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Football Offseason Boredom Part 3: A More Equitable CFB Playoff

We’re all in the same FBS family, aren’t we?

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Welcome to part three of Hustle Belt’s rearrangement of college football. So far we’ve talked talked about getting rid of the MAC’s divisions and building brand new conferences. Today we lay out a brand new playoff system that gives us little folks a fighting chance.

Let’s start with this: the current CFB playoff system is fun. More importantly, it has certainly been a step in the right direction for crowning a national champion compared to the older ways the country worked that out. At least the playoff kind of acknowledges the idea that with an 128-team field in 10 assorted conferences, it’s a bit silly to be able to pick just two for a national title match-up. But talk to anyone passionate about a mid-major football program, and you’ll find they just can’t get quite as excited for the playoff tournament. The reason is obvious: it is more or less impossible for a Group of Five school to make the playoff.

There are a variety of very valid arguments that keep G5 schools out of the discussion. There often is a talent gap between the average G5 and the Power 5 conferences. If you look at how often G5 schools knock-off perennial powers of college football, it doesn’t happen all that frequently. But even though we’re all in the FBS, the mid-majors aren’t always given a lot of opportunity to climb that mountain.

Isn’t it weird that a team that finishes undefeated can’t even got a shot at the national tournament? What other college sport does that happen in? How is it that a team that can’t win a 14-team conference but gets a chance to say it’s best out of 128? Why do we let a committee determine a playoff when it seems the games themselves should be able to determine the eligible teams?

I’m not going to sit here and say 2016 Western Michigan was as good as Alabama or Ohio State or Clemson or Washington. The idea behind greater equity in a CFB playoff is increasing opportunity for the G5 schools. It’s about rewarding teams who win the critical games instead of who we think is “better.” Let’s talk about how I think we could have a more fair post-season.

A different system.

We want a playoff system that balances this opportunity with some of the factors that already make college football awesome. Part of what makes the sport great is that the season is very short and therefore almost every game could have a critical impact on your season. That means you don’t want your tournament getting too big. Also, to be frank, you don’t want your tournament getting diluted with mediocre teams. So here’s what the new CFB playoff bracket would look like, and I’ll explain who gets those spots:

Yes, this image is from an Excel spreadsheet. Yes, I’ll explain the asterisk next to #6. Stay with me.

Here are stipulations for entry into the playoff. First, every Power Five conference champion gets in. If you come away on top of a power conference, you deserve a shot. Keep your conference ducks in a row, Power Five.

There are asterisks next to #6 because some years the tournament could have additional schools. That could be six schools some years, or potentially seven schools depending on how strong the mid-majors are for a given year. (A #7 school would face the #2 in a first round game.) These additional spots are reserved for worthy G5 schools and/or independent schools.

The deserving Group of Five.

Specific criteria must be met for a G5/Independent to get to that #6/7 spot. Schools must have at least 11 regular season wins and, for the G5 schools, go undefeated in regular season conference play and be conference champions. The one loss on the year could only be to a Power Five conference school and only one win over an FCS school would be allowed towards the 11-win requirement. Twelve wins wouldn’t be required because we don’t want to discourage mid-majors to stop playing traditional powers in the game. Northern Illinois needs the payout it gets by going to Columbus. We also don’t want to encourage cupcake scheduling by anybody. Remember, the idea here is equal opportunity for G5 schools within the current landscape of college football.

Independents, although their future is uncertain, also deserve a shot at the CFB playoff. An 11-1 Notre Dame, as much as I hate to admit it, probably deserves a shot at the title. The Irish tend to go through enough of a tough schedule based on their tradition and prestige. But this isn’t just for Notre Dame. A school like BYU also shouldn’t be left out of the picture.

It’s therefore possible we could have two independent tournament teams, two G5 tournament teams, or one of each, or neither. If no one hits the criteria, we settle for a five team tournament.

This was all just for entry into the tournament. Seeding would still be determined by a committee. That means a particularly impressive G5 or independent school wouldn’t automatically get a #6 or #7 seed.

Under this new playoff system, here’s what the 2016 playoff field would have looked like, based on the CFB playoff rankings before bowls began:

A different 2016 tourney

In this scenario, Oklahoma gets a chance as the Big12 champ, Penn State is added instead of Ohio State, and WMU gets in with based on its undefeated season and conference championship. Back in reality this season, Western barely beat Northwestern in week one, and Oklahoma got beat bad by Ohio State and lost to G5 Houston. So how do Western and the Sooners match-up talent-wise to the rest of the field? It doesn’t matter. Opportunity, folks, opportunity.

Just for fun, let’s look at this system if we pretend South Florida hadn’t lost to Temple in the regular season and finished 12-1 (with a presumed championship win over Navy), with the one loss coming to Florida State. That gives us the following tournament:

Come on in, Bulls!

Because South Florida met the correct criteria, Clemson has to face them in the opening round and Alabama, as the #1 seed, gets a bye.

That seeding could be extremely important too if we decided that opening games would be played on campuses. The semi-final and final would probably still be played at a neutral location, but it’s possible that #4 vs. #5 and #3 vs. #6 games would be played at the higher seed’s home stadium. Being 12-0 not 11-1 would be that much more important.

Realistic? Ehhhhhh.

Another cool benefit of this system is that we’d keep bowl games. That’s sweet because bowl games are freaking awesome. They just aren’t awesome for determining a national champion.

It is hypothetically possible with this new system that you’d have three G5/independent schools with the proper requirements. But looking back at the previous decade or so of college football, it’s pretty rare that even one school would meet the G5/independent criteria. There have been a couple times when a MAC school will go undefeated in the conference regular season and lose in the title game. There’s a lot of parity in mid-major conference play that will keep schools from reaching the set requirements.

But I think that’s a good compromise for mid-majors to make. This system acknowledges that the power conferences are, on the whole, stronger than the MACs or Conference-USAs of the world, but it gives small programs at least some hope.

I obviously think there are a lot of benefits to a system like this – and as a Western fan I’m a bit biased based on this past season – but I don’t know if FBS football will ever have equal-conference access like what’s presented here. And that’s not totally without reason. Is WMU better than any of the real-life playoff teams this year? Probably not. But if Tim Lester or Frank Solich or any other mid-major coach could go tell a recruit, “Hey, we’re good enough to make the tournament this year,” I think recruiting paradigms would shift. Once that starts happening maybe schools like Houston, or San Diego State, or Western Michigan would have more of a fighting chance against the big schools.

And if anyone has some NCAA contacts they want to forward this too, please do so. Thanks.