32ºF

Michigan is perfect example of why college football needs a 16-team playoff (just hear me out)

I can’t believe I’m saying this: College football needs to expand the playoff to 16 teams

Brad Hawkins #20 of the Michigan Wolverines lays on the field after breaking up a play during the second quarter against the Indiana Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium on November 07, 2020 in Bloomington, Indiana.
Brad Hawkins #20 of the Michigan Wolverines lays on the field after breaking up a play during the second quarter against the Indiana Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium on November 07, 2020 in Bloomington, Indiana. (2020 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Have you ever felt so strongly about something that it just couldn’t wait until the next morning? An idea you don’t want to let slip away while you sleep or an emotion you want to capture while it’s raw?

That’s why I’m here, right now, at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday (I know you aren’t reading this at 2 a.m., but still) tapping away on my laptop instead of sleeping like a rational human being.

I just got done watching the college football national championship game between Ohio State and Alabama. Since you’re reading this clearly labelled college football column, I’m guessing you already know this by now, but Alabama won... again.

There wasn’t intrigue to this game. Alabama was a huge favorite and won in a blowout. The Heisman Trophy winner won MVP. Offenses dominated. Blah, blah, blah.

But there was one surprising development -- something far too infrequent in this world of being stubborn for the sake of being stubborn and fighting tooth and nail to win arguments on social media: I changed my mind.

I know, crazy, right?

I’m not sure if it actually happened during the national championship game, or while watching the semifinals, or gradually throughout the course of the college football season. But while Alabama scored touchdown after touchdown after touchdown, I started to piece together thoughts from different corners of my brain, and that’s when I realized:

I support a 16-team playoff in college football. No, that’s not strong enough. I crave a 16-team playoff. I demand it!

*Gasp!* How could I be so reckless? Trust me, I know. Nobody is more surprised than me. It’s a very divisive topic, and for years I’ve been on the 6- or 8-team playoff bandwagon. But as I thought more and more about the state of college football and its ever-more-glaring flaws, I like to think my opinion aged like a fine wine.

Too far? OK, maybe. But all I ask is that you hear me out.

What’s wrong with college football?

Where do I even begin? Right now, college football is like the cool kid’s table in a junior high lunchroom. It’s the best table, and every night, boys and girls from across the school go home dreaming of the day they get to claim one of those glorious spots at the table.

But the problem is, there are only four seats, and the popular kids who sit there have very good attendance. They almost never miss school, and even when they do, there are designated fill-ins -- other kids who automatically take their place. That means outside of those six or seven kids, nobody else in the school even has a prayer of ever sitting at that table.

Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma are the cool kids who dominate the table. When one of them has to miss school for a haircut, Georgia or Notre Dame might get to take the spot for a day, but they’re never at the head of the table, just there to fill in the empty space.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood hold the trophy after their win against Ohio State in an NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Alabama won 52-24. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Alabama head coach Nick Saban and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood hold the trophy after their win against Ohio State in an NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Alabama won 52-24. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

In seven seasons of CFP games, those top four teams have taken up 20 of 28 possible playoff spots. Notre Dame, Georgia, LSU, Oregon, Michigan State, Florida State and Washington made up the other eight, and they went a combined 4-7.

It’s not a difficult concept: Watching the same teams make the playoffs year after year gets OLD. Hearing from the same fan bases year after year gets OLD. Listening to the same stories about Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney and how Oklahoma transfer quarterbacks always win the Heisman gets OLD.

But that’s not even the worst part! The worst part is that the games are always -- ALWAYS -- terrible!

Here are the final scores of every single semifinal game since the College Football Playoff was introduced:

  • 59-20
  • 42-35*
  • 37-17
  • 38-0
  • 24-7
  • 31-0
  • 54-48*
  • 24-6
  • 45-34
  • 30-3
  • 63-28
  • 29-23*
  • 31-14
  • 49-28

That’s three good games in seven years. There have been more games decided by 30+ points than games decided by single digits.

These are supposed to be the premier moments of the college football season. These 120 minutes of semifinal football are the reason we suffer through ESPN promos that play the same 15 seconds of a Fallout Boys song twice every commercial break for three months.

On any given fall Saturday, college football is amazing. But the larger format through which it decides its champion stinks. It’s an absolute joke -- and not even the funny kind of joke. It’s the kind you laugh at to keep from crying.

College football is considered by many to be the greatest sport in the world. So why do we settle for a lousy, incomplete, and worst of all, BORING tournament? It’s supposed to be the best part!

Including more teams

The simplest flaw in the current format is so glaringly obvious that it’s incredible we ever let it fly in the first place: Only four teams can make the playoff in a sport that crowns 10 conference champions, five Power Conference champions and has independents like Notre Dame.

What if one team went undefeated in each of the Power Five conferences? It’s unlikely, but not impossible. A 13-0 conference champion would literally be robbed of the opportunity to play for a national championship. When you think about that, at its core, it’s just silly.

Yes, you could expand to six or eight teams, which is what I used to support. But why not simply go all the way to 16?

Here’s the thing: It wouldn’t necessarily change the fact that Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Georgia are the true championship contenders. At least not immediately. But it would give dozens of other fan bases hope that they could actually make something of their seasons.

As I mentioned above, only 11 different teams have made the playoff in its seven years of existence. If the playoff included 16 teams, here’s the list of schools that would have been included over the last five years:

  • Alabama
  • Auburn
  • Baylor
  • BYU
  • Cincinnati
  • Clemson
  • Coastal Carolina
  • Florida
  • Florida State
  • Georgia
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Iowa State
  • Kentucky
  • LSU
  • Miami
  • Michigan
  • Michigan State
  • Minnesota
  • North Carolina
  • Northwestern
  • Notre Dame
  • Ohio State
  • Oklahoma
  • Oklahoma State
  • Oregon
  • Penn State
  • Syracuse
  • TCU
  • Texas
  • Texas A&M
  • UCF
  • USC
  • Utah
  • Virginia Tech
  • Washington
  • Washington State
  • Western Michigan
  • Wisconsin

That’s 39 teams in just a five-year span. Thirty-nine. Think about Western Michigan and Coastal Carolina getting to say they played in a College Football Playoff.

“But they would just get blown out!”

Guess what? The games are already blow outs. And you never know what’s going to happen until you actually let two teams take the field. If these games don’t exist, if they don’t have meaning, we snuff out historic moments before they even have a chance to occur.

Say a team like Western Michigan, Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina or BYU only took down one of the true powerhouses once every 10 years. That one time would be a momentous occasion, not only for that school, but for the sport as a whole.

It’s like the NCAA Tournament in basketball. The 16, 15 and 14 seeds rarely win, but when they do, it’s one of the most exciting moments in sports. College football doesn’t even give those upsets a chance to exist.

Using Michigan as an example

But it’s not just for the little schools. Think about a program like Michigan.

Every season, Michigan fans basically know their team has to start 11-0 to have a chance to get into the playoff. Michigan is not going to beat Ohio State any time soon, and certainly not with any regularity.

So as soon as Michigan loses one of its first 11 games, all playoff hopes are lost. From then on, the Wolverines are just playing for a consolation game. They’ll go to some meaningless bowl with most of their top players sitting out, and if they win, nobody outside the fan base will care.

But if 16 teams make the playoff, Michigan’s season suddenly becomes much more interesting.

Michigan finished No. 12 in the AP poll in 2015. It finished No. 10 in 2016, and No. 14 in 2018. Instead of those seasons being remembered for the losses that cost Michigan a chance to get into the playoff, they could be looked at fondly, as years the team achieved the goal of getting into the top 16 and playing for a championship.

FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2019, file photo, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is shown on the sidelines in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Army in Ann Arbor, Mich. Jim Harbaugh is pushing for a change that would allow football players to enter the NFL draft after their freshman or sophomore seasons in college. Harbaugh shared that idea among others in an open letter to the football community Thursday, May 7, 2020. Currently, players are not eligible for the NFL draft until they have been out of high school for at least three years.  (AP Photo/Tony Ding, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2019, file photo, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is shown on the sidelines in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Army in Ann Arbor, Mich. Jim Harbaugh is pushing for a change that would allow football players to enter the NFL draft after their freshman or sophomore seasons in college. Harbaugh shared that idea among others in an open letter to the football community Thursday, May 7, 2020. Currently, players are not eligible for the NFL draft until they have been out of high school for at least three years. (AP Photo/Tony Ding, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Maybe Michigan gets knocked out in the first round. Guess what? Still made the playoff. Perhaps Michigan pulls an upset in the first round -- even better. Including more teams would keep more fan bases engaged and create a more achievable measure of success.

Right now, to have any chance at someday reaching a national championship, Michigan and the rest of the country is trying to jump from an entire tier below the elites all the way into the top four. But a 16-team playoff would create an in-between step on the path to that goal.

Michigan could improve from a non-playoff team to a team that sneaks into the playoff. Then, maybe, it improves a bit more and gets a top eight seed to host a first-round playoff game. Gradually, a team can work its way into a true national championship contender, instead of needing to jump all the way from tier two to tier one in one leap.

Think about recruiting. Right now, the elite teams staying at the top is a self-fulfilling prophecy. How can the rest of the country beat the elite teams? They have to get better players. How can they get better players? They have to beat the elite teams.

Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Clemson and Oklahoma win the most games, and therefore they get the best recruits, and therefore they win the most games, and therefore they get the best recruits -- you get the idea.

But if recruits knew they didn’t necessarily have to pick just one of those few select schools to play in the playoff, the talent might become a little more widespread. The occasional five-star might pick a less common school because that school only needs to be in the top 16, not the top four, to compete for a championship.

Then, if that recruit helps the team get into the playoff, more recruits will come, and suddenly, another stable, healthy program is born. That’s great for the sport.

Just look at the top four recruiting classes for 2021: Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson. Those four teams have a combined 19 five-star recruits, and the other 126 programs combined have 14.

The talent gap between the teams that make the playoff every single year and the rest of the country is only widening. This problem is no closer to improving -- it’s getting worse.

Regular season would be *better*

Another common argument against an expanded playoff is that it devalues the regular season.

No. No it would not.

In fact, expanding the playoff would make the regular season much more important and much, much more entertaining.

How many games in the final month of this college football season actually mattered in terms of playoff implications? Maybe about seven? Eight? Ten at the most?

By the time November rolled around, there were really only six teams left vying for four spots: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Florida and Texas A&M.

What does that mean? Well, only games involving those six teams truly mattered. Nothing like a thrilling three-touchdown Texas A&M win over Tennessee, or a 40-point victory for Ohio State against MSU.

Now imagine if there were 16 spots available in the playoff. Now we’re talking!

Every week, teams ranked in the 8-16 range would be clinging desperately to their spots. Any loss, or even a poor performance in a win, could drop them from the field. Meanwhile, the teams ranked 17-30, or perhaps even beyond, would still have hope.

Right now, the CFP rankings don’t mean anything beyond the top 10. I don’t even know why they bother ranking 25 teams, when at least three-fifths of them have no prayer of rising to No. 4.

But with 16 playoff spots, every single one of those rankings matter. Any game with a ranked team would be must-watch action on every given Saturday, because those teams would all be in the playoff race.

Instead of going into the final weekend with one or two games that could change the playoff field, there might be a dozen or more. This wouldn’t devalue the season, it would enhance it significantly, and incorporate many, many more fan bases.

For the teams ranked at the top, their games would still have meaning, even if they aren’t in danger of falling below No. 16. If the top eight teams hosted the first round on their campuses, seeding for the playoff would remain vitally important.

Imagine if Georgia was ranked No. 6 going into the final game of the season. No, a loss wouldn’t drop the Bulldogs 11 spots so they miss the playoff entirely. But what if a win meant hosting a two-loss Pac-12 team at home, while a loss meant traveling to frigid Madison, Wisconsin, for a first-round road game?

We would get so many interesting and unique matchups instead of the same boring games every season. Here’s what this year would have looked like:

  • No.1 Alabama vs. No. 16 BYU
  • No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 15 Iowa
  • No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 13 North Carolina (to avoid Ohio State-Northwestern rematch)
  • No. 4 Notre Dame vs. No. 14 Northwestern (to avoid Ohio State-Northwestern rematch)
  • No. 5 Texas A&M vs. No. 12 Coastal Carolina
  • No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 11 Indiana
  • No. 7 Florida vs. No. 10 Iowa State
  • No. 8 Cincinnati vs. No. 9 Georgia

Are you kidding me? These games would be awesome.

First-round quarterback prospect Zach Wilson leading BYU against Mac Jones and Alabama? A surging Iowa team with a strong defense against Trevor Lawrence? Undefeated Coastal Carolina against an SEC power? Plucky underdog Indiana against red-hot Oklahoma? Matt Campbell’s Iowa State against Florida?

Cincinnati vs. Georgia actually happened -- and it was incredible. The teams went back and forth the entire game and Georgia won on a field goal with three seconds remaining. Now imagine if that game actually mattered, if the team that won got to advance. Higher stakes means even better games.

Longer schedule?

Obviously, a 16-team playoff would mean four additional games for the two teams that make it to the final, and that might have been a problem before 2020.

But if there’s one thing we learned from the pandemic, it’s that we don’t need as many cupcake regular season games. Michigan doesn’t need to play two directional schools and a military academy before Big Ten play.

BYU and Coastal Carolina proved a game can be scheduled and executed in the span of a week. It’s not impossible, like some try to make it seem. Games don’t have to be planned five years in advance.

We could even dive a little deeper and leave the final two weeks of conference play open and determine those matchups based on how teams perform to that point in the season. That way, conferences could separate the best teams and make sure they get quality games as high-profile auditions for the playoff.

It wasn’t long ago that college football teams played 11 games. Now, the national champion plays 15. It would not be difficult to cut down on the number of cupcake games to fit in two extra weeks of playoff matchups.

Wrapping up

As a recent convert, I’m surprised how I already feel about the 16-team playoff. I know how strongly many oppose it, because not long ago, I was one of them.

But there are so many positives that come out of it, and every concern I could think of has a reasonable solution.

  • Giving a chance to teams beyond the handful of elites. Hope is a positive for sports.
  • Teams stay in the hunt longer, making their regular season matter more. Two losses doesn’t just eliminate a team from any conversation.
  • Much more diverse, interesting playoff matchups on a yearly basis. We’re tired of seeing Clemson vs. Alabama, etc.
  • Dozens of meaningful games across the country late in the regular season, instead of just a couple.
  • More fans come away feeling good about their team’s season, like something was accomplished.

It took me awhile to get here, but I’m confident this is the direction college football should take.

And I’m not changing my mind this time.


About the Author: