Because I’m a huge college football nerd who loves “what if” scenarios, and because my curiosity got piqued when I ran through what a hypothetical 12-team playoff in 2021 would’ve looked like.
So I wanted to do it for even more prior seasons.
A few things: first, I had to re-do all of them after I made them because I got the seeding wrong. I was under the impression that seeds 1-6 were the automatic berths, and that the at large bids had to be seeds 7-12; in other words, an at large bid could not get the 5 or 6 seeds. But I don’t think this is true the more I read about things. I thought a team like last year’s Georgia—which lost in the SEC championship game and still got into the 4 team playoff field as a non-conference champ—would have to be bumped down to the 7-seed because they didn’t win their conference. But I think the only rule is that they you can’t be a 1-4 seed if you fail to win your conference. A team like last year’s Georgia would’ve gotten the 5-seed, not the 7-seed. It’s possible for an at-large team to get a higher seed than an automatic bid team. That’s what I’m trying to say here. This is why I had to redo the whole thing—I had the at-large teams as only the 7-12 seeds.
Another thing about the new 12-team playoff format is that it might put the brakes on conference realignment. Because the playoff field is opened up now, you don’t have to worry about getting snubbed from the playoff because your conference is seen as weak. You get an automatic bid for winning it. We are already at a point where it’s basically gone from a Power Five to a Power Two, but I don’t think it’s necessary any more for teams to try to jump ship to the Big Ten and SEC because they know they’re the only path to the playoff.
One last thing I want to say here before we get started is that there are going to be more than a few playoff games that are rematches of regular season games. That’s fine in my book, but what I don’t like is rematches of conference championship games. Something about that just doesn’t sit right with me. It’s like the CCG didn’t really matter if both participants meet up in the playoff two weeks later. Sure, the winning team gets the higher seed and usually a bye and thus home field advantage, but it still feels weird. So I’m in now favor of getting rid of CCGs when the 12-team playoff goes into effect. I’m guessing it won’t happen–it probably won’t because more games = more money–but it should. Conference titles should go back to being decided by simply which team has the best conference record. Again, I doubt the conferences will scrap the championship games once the 12-team playoff goes into effect, but I think it should happen.
Another reason I support getting rid of CCGs is simply to cut down on the number of games these teams are playing. It’s already 15 games if you make it your CCG and then to the National Championship game in the 4-team playoff, and a 12-team playoff with CCGs still in place would result in a situation where two teams could play as many as 17 games in a season–12 in the regular season, 1 CCG, and then 4 playoff games assuming they don’t qualify for the bye. I think that’s a little much. But a maximum of 16 games, meaning one more than the current system entails, is acceptable.
So for those reasons I support getting rid of CCGs once college football moves to the 12-team playoff. If college football is to move toward a more NFL-like approach to the postseason, the NFL doesn’t have division championship games. The team that has the best record wins the division, simple as. If there’s a tie, they both get into the playoff. They probably would anyway even if they played each other in a CCG. I think college football will be just fine if CCGs are eliminated.
And if we’re really being honest here, how often are these CCGs actually compelling? I mean, yeah, sometimes they’re good games, but we now care more about the playoff. And honestly, only the SEC Championship game is ever really compelling, because it’s usually Bama vs. Georgia. The Big Ten Championship game is usually a beatdown because the Big Ten East is so much stronger than the Big Ten West. Last year, Michigan beat Iowa 42-3 in the Big Ten Championship Game.
It’s really been more of a mixed bag when I actually went back and looked at the results:
There have been a lot of close games. But the issue here is that because the Big Ten’s two divisions are so lopsided, it’s often not the two best teams in the conference facing off against each other. It’s usually the best team in the conference vs. whatever team squeaked out of the West. Since the Big Ten went to East/West in 2014, the West side has never won the conference. They’re 0-8 in Big Ten CCGs.
But what is more important to me is, look at the close games in Big Ten Championship game history, and then look at the rankings. Both teams would be in the playoff either way in those years! Let’s look at 2013, when it was still “Legends” vs. “Leaders” and not East-West. You had #10 Michigan State upsetting #2 Ohio State 34-24. Well, in a 12-team playoff, Ohio State gets an at-large bid no matter what—they’re not going to fall completely out of the playoff picture. And Michigan State was ranked high enough that they would’ve gotten in, too, even without winning the Big Ten championship game. In 2015, Iowa was ranked #4 and Michigan State was ranked #5. They’d both get into a 12-team playoff. Same with Penn State and Wisconsin in 2016, Ohio State and Wisconsin in 2017, and Ohio State and Wisconsin in 2019. So forget about the conference championship game and just put both the teams into the playoff.
Anyway, on to the hypotheticals. This table has every 12-team playoff field from 2021 all the way back to the inception of the BCS in 1998. It’s going to be hard to read I’m sure but you might be able to zoom in on it. Don’t worry, I’ll have brackets and breakdowns for each individual season, but I just wanted to have it all in one place.
Any team in blue is an automatic bid conference champion. The rest are at-large teams.
So we know Georgia ended up beating Alabama in the Championship, but in a 12-team playoff scenario that would be impossible as they’d be on the same side of the bracket.
Bama gets the #1 overall seed and a bye, and since Georgia lost the SEC Championship game to Bama, Georgia has to take an at-large bid and play in the first round. Baylor takes the remaining bye in this scenario as they were one of the 4 highest-ranked conference champions. Georgia easily dispatches Pitt and moves on to play Baylor in the second round, which takes place at a neutral site bowl game location (in my previous illustration of these charts I had both the first and second rounds being played on campus, but I don’t think that is the case–I think only round 1 is played on campus, and then the final 7 games are played as “bowl games” at neutral sites–Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Peach Bowl, etc.
So Georgia then meets up with Baylor in the second round. Georgia wins that game pretty easily and moves on to the semifinal, which takes place in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
Ole Miss hosts Oklahoma State in the second round. We’ll just say Ole Miss wins and moves on to play Bama in Tuscaloosa, and Bama wins that game, which results in a Bama vs. Georgia semifinal in Dallas, and that’s how the left side of the bracket shakes out.
On the other side, Ohio State hosts Michigan State in Columbus in the 7 vs. 10 matchup. Ohio State had beaten Michigan State 56-7 in Columbus just a few weeks prior, so Ohio State is winning that game and moving on to another rematch: this time with Michigan in Ann Arbor. Michigan famously beat Ohio State pretty soundly in the final game of the regular season, so we’ll say Michigan wins again and moves on to the semifinal. I’m not going to rock the boat here with these rematches.
Notre Dame and Utah play in the 6 vs. 11 matchup, and it’s a home game for Notre Dame. But while the game takes place in South Bend, I actually think Utah wins the game. Utah was pretty good last year, and Notre Dame was pretty overrated. So because this is my hypothetical, I say Utah goes on the road and beats Notre Dame. Then Utah has to go to Cincinnati and play the Bearcats. This one I’m not so sure about, but I’m going to say Cincinnati wins it and moves on to play Michigan in the semifinal in the Orange Bowl in Miami.
So we now have Bama vs. Georgia in the Cotton Bowl and Michigan vs. Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl. It’s the same Final Four we ended up with in the 4-team playoff scenario, just with opposite matchups. Georgia beats Bama, Michigan beats Cincinnati, and then Georgia trounces Michigan in the Natty. We saw Georgia beat Michigan in dominant fashion in the semifinal in real life, so we don’t really have to wonder how that game would’ve gone.
I’m gonna be honest: 2021 with a 12-team playoff isn’t exactly the most compelling situation. You’ve got a lot of rematches that I don’t have a ton of interest in seeing. The only rematch I’d have been excited to see–besides Bama vs. Georgia–was Ohio State vs. Michigan, just because I have a theory that Ohio State lost that game to Michigan last year in large part because it was played in a blizzard up in Ann Arbor and Ohio State’s team is full of players from California, Texas and Florida. I’m not saying Ohio State would’ve won for sure if the game was played in a dome but I think it’s possible they would’ve.
Bama was so dominant that year that it was pretty much a no-doubter as to who would win. And Ohio State was so convincing in beating Clemson in the semifinals that I think it was pretty obvious Ohio State was the second-best team in the country that year, too.
This was a weird year due to Covid, there were no non-conference games played by the P5 teams.
So your automatic bids as the 6 highest-ranking conference champions this year are Bama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina–you’d have two G5 teams clinching automatic berths, as the Pac-12 Champion (Oregon) was ranked 24th in the final CFP rankings.
The Pac-12 started its season so late back in 2020 that they were basically irrelevant in the national picture. We’ve got 4 SEC teams in this playoff, 2 from the Big Ten, and 2 from the Big 12. It’s odd that the Big Ten’s other team was Indiana, but they finished the season ranked 11th, believe it or not. Their only loss that year was to Ohio State on the road in Columbus (Indiana went 6-1). Ohio State was up 35-7 early in the third quarter in that game, but Indiana came roaring almost all the way back, and made it a 42-35 game early in the 4th quarter. It looked like Indiana was going to complete the comeback but Ohio State managed to stop the bleeding in the 4th quarter and hold Indiana scoreless after allowing them to go on a 28-7 run. The final score held up at 42-35. That game should have been the “tell” that Ohio State had some serious issues on defense–Indiana QB Michael Penix absolutely carved them up. So that was Indiana’s only loss that season.
Just to show you how weird that Covid year was, Indiana beat Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, and came damn close to beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten.
Had Indiana finished that comeback at Ohio State, Indiana probably would’ve represented the Big Ten in the Playoff–the actual, real life 4-team playoff. Pretty wild.
Pretty chalky here, with the exception being that this is the one year of the CFP that Bama did not make it–largely due to the injury to Tua. Bama was ranked 13th in the CFP rankings at the end of the season.
So LSU, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma win their conferences and take the byes. Georgia, who lost the SEC Championship game to LSU in blowout fashion, secures the 5th seed still. Oregon gets the 6th seed as the next-highest-ranked conference champ, and then Memphis would get the final automatic bid. Yes, Memphis, the AAC conference champion. They went 12-1 that year (12-2 when you include their 53-39 loss to Penn State in the Cotton Bowl). They end up with the 12th seed, but promptly get demolished by Georgia. As we’ll see, that 5-12 matchup is going to usually pit the team that lost the SEC Championship against some G5 conference champ that finished outside the top-12 in the rankings. It’s normally going to be a beatdown matchup. Same with 6 vs. 11, but to a lesser extent.
The only issue I see here is that there are a few rematches of regular season games in the playoff, and one I would say is problematic. Oregon-Utah is a rematch of the Pac-12 Championship, which would’ve happened just 12 days before the playoff (Oregon won 37-15). Nobody wants that. You then have Ohio State vs. Penn State, which was a regular season matchup. As was LSU-Georgia.
The rematch I do mind, however, is Oregon vs. Utah. That would be a replay of a game that happened barely two weeks prior, the Pac-12 Championship game. And we just can’t have that–we can’t be having immediate rematches of conference title games. In that case, the committee would have to address that in their final rankings, probably by just flipping Utah and Penn State–so Penn State gets the 12 seed and plays Oregon, while Utah gets the 11 seed and plays Memphis. Penn State kind of gets screwed here since I’m sure they’d much rather play at Memphis, a G5 team, than at Oregon, a perennial power. But that’s the risk you run being an at-large team, I guess.
Now, the only potential rematch I wouldn’t mind would be Florida-Georgia. I actually think that would be pretty cool if it would’ve happened since that’s a real grudge match/rivalry, and the best part is that they play that game at a neutral site in Jacksonville, and, get this, they have played that game in Jacksonville since 1933. That is not a typo. Go check out the Wikipedia page if you don’t believe me. There have only been two times since 1933 that the game wasn’t played in Jacksonville–1994 and 1995, when it went to an alternating home and home series just for those two years, with each team getting a home game. Then it immediately went back to being in Jacksonville. So the idea of those two teams playing a playoff game at one of their home stadiums (in this case it would be Georgia’s) is pretty interesting. No Florida football team has played a game in Athens, Georgia since 1995. Florida is the only team in the SEC that will never play a game in Sanford Stadium, and Georgia is the only team in the SEC that will never play a game at the Swamp. So it would be pretty cool if this happened. I wouldn’t mind the rematch.
But the conference championship game rematches? That can’t be happening. Either get rid of them or make sure it won’t happen in the playoff with seeding.
In this season, Notre Dame was the #3 team in the final CFP rankings and thus made the playoff, but in the 12-team format, they’d get bumped down to a #5 seed at-large team. No conference, no bye. Ohio State becomes the beneficiary here, as they won the Big Ten and finished 6th in the rankings, but were the fourth-highest-ranked conference champion, so they get the final bye spot. Washington and UCF get the final two automatic berths.
I have Notre Dame beating Penn State in the first round, but then losing to Ohio State in round 2.
2018 was the year that Bama came back and beat Georgia in the SEC Championship game–remember the Jalen Hurts game? He’d been benched during the 2017 National Championship against Georgia, Tua came in and won it, and then Tua took over the starting QB spot at Alabama until he got hurt in the 2018 SEC Championship Game against Georgia, and then Hurts came back in and led Alabama to a comeback win over Georgia to clinch the SEC Championship. Georgia had a 21-7 lead on Bama in that game but lost it. They finished 5th in the final CFP rankings and were left out of the playoff, but in the hypothetical 12-team playoff, they not only get into the playoff, but because they get the 8th seed in the playoff, they get their chance at revenge with Alabama in the second round. And in my hypothetical, I’m saying Georgia gets the win and knocks off Bama. They advance to the semifinals, beat Ohio State, but then lose to Clemson in the National Championship game.
On the other side, I think Michigan takes down Florida because Florida has to travel up to Ann Arbor and play in the freezing cold. But then Michigan gets trounced by Clemson in the next round.
In the bottom right quadrant of the bracket, I’m saying Georgia beats LSU, then beats Oklahoma in round 2, but loses to Clemson in the semis.
In the top right quadrant, we have Washington traveling all the way from Seattle to play UCF in Orlando. It’s a hell of a trip, but fortunately for the Huskies it’s usually in the 70s in December in Orlando, so it’s not like they have to play in the cold or anything. I still think UCF gets the win, and then they get the matchup with Alabama their fans have been demanding for so long. But they lose to Bama.
This 2018 hypothetical would feature a final four that was not the same final four as we had in the real life 4-team playoff. The irl 4-team playoff was Bama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. In my hypothetical, I have (2) Clemson vs (11) LSU, and (4) Ohio State vs. (8) Georgia.
In real life, Bama got the 4-seed despite not even making the SEC Championship game. In the 12-team scenario, Bama is bumped to a 5-seed, but I think they still win the Natty. They would play UCF in round one, then a 2-loss and flawed Ohio State team in round 2.
Ohio State lost 31-16 to Oklahoma early in the year, and then had an inexplicable 55-24 blowout loss at Iowa in the middle of the year. But they beat Penn State when Penn State was ranked #2. It was a big, emotional game that came down to the final minute, and it was a year after Penn State pulled off that massive upset of Ohio State in Happy Valley. Then, the week after the Penn State game, they had the big letdown against Iowa. They beat Michigan State 48-3 when Michigan State was ranked #13 (the week after the Iowa game). And then they beat #3 Wisconsin 27-21 in the Big Ten Championship Game. In the Cotton Bowl that year, they played USC when USC had Sam Darnold and Ohio State won in dominant fashion 24-7. So I actually think that 2017 Ohio State team was pretty good. They just had an early season loss (which is pretty common at Ohio State for whatever reason), and they had an emotional letdown game against Iowa after a huge win over Penn State. But while Ohio State was decent that year, like I said, I think they were flawed and were not good enough to beat Alabama.
Clemson was a very overrated and flawed 1-seed that year, and Bama took them down pretty easily in the semifinal, so I have Clemson losing to Alabama in the semifinal. On the other side, Georgia gets a three-seed, takes down Wisconsin in round 2, and then advances to the semifinals where they would play Auburn, a team they’ve played twice before: once in the regular season on the road, and another time in the SEC Championship. I’d prefer this didn’t happen, but rules are rules.
Anyway, Auburn was arguably the most interesting team in the 2017 college football season. They beat both Georgia and Alabama in the regular season, but were left out of the playoff and watched as Georgia and Alabama squared off in the National Championship Game. How did this happen? Well, though Auburn beat Georgia in the regular season (and pretty soundly, I might add–40-17 in Auburn) and then beat Alabama 26-14 in the Iron Bowl, the problem was that Georgia then beat Auburn in the SEC Championship. Georgia won the SEC, got the playoff berth, and then Bama, because they only had one loss at that point vs. Auburn’s 3 losses. Auburn had lost to Clemson 14-6 early in the season, they lost on the road to LSU 27-23, and then they lost to Georgia in the SEC Title Game 28-7. So while Auburn had a very impressive resume, there was just no way the committee was putting a 3-loss Auburn team in the playoff over a 1-loss Bama team, even though Auburn had beaten Alabama just a couple weeks prior.
That Auburn vs. Oklahoma matchup in the second round is interesting. That 2017 Oklahoma team was probably the best team Oklahoma has had in quite some time. That was the year Baker Mayfield won the Heisman, they went to the Rose Bowl for the playoff and lost a thriller to Georgia in double OT. Oklahoma jumped out to a 31-17 lead in that game but ultimately lost 54-48. It was a back and forth affair that could’ve gone either way. So I actually think Oklahoma would’ve had a chance against Auburn that year, but I pick Auburn to get the win.
It’s because of teams like 2017 Auburn that I support the 12-team playoff model. We have this visceral aversion to teams that have more than one loss on their record, because that’s how we’ve been trained to think by the BCS/4-team CFP system: you lose, you’re out. Screw you. You suck. You are worthless. Enjoy your exhibition Bowl Game, losers. But that 2017 Auburn team was pretty damn good. In a 12-team playoff scenario, they’d get a chance to prove themselves. The 4-team playoff model is just too harsh and too unforgiving, and I think it leaves out a lot of good teams that deserve to be playing in the postseason.
That Ohio State team was the closest a 2-loss team has ever come to getting into the playoff. It was between them and Alabama on the final selection day, but the committee gave the nod to Bama. I don’t think the committee was wrong, because Bama went on to win the whole thing. But I think that Ohio State team was also deserving of a shot to try for a National Title. Ohio State and Auburn were both extremely battle-tested and played brutally difficult schedules that season, and yeah, they had a few dings and nicks in their resumes, but that shouldn’t be held against teams. Again, this is why I favor the 12-team playoff.
So we end up with Georgia vs. Alabama in the National Championship this year, just like we did in real life. In real life, Saban benched Hurts at halftime of the 2017 National Championship Game against Georgia when Bama was down 13-0, and Tua led Bama to a comeback win in overtime. We’ll just say this game plays out exactly like it did in real life and Bama wins the whole thing.
You know what? I don’t really remember this season all that well except for the National Championship Game, so for most of these picks I’m just going to defer to the Sagarin ratings. We’re getting pretty far back in the past here where most of these teams don’t really stand out to me unless I go on Wikipedia and Sports Reference to jog my memory.
First matchup: FSU at Michigan. I had to jog my memory a bit but this was the year Lamar Jackson and Louisville just beat the brakes off of FSU 63-20 early in the season. But Florida State kind of bounced back and had a decent season. They were ranked 8th in the Sagarin ratings. FSU had Dalvin Cook, and they came super close to beating the eventual National Champion, Clemson, in the regular season. Clemson came down to Doak Campbell and escaped with a 37-34 win. That Florida State team was pretty solid. They had one really bad loss to Louisville, but then that close loss to Clemson, and then another close loss to North Carolina. FSU that year beat Ole Miss in the opener, they beat Miami when Miami was ranked, they blew the doors off of Florida at the end of the year, and they beat Michigan in the bowl game–2016 was arguably Harbaugh’s best Michigan team until 2021.
But in my scenario here, I have Michigan winning this game. It’s up in the freezing cold of Ann Arbor, and in real life, like we just went over, UM and FSU played down to the wire in the Orange Bowl. I think the homefield advantage lifts Michigan over FSU.
Michigan then upsets Washington in round 2, but they just don’t have the firepower to get past Clemson in the semifinals.
On the other side, Ohio State gets an easy round 1 matchup with PJ Fleck’s “Row the Boat” Western Michigan squad. They then get their revenge on Penn State, who beat Ohio State in Happy Valley earlier that season on a late blocked field goal returned for a touchdown. But that Ohio State team was deeply flawed offensively and I think they get stomped by Bama in round 2. In real life, they lost 31-0 to Clemson in the playoff. They could not move the ball at all.
And then in the National Championship Game, Clemson dethrones Alabama. We got this game in real life, and it was one of the greatest college football games ever played. Watson led Clemson down the field for the comeback in at the end, throwing the game-winning TD pass to Hunter Renfrow on the goal line with one second on the clock to secure the 35-31 win.
This is the one year out of all my hypotheticals where I have a different National Champion from the team that won in real life. I have Ohio State winning this year instead of Bama. Ohio State didn’t even make the playoff this year because of a late-season loss to Michigan State, but I truly believe Ohio State was the best team in the country this season.
They brought almost everyone back from the 2014 National Championship team. The 2015 Ohio State squad was supposed to be The One. 2014 was supposed to be good, but they were ahead of schedule and wound up winning the whole thing. 2015 was even better, they just had one late slip-up and got screwed for it because the team they lost to, Michigan State, was in their division and also had one conference loss, but held the tie-breaker over Ohio State, and thus Michigan State went to the Big Ten Championship Game, beat Iowa, and got the playoff bid. Then promptly got annihilated 38-0 by Alabama in the semifinal game.
I think the committee should’ve given Ohio State a playoff spot over either Michigan State or Oklahoma, but I understand why they didn’t. This was the first year where I thought, “Wow, the playoff really does need to be expanded.” And it was year 2 of the 4-team playoff model.
That Ohio State team had Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas, Joey Bosa, Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Marshon Lattimore–they were utterly loaded. They had Taylor Decker at left tackle, who wound up being a first round pick as well and is still today the Lions’ starting LT.
That 2015 Ohio State team had 12 guys get drafted including 5 in the first round. That’s an all-time great draft class. For reference, last year’s Georgia team set the all-time record for most players drafted with 15 in the 2022 NFL Draft (which is completely insane–that’s like 75% of their starters getting drafted.) 2019 LSU had 14 guys get drafted in the 2020 draft, and 2004 Ohio State also sent 14 guys to the NFL in one year.
Ohio State’s 5 first round picks is the second most of all time behind the 2020 Bama team, which had 6 guys taken in the first round of the 2021 draft. 2003 Miami had 6 players taken in the 2004 draft.
I will plant my flag on this take that 2015 Ohio State would have won the Natty and thus gone back-to-back had they been given a playoff berth. Clemson and Bama were good that year but Ohio State was better than both of them.
I think it was pretty clear that season that Ohio State and Alabama were the two best teams–their game in the semifinals was the real National Championship. Oregon had a great season, but when it ultimately came down to it, they were no match a team like Ohio State or Bama.
Florida State was 13-0 that year but deeply flawed. They were out-scored by their opponents in the first quarter over the course of the whole season. I actually went to see a game of thiers that year–it was the rivalry game against Florida. Jameis threw like 4 first half INTs but Florida State still won. That 2014 FSU team was in a whopping 7 one-possession games that season–they were barely getting by even though they went 13-0 in the regular season. They wound up getting obliterated 59-20 by Oregon in the playoff. It was actually an 18-13 Oregon lead at halftime of that game, but Oregon went on a 41-7 run in the second half due to 5 FSU turnovers.
Oregon was great that season, and I thought they were unstoppable. I did not think Ohio State would beat them in the National Championship, much less blow them out by 3 TDs. I really thought Oregon had created the most unstoppable offensive system in the country with all that speed and tempo and no-huddle stuff, but it turned out Ohio State’s superior talent, physicality and size was too much for Oregon to overcome. They had no answer for Ezekiel Elliott–in fact, not even Alabama did.
One thing of note about 2014 is that both Baylor and TCU, who loudly complained about being snubbed from the playoff, would’ve both been in with a 12-team format. They split the Big 12 Championship that year and were ranked #5 and #6, so I assumed they’d both be in as automatic bids. After all, it’s the 6 highest ranked conference Champions, right? Well, Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State were the 4 highest ranked conference champs. And then Baylor and TCU were ranked #5 and #6, and they were both technically conference Champions, so I think they’d both qualify for automatic bids, right? 2014 would be a situation where the highest ranked Group of 5 conference champion gets screwed.
Now, there are other seasons where teams split a conference championship but only one of them gets into the playoff because there is such a disparity in the rankings. If, say, Baylor and TCU split the Big 12 Championship, but Baylor was ranked #5 and TCU was ranked #16, and then a team like Cincinnati won the AAC and was ranked #13, Cincinnati would get the automatic berth over TCU. I think this is the only way to fairly deal with split conference championships, right?
Okay, so that’s the entirety of the CFP era thus far, 2014-2021. It will likely go through 2023, next season, and then we’ll officially have the 12-team playoff starting in 2024. That’s my expectation.
Part II will cover the BCS era, from 1998-2013. I was originally going to have them all in one post covering 1998-2021 but it started getting very lengthy, so I decided to split it into two parts.
I just wanted to share some data I compiled after going back through the history of the rankings to 1998 and figuring out which 12 teams would make the playoffs each year if the 12-team playoff format had existed these past 24 years.
Teams that would have made the playoff at least once since 1998 under the 12-team format:
If the 12-team playoff had been in place since 1998, 67 of the 131 teams in the FBS would have at least one playoff appearance over that 24-year span. How’s that for inclusivity?
That is an inclusive and exciting version of college football. It’s much better than the version we have today, where only a select few teams have ever made the CFP in its 8 year run:
- Alabama (7 times)
- Clemson (6 times)
- Ohio State (4 times)
- Oklahoma (4 times)
- Georgia (2 times)
- Notre Dame (2 times)
- LSU (1 time)
- Michigan (1 time)
- Cincinnati (1 time)
- Michigan State (1 time)
- Florida State (1 time)
- Oregon (1 time)
- Washington (1 time)
And the worst part is, 7 of the 13 teams that have made the CFP have only made it once, while the remaining 6 teams that have made multiple CFPs represent a full 25 of the 32 total playoff appearances since the 2014 season.
In fact, Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have filled 21 of the 32 total College Football Playoff spots since the inception of the CFP, or 65% of all playoff berths.
That is how the 4-team playoff has worked out: 65% of the playoff berths have gone to just 4 programs.
To really highlight the top-heaviness and lack of parity of the CFP, let’s count just Championship game appearances:
- Alabama (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020, 2021)
- Clemson (2015, 2016, 2018, 2019)
- Georgia (2017, 2021)
- Ohio State (2014, 2020)
- LSU (2019)
- Oregon (2014)
It’s basically been the same four teams. LSU won one in 2019, but it was over Clemson, a team that’s always in the mix. And LSU did it with a quarterback that was originally at Ohio State. Imagine if Joe Burrow had just been able to get the starting job at Ohio State (he broke his hand during training camp in 2018 and Dwayne Haskins won the job)—forget about LSU having that magical 2019 season.
There hasn’t been a single championship game where there wasn’t a repeat participant (outside of obviously the first two). Georgia/Bama, we’ve seen that twice. Bama/Clemson, we’ve seen it three times.
This sounds crazy to say but even the BCS had greater inclusivity and parity than the CFP. The BCS was around from 1998-2013, or 16 seasons. Over those 16 seasons, the following 15 teams made National Championship Game appearances:
- Tennessee (1998)
- Florida State (1998, 1999, 2000, 2013)
- Virginia Tech (1999)
- Oklahoma (2000, 2003, 2004, 2008)
- Miami (2001, 2002)
- Nebraska (2001)
- Ohio State (2002, 2006, 2007)
- LSU (2003, 2007, 2011)
- USC (2004, 2005)
- Texas (2005, 2009)
- Florida (2006, 2008)
- Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012)
- Oregon (2010)
- Auburn (2010, 2013)
- Notre Dame (2012)
15 different teams made it to the Championship game under the BCS system. Yes, it was over a 16 year span vs 8 for the current 4 team CFP, but remember there were only 2 spots in the Championship under the BCS system.
No team in the BCS era made more than 4 Championships.
Okay, so we know the playoff field would have a lot more parity in a 12-team format. But would the National Championship have more parity? Well, that’s likely a different story. College football is a very top-heavy sport by its very nature. Top recruits want to play for winning programs, winning programs win because they have top recruits, it’s a feedback loop that works both ways. The more you win, the more top players you will get. The more you lose, the less top players want to play for you, and you will lose even more. Nebraska has been trapped in this vicious cycle for a long time now.
But I think over the long term, with a 12-team playoff, you will see greater parity over time just because there are so many more avenues to the postseason. The Pac-12 and the Big-12 are suddenly no longer irrelevant conferences, because winning them will in all likelihood get you an automatic playoff berth. 8 years into the 4-team CFP, it had already gotten to the point where conferences were consolidating and all the good programs want to be in either the SEC or the Big Ten.
It was a matter of simple math: if there are 4 playoff spots and 5 “Power” conferences, someone’s getting left out. Add on to that the increasingly-common occurrence of 2 SEC teams making the playoff, the fact that Clemson grew to have a virtual lock on a playoff spot because of how weak their conference was, and the fact that winning the Big Ten Championship has become essentially an automatic bid to the playoff. The Big 12 and the Pac 12 had basically become irrelevant. They were the odd conferences out, and that’s why you’re seeing their best programs bolt for the stronger conferences.
This is terrible for the sport because it so happens that the Big 12 and PAC 12 basically represent the entire western half of the country, and thus the 4 team CFP basically rendered the whole Western US irrelevant in the national championship picture. Now college football is a sport that basically only matters in the south and the upper Midwest. Everyone else has been relegated to second class citizen status.
But in a 12-team format, with each conference having a seat at the playoff table, there is no need for the best teams to flock to the best conferences, and for the best players to flock to the best teams in the best conferences. I mean, sure, the blue bloods are still going to do well no matter what, but I don’t think the gap between them and the rest will be quite as big as it is nowadays.
With more opportunities to lose games, it follows that we will see the best teams lose more often. It’s college football, these are 18-22 year old kids playing, and things happen. Even Bama is prone to a letdown game here and there. (One day soon I’m going to do a whole in-depth post about how this entire Alabama dynasty since 2009 has basically been sitting on a knife’s edge–a lot of things had to go Bama’s way over the years for them to rack up 6 Natties. I’m not saying it was all luck, because that’s not the case, but there was a great deal of luck involved.) When you add in more games to the mix, it only increases the odds that something crazy or improbable happens along the way.
I mean, Bama won 3 Natties in 6 years during the BCS era (we’ll say their dynasty run really began in 2008 as that was when they first hit #1 under Saban). They’ve won 3 CFP championships in 8 years. They never lost in the Championship during the BCS era. They’ve lost in the CFP 4 times. Bama has by definition been less successful in the CFP era than they were in the BCS era. So I do think expanding the playoff will bring more parity to the sport.
Okay, so we know 67 different programs would’ve made the playoff at least once dating back to 1998 if the 12-team format had been in place. That’s very encouraging.
But there’s one major sticking point regarding the 12-team playoff that a lot of people simply cannot get over, which is this belief that expansion of the playoff will lead to a bunch of crap teams making it in.
“You’re gonna have 4 and 5 loss teams making it every year!” people say.
Also not the case. If the 12-team playoff had been around since 1998, it would’ve been 24 years of playoffs. 24 x 12 = 288, meaning 288 total playoff spots since 1998.
What I found is that only 32 of those 288 total playoff spots since 1998 would’ve gone to 3-loss teams. And not a single playoff spot went to a team with 4 losses or more.
That’s something I want to be clear about here: teams with 4 or more losses are simply not getting in to the 12-team playoff. It wouldn’t have happened once dating back all the way to 1998, and there were some crazy-ass seasons between then and now.
Only 11.1% of the total playoff spots since 1998 would’ve gone to teams with 3 losses. And most of these 3-loss teams that get in are teams from the SEC or Big Ten that played brutally tough schedules and scored some wins over top teams, so it’s not like these teams are undeserving.
An example is 2017 Auburn: they went 10-3 in the regular season playing a schedule so tough it featured 4 teams that made the 2017 College Football playoff: Clemson early in the season, Alabama, and Georgia TWICE. Georgia and Alabama met in the National Championship game that season. 2017 Auburn beat both Georgia and Alabama in a three-week span in late November, but they had an early-season 14-6 loss to Clemson on their resume, as well as a mid-season loss at LSU. And then, they rematched Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and lost 28-7 (Auburn had won the first game at home 40-17). A 12-team playoff format would see that Auburn team get a chance to prove itself in the postseason. I just think that’s fairness–we complain that college football teams play easy schedules, but then when they do play difficult schedules, we belittle them for having the audacity to lose a few games. The lesson becomes clear: as long as your team has a strong brand, you don’t have to play a difficult regular season schedule. Just go undefeated and your brand name will be enough to get you in. I don’t like that system, and I think a 12-team model where a team like 2017 Auburn gets a playoff berth is more fair and just.
Now, what the 12-team playoff would enable is a lot of 2-loss teams making the playoff, but personally, I’m fine with this. If you go 10-2 or 11-2 in the regular season on a respectable schedule, I think you deserve a playoff berth. I think we’ve all been brainwashed into this idea that more than 1 loss on your resume means you’re a trash team. 2018 Georgia, which lost 2 games in the regular season including the SEC Championship Game where they nearly beat Alabama, would make a 12-team playoff. They wouldn’t be tossed to the wayside because they lost 2 games.
And that’s the one thing that I’ve now come to really dislike about college football: we write these teams off too quickly because of the postseason format. The more I think about it, the more I can’t stand the way we do things. This whole “upset culture,” where we cheer for good teams to get upset during the regular season. What are we really doing there? When #6 Texas A&M lost to Appalachian State last weekend, why were we so happy? Because we hate Texas A&M? Because we love App State? For most of us, the answer to those questions is no (although the more videos that come out about A&M’s weird traditions and chants the more I dislike them).
It’s because we are just cheering on teams’ downfalls. We watch A&M lose and we’re like, “Yay! Your season is now over! You suck!”
But what if this Texas A&M team goes back to the drawing board, revamps some things, recommits to toughness and hard work and excellence, and then goes on a nice run for the rest of the season and finishes incredibly strong? What if losing to App State was a wake-up call for them?
Doesn’t matter. Their season is already over. They have ZERO chance at making the playoff now. They have already been eliminated. Doesn’t matter how much they change, how much better they get, how much they learned from losing–they are OUT.
And I just don’t like that. A bunch of 18-22 year old kids have an early-season slip-up and now we just write them off for good? I just think that’s a moronic way of doing things. It presumes that people can’t change, can’t improve, can’t learn from their mistakes, and can’t bounce back from adversity. It teaches literally all the wrong lessons, and is the complete opposite of everything we want young people to learn and internalize.
And it just goes against everything we love about sports: we love a comeback story, an against-all-the-odds story; an “everyone wrote us off” story, a “we were left for dead, but we clawed back” story. College football basically doesn’t have those because there’s essentially no opportunity to bounce back from setbacks during the regular season.
Meanwhile, in the NFL, the 2011 Giants went 9-7 in the regular season and still somehow managed to win the Super Bowl that year.
I just think the way college football has been structured for so long is ass-backwards. Look, I love a good upset in the regular season as much as anybody, but the way the sport is structured now, we’re really just rooting for teams to fail. We are rooting for the top teams to get upset so they can be eliminated from postseason contention.
I just think we can do better than that. Like, for example, Toledo plays Ohio State this weekend. Obviously Ohio State is heavily favored, but if Toledo somehow wins, I want that win to actually mean something for Toledo’s season beyond just “We took down Ohio State!” It should actually serve as a boost to Toledo’s season rather than just a death blow to Ohio State’s season. It should propel Toledo into the top-25 and put them on track to make the playoff.
Basically the way it’s structured right now is that only 6-7 teams are actually playing for a chance to win a National Championship. The rest of the teams in college football–over 120 of them–are playing spoiler. That’s really all they’re doing–the best they can hope for is to spoil Alabama’s season, or Georgia’s season, or Ohio State’s season.
I just personally think that whole model is silly. The more I think about it, the less I like it. And the more I’m so glad we’re moving to a 12-team playoff format.
Doing this project, where I went back through the history of college football to 1998 and figured out what teams in each season would make a 12-team playoff format, there were many times where I would see a team that was left out in some past year and think to myself, “What a shame they didn’t get a chance to play for a Championship.”
I think of teams like 2008 Texas, who had that insane loss to Texas Tech late in the season, and that was what kept them out of the National Championship–even though they beat the team that made it in their place, Oklahoma, 45-35 during the season.
I think of 2006 Boise State, who famously beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl with all those trick plays. That team should’ve had a chance to go all the way. In fact, I would say in many ways that team really got the ball rolling that eventually led to the 4-team playoff, and now to where we are today with the 12-team playoff soon to become a reality. If it weren’t for teams like Boise State winning games that nobody thought they could win, there would be no real argument for the expanded playoff. They were that reminder that the higher ranked team doesn’t always win, the experts don’t always have it right, and the smaller programs can beat the bigger programs sometimes.
I mean, for goodness sakes, the whole rationale of the BCS is that the voters know who the two best teams are, so let’s just take them and let them play for the Championship, while the other teams–we already know you don’t have a chance, so forget about you. The CFP is the same rationale, except for instead of just hand-selecting two teams, you graciously expand it to 4 teams. Everyone else can go pound sand, though.
Once they scrapped the BCS and implemented the 4-team CFP, the BCS model was immediately discredited. Do you remember that? In 2014, the first year of the CFP, the 4-seed, Ohio State, won the whole thing. They beat the #1 seed Alabama in the semifinal, and then beat the #2 seed Oregon in the Championship game.
If the BCS were in place, it would have been Alabama vs. Oregon for the National Championship. We would have never known that actually, Ohio State was better than both of them.
In fact, it may have even been Alabama vs. Florida State in the Championship that year. Florida State was dropped down to #3 in the rankings by the end of the regular season because they didn’t look impressive, but they were still undefeated at 13-0 and the defending National Champions. I think if the BCS system was still in place in 2014, the voters would have had to give them the nod over Oregon for a spot in the National Championship game. You can’t just exclude a 13-0 defending National Champion which still had its Heisman-winning QB from the National Championship season. FSU would have had to get in to the BCS Championship game in 2014 against Alabama.
So if the BCS were still in place in 2014, we probably would have had Bama vs. FSU in the Championship game. In the CFP in real life, both those teams lost in the playoff. So that’s what I mean when I say the BCS was immediately discredited by the CFP in 2014. Once they moved from the BCS to a playoff system, the playoff system literally immediately discredited the BCS system. It proved that a team outside the top-2 could win a National Championship.
But believe it or not, there were, prior to 2014, a lot of morons out there scoffing at the idea of a playoff based on the idea that a #4-ranked team can’t win the Championship.
Just as there are a lot of hardheaded people out there today scoffing at the idea that a team ranked outside the top-4 can win a Championship.
It will happen one day, though. Maybe not immediately upon switching to the 12-team model, but it will happen eventually.
Okay, so all this is to say, I’m in favor of 2-loss and even 3-loss teams making the playoff. As long as they have the resume to back it up, I have no problem with that happening. Because I think teams should be able to learn from their mistakes, and have the chance to improve over the course of a season.
And I think there should be an actual, tangible positive benefit for these underdogs that pull massive upsets. It should actually propel them toward the playoff instead of just giving them the gratification of knowing they played the spoiler role.
The 12-team playoff is the right move. I’m going to keep defending it. The more I look back at the history of the sport, the more I feel confident that the 12-team playoff is the way to go.
Part II will cover the 1998-2013 hypothetical 12-team playoffs. It’s going to be fun. There were some wild-ass years in the BCS era.