots will be assigned on a rotating basis – which will at least help generate more interest in games outside of the current playoff structure.

Greater representation on the field will benefit the sport as a whole, and this should be a top priority. But this might be the best part: A six-team playoff largely eliminates the biggest source of dissatisfaction in the current selection process – the power of the selection committee.

Error! The file name is not specified. Alabama and Clemson in the PCP is a very familiar sight. Streeter Lekka/Getty Images

The architect of BCS participates in the debate on CFP.

Roy Kramer predicted it when college football made its debut in the playoffs.

In short, when it comes to determining a national champion, there will always be controversy, conspiracy theories and turmoil, regardless of the system in place or the number of teams involved.

Once you leave someone behind, there will be people who say you should do things differently, said Mr Kramer, architect of the eponymous BCS. College football will never be the NFL. It’s never gonna be Major League Baseball. That’s not the point of college football.

You can’t set up such a system because you force people to attend different conferences, and everyone has a different schedule. The thing is, at some point you’re going to have to make a subjective decision.

Kramer, who turned 91 in October, said he laughed more than once when a gnashing of teeth from administrators, coaches and fans was heard across the country following the announcement of the four college football playoff teams.

I think they still have a little disagreement, but it’s not all bad, Kramer said. You’ve heard me say it a hundred times: It brings discussion and interest to the game, which I think is healthy.

Much of the criticism of CBS, which used a combination of human surveys, computer rankings and solid timing measures to determine the two teams that would play for the national title, was that it relied on the same brand schools and was not comprehensive enough.

Well, since the creation of the college football playoffs after the 2013 season, the simulation version of the BCS shows that the old BCS formula has produced the same four teams as the PCP selection committee in each of the past seven years.

And not only that: Of the 28 slots allocated since the CFP was formed, 22 have gone to the same five teams: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Ohio State. Alabama and Clemson have made the playoffs every year but one.

So has the transition from BCS to the college football playoffs changed much?

The further down you go, the more controversial it gets, when you pick teams that have lost two or more games, and then : Who did you lose to? Kramer said. The lower you go, the stronger it gets.

As a former SEC commissioner and former Vanderbilt athletics director, Kramer understands the value of participating in the playoffs as a Group 5 team. But he doesn’t think the expansion of the playoffs will break the usual suspects who win championships every year.

Look at basketball, when you have that kind of turmoil the first week, but then you get to the final four, how many of those teams are not the strongest to begin with? said Kramer. You don’t decide things like that. Sounds good. But in the end, you almost always play the same two teams.

He said the semifinals are rarely close, even in a four-team playoff format. Ten of the 14 semi-finals played so far have been decided by 17 points or more.

Cramer thinks the playoff committee has been right for years and wasn’t surprised Ohio State was there this year, even though the Buckeyes only played six games. And whatever the possible changes to the playoffs, Kramer hopes that this year, despite all the problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic, will not set an example.

You have to tap this year and forget everything, Mr. Kramer said. I hope you never have someone who plays five or six games and someone else who plays ten or eleven. This only creates the situation we’re in now with the virus.

Kramer still likes to tell the story of a call he got from a member of the media in 2011, when Alabama and LSU were playing a rematch for the BCS title. Kramer, like most college football players, says it was the game that brought the sport to the playoffs once and for all.

He said how awful it is that Alabama and LSU are playing this game, Kramer said. I asked him if he had voted in the AP poll and he said yes. I asked him who ranked 1st and 2nd in the last poll [before the final BCS rankings were released], and he told me it was LSU and Alabama.

He was quick to let me know that he believes these two teams should not be participating in the championship. I told him I always thought it was a goal to get the top two teams in this game.

And one more thing: As Kramer said, Alabama and the USL probably would have made the playoffs in 2011 if they had existed at the time.

No matter how you define a champion, it’s always a great game, and there’s always a lot of excitement that makes college football unique, Kramer said. It’s different, and it should be.

We can’t force him to be something he’s not.

— Chris Lowe

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