Image via Wikimedia Commons
The Alabama Crimson Tide shot off confetti and hoisted their third College Football Playoff Championship trophy just over a month ago, defeating Ohio State 52-24. Alabama left no doubt that they were far and away the best team in the country in this obstacle-ridden season.
Fans, coaches and players wait in anticipation every December to find out if the College Football Playoff Selection Committee deems their team worthy of a bid to the bracket of the top four teams in the country.
The committee ranks their top four teams based on each team’s resumé from the past season — conference championships, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and comparative outcomes of common opponents of the top teams are the main areas of focus. These top four teams play in two win-or-go-home games, and the last team standing gets crowned national champions.
A team gets left out of the top four every year that people will argue should have made the CFP. As a result, fans have begged the committee to expand the playoff to eight teams. Expansion would certainly give other programs some much-needed exposure, but it would simply delay the inevitable and dilute the importance of the regular season.
The CFP format has been in place since 2014, and the selection committee has remained very consistent in its ranking of teams based on certain achievements. The winner of the SEC Championship has made the CFP in all seven years of the tournament’s existence. Alabama has won the SEC Championship four of the seven seasons and has made the tournament in all but one year — 2019.
Likewise, the winner of the ACC Championship has also made the tournament all seven years. Clemson has won the conference six times since 2014, and remains the only other university with more than one national championship since the creation of the CFP.
Fans of Power-5 teams — schools that play in the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, PAC-12 or Big 12 conferences — who get left out of the tournament have little room for complaints. The blueprint for success is clear — winning a conference championship with no more than one loss all but ensures a trip to the CFP. The lone exception to this trend since 2015 is the 2018-19 Ohio State Buckeyes, who missed the CFP despite losing just one game and winning the Big Ten Championship.
If teams want a shot at the tournament, they need to win each and every week. That’s easier said than done of course, but the top four teams in the country do it year in and year out. Other Power-5 teams need to follow this difficult, but simple blueprint if these programs want a shot at the national title — teams should approach every game as a must-win for playoff aspirations. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney preached this mentality to his players in past seasons and it has certainly paid off.
“Every game was a playoff game. Every game,” Swinney said. “Duke was a playoff game. South Carolina was a playoff game. Pitt was a playoff game. We have layers of playoffs. The more you expand, the less the season matters.”
More teams must adopt this mentality in order to get themselves to the next tier. Winning every game in the season gives the committee no choice, based on the self-imposed precedents that have been set.
CFP expansionists argue that expanding the playoff to eight teams will give smaller programs in minor conferences much-needed exposure for recruiting and financial purposes. This past season, fans across the nation clamored for teams such as Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina, who play in minor conferences, to get a shot at the national title.
Coastal Carolina received its most impressive win in a tight game over No. 8 BYU, undoubtedly putting themselves on the map to earn themselves a ranking in the top-25 this season.
To the dismay of many, Coastal missed the CFP and the committee instead awarded the school a bowl game against No. 24 Liberty — a game the Chanticleers would go on to lose 37-34. Liberty has a good football team, but nowhere near the level of programs that make the playoff consistently.
Similarly, the Cincinnati Bearcats beat up on their own conference, the American, and went undefeated through December. The NCAA awarded the Bearcats a New Year’s 6 Bowl Game against Georgia for their undefeated season. Cincinnati fell 24-21 in its first game against a Power-5 team all season.
Coastal Carolina and Cincinnati had phenomenal seasons, but fans should pump the breaks before putting them in the same class as the yearly powerhouses. Neither Clemson nor Alabama have lost to a non-Power-5 team in the CFP era — with slim odds of any change in the future.
Non-Power-5 conferences simply cannot pull the top recruits the way top groups do. The best recruits in the country will not choose to play at Coastal Carolina if a Power-5 school offers them instead — with a bigger stage, brighter lights and NFL scouts in attendance.
Many college players attempt to vault themselves into the NFL — a devastating injury in an unnecessary playoff game could ruin the careers of NFL hopefuls. Some of the nation’s best players could opt out of the CFP to avoid the risk of playing a lengthened season if the playoff expanded.
The current format of the CFP makes the most sense both competitively and financially. Although expanding the CFP would add some entertainment in mid-January, the playoff should not and will not expand any time soon.