There are a number of issues related to problems with a college football playoff. Here are the key ones for me:
- Tradition of the bowls
- The fact that college football is different is a plus
- Expanding the playoffs would not necessarily improve the chances that the best team would win
- The regular season matters more in the current system
- The optimal number of playoff teams is not going to be constant
That last point I will expand on in a later post.
In many respects there is already a playoff system. It is just a playoff with two teams. So there has already been a little bit of destruction on points 1 and 2 with the creation of the BCS. In terms of fairness, I think a legitimate argument could be made that a four-team playoff might be optimal in terms of "fairness". It only has two rounds, so the probability of the best team getting upset is not extremely high. In general the regular season would still matter. However, even here there would be exceptions, such as the upcoming SEC championship. If Alabama and Florida win out, so that either team's only loss is to the other, I think they would have a pretty compelling case for inclusion in a 4-team playoff. If 2 out of the 3 of Boise St., TCU and Cincinnati lose out, the loser of the SEC championship game would almost be guaranteed of going to a four-team playoff. That result would seem to make that game pretty anti-climactic. If Boise State, TCU, Texas, Cinci and the SEC champion are undefeated there would still be at least one undefeated team missing out on a four-team playoff. The argument in that scenario would be that the optimal number of teams in the playoffs this year would be six. Even in the season most mentioned for needing a playoff, 2004, there were three contending teams (all with one loss), and then a mishmash of teams with two losses. A three team playoff might have been optimal in that year but even then there would be controversy over who got the bye week.
These cases all point to the likelihood that the playoffs would ever-be expanding. A four-team playoff excluding Boise State and TCU would lead to calls for an eight-team playoff so that those teams could be included. Then the ACC and Pac-10 would call for an automatic bid, since they'd be missing out on the post-season, and a sixteen-team playoff with eight automatic bids would be created. The Sun Belt, Conference USA, the MAC and Notre Dame would then want their own automatic bid, and the play-offs would be expanded to 24 teams.
My one compromise solution would be a +1 system. The bowls would go back to the old system of conference tie-ins, i.e., the Rose Bowl with the Pac-10 and Big 10, and the Sugar Bowl with the SEC champion. Then a week later there would be a National Championship game between two of the bowl winners. The system would bring back a lot of the tradition of the bowl games, allow the regular season to mean something, and give the smaller conference teams a chance to prove themselves in a bowl game to see if they are worthy of playing for the national championship. Also, it would hopefully limit the amount of playoff creep by keeping the bowls in place.