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5 Ways to Improve the College Football Playoffs

Has there been a lot to dislike from the playoffs? How can we make it better?

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

So the era of the college football playoff is here and we've been living it in earnest for a couple weeks now. While I think things are generally going pretty well there's no doubt that the playoffs are adding a lot of controversy and heated discussion to our world. One might argue that's part of the flavor of college football, but I digress.

Almost everything in this world can be improved. Except Notre Dame's helmets. Those are the very definition of perfection attained on Earth. However, there are a handful of ways to improve the college football playoffs, particularly in the way the committee goes about selecting teams.

Quick note: I'm trying to keep this realistic. If I was appointed Commissioner of College Football and wielded enormous power I'd do one two things with the playoff:

1) Expand the playoff field to 16 teams with auto-bids to 10 conference winners and 6 additional at-large bids.

2) Shrink college football to the 65 teams in the Power 5 conferences+Notre Dame, expand the playoffs to 8 teams with auto-bids to conference winners and 3 at-large bids.

I personally favor the second idea, by quite a large margin. Anyway, those possibilities are at the very least years away if not decades away from being implemented. In the here and now I think there 5 relatively easy ways to make the playoff system more acceptable to a greater selection of fans.


Release the Poll Every 2 Weeks

The playoff committee got things right by waiting until after Week 9 to release the first rankings. I'm not one of those who thinks releasing a poll in late October was unnecessary but doing so any earlier doesn't make a whole lot of sense. We have averted the disaster of the committee trying to release a Top 25 after two games.

It may not be a significant change but releasing the College Football Poll every two weeks after week 9 might be a little bit more effective. Granted, each week in college football from late October on probably has enough drama to release a new ranking every week. Still, a two week re-ranking would allow the committee more time to do their research and go through their process while reducing the amount of weekly outrage. Again that outrage can either be part of the fun or an annoying nuisance but waiting 2 weeks should make the committee better at its job. For this season it could have looked like this:

  • October 28th
  • November 11th
  • November 25th
  • December 7th (Final Poll)

That feels like the right amount of rankings leading up to the all-important final poll.

Publish a Report with Short Comments on Each Team

Too much work? It likely would be with a poll every Tuesday from week 9 onward. However, by instituting the every other week policy this becomes worthwhile.

Now, I'd be just as happy if the committee didn't say anything once the rankings are updated. That doesn't seem to be the way they're handling things right now, though. Putting Jeff Long in the spotlight on ESPN after the unveiling and allowing him some canned responses before sending him off to a radio show really isn't helping people get as good of a grasp on why teams are where they are. Something like this might work:

No. 6 Alabama- The Tide decisively won against Tennessee and were on a bye this past week. They stayed at their sixth ranking but were jumped by TCU. Although Alabama beat West Virginia by more we look more favorably on TCU's two wins over ranked teams versus Alabama's one defeated ranked team, plus TCU beat the Mountaineers on the road. The Tide have looked strong in recent weeks and will have the opportunity to boost their resume very soon.

Would it be too hard to do something like this?

Decrease Emphasis on Conference Champions

One of the major factors we've yet to experience is how the committee will handle the conference champions. They've mentioned numerous times that those teams who win their leagues will be looked at favorably. Here's why I don't like this way of doing things.

First, of course it's not good news for Notre Dame as an independent. But besides that not all conferences are created equally. I don't think there should be so much weight on winning a league where a team at No. 7 would jump into the No. 4 spot in the last rankings because it won a conference title game.

1. Florida State (13-0, ACC Champs)

2. Oregon (12-1, Pac-12 Champs)

3. Alabama (12-1, SEC Champs)

4. Notre Dame (11-1)

5. Miss. State (11-1)

6. Nebraska (12-1, Big Ten Champs)

In this hypothetical above let's assume Notre Dame and Mississippi State each have one more victory over a ranked opponent in comparison to Nebraska--and that's after the Huskers picked up an additional ranked win in their 13th game. Would the Huskers jump up into the final playoff spot because of their conference title?

I'll stress that we don't know if something like this is going to play out but I don't really like the power of a league title in this situation. I'm fine with conferences giving out auto-bids to their winners in an expanded playoff but until we do that winning a conference shouldn't mean a whole lot to the committee.

Keep Rewarding Tough Out of Conference Games & Best Wins

Now we get to some strength of schedule talk. I've been reading a lot about how the committee should punish teams who play FCS opponents. I'm not sure how they're supposed to go about doing that and it doesn't seem like a realistic idea anyway. Teams who schedule FCS teams do so at their own peril as they'll be weakening their strength of schedule and foregoing a matchup against a tough opponent for a much easier opponent.

They are free to do so just as Notre Dame is free to schedule Rice instead of someone like Wisconsin. We could have scheduled a tougher game to open the season and made our resume stronger--and perhaps we'd be a spot or two higher in the poll right now--but we didn't.

The problem for many Irish fans right now is that Notre Dame's lack of FCS opponents isn't worth a whole lot in the eyes of the committee (or more accurately the complaint is that it's not worth anything which I don't think is true). The vast majority of the time skipping a game against a FCS team will boost your strength of schedule. It's just Notre Dame's normally strong SoS isn't quite as potent this year so now we want the committee to start docking the teams ahead of us who did schedule FCS games.

If the committee somehow was able to enact a rule where teams were no longer allowed to schedule FCS teams I'd be okay with that. But remember, that would mean dozens of teams going out and having to schedule a bunch of new opponents from the FBS ranks. As an independent that would make Notre Dame's scheduling a little tougher in terms of logistics, plus even if you remove the FCS teams there's still a 'bad team threshold' which would only get shifted to the likes of the Sun Belt and Conference USA. And now that a bunch of other teams just made their strength of schedules a little tougher relative to Notre Dame, it's up to Jack Swarbrick to go out and counteract that with new tougher opponents, as well.

Focusing too much or putting too much weight on the bottom of the schedules just isn't worth the tears right now. If two teams are insanely close in the rankings, the weakest scheduled opponents is something way down the list to compare--outside of general strength of schedule formula which the committee is using anyway--but it's not enough to vault one team ahead of another just based on that bottom schedule alone.

There's a lot of complaining about Michigan State playing Jacksonville State, Eastern Michigan, and Wyoming. However, there's not much complaining about Nebraska playing Florida Atlantic, McNeese State, and Fresno State. That's because one team is ahead of us in the polls and the other is not. Irish fans aren't really searching for a truly fair set of criteria as much as finding criteria that makes Notre Dame look the best.

The committee should continue rewarding big OOC games and giving far greater weight to best wins more so than the bottom quarter of everyone's schedule. Notre Dame beating Rice and Michigan State beating Jacksonville State is a small bonus for the Irish but nothing more.

Embrace the Elitism

As I was listening to the Audible podcast earlier this week Stewart Mandel lamented the fact that the playoffs have rendered the smaller programs across the country as mostly irrelevant and out of the spotlight.

Oh, well.

I've already copped to wanting what we call FBS football to shrink to 65 teams but it isn't going to happen overnight. As cruel as it sounds the way the committee has treated a team like Marshall (8-0, +235 point differential) in the playoff poll is exactly the first step in this long-term process. If you're undefeated but playing a AAA-level baseball schedule you're not going to be considered ahead of 1-loss, 2-loss, and even some 3-loss teams playing major league schedules.

If we want a system where strength of schedule and big games (particularly between separate conferences) are what is super important and one of the biggest weights to compare teams then the non-major conference teams are essentially done competing for anything worthwhile. I think the playoff committee has to embrace this elitism.

There needs to be incentive for Top 30 type of program to try and differentiate themselves from the crowd by scheduling some tough games without fear that a Marshall is going to pass them by simply not losing to a soft schedule. Essentially, the committee needs to keep doing what it's doing by rewarding a 3-loss West Virginia over an undefeated Marshall.