The NFL playoffs are expanding and it should be a good thing but don’t even think about College Football Playoff expansion.
The NCAA just wrapped its sixth and most explosive, College Football Playoff. It’s the culmination of a long season of competition and debate that is thrilling and infuriating and agonizing and elating, all at once. The season is the preamble to the Elite CFP. Let’s, please, leave this alone.
The NFL playoffs are expanding with one extra team per conference entering the postseason and only the top team in each conference will receive a bye. It’ll be a hit in the NFL, but the same thought process doesn’t apply to the College Football Playoff.
First of all, the scarcity of seats at the table is what makes the regular season so intense. This is cliché at this point but consider college basketball. Individual matchups are exciting but is San Diego State drops one of its last three games, it means what exactly? Now the Aztecs have to open up against a 15-seed instead of a 16-seed? That crushes playoff hopes in football.
Secondly, this would do nothing to ease the controversy of that fourth selection. Whenever space is limited, the marginal team is going to complain that they got jobbed. Right now it’s the fifth-place team. If the CFP expands it will be the seventh-place or ninth-place team that complains, depending on the flavor of expansion you prefer. But this isn’t the FA Cup. There has to be a line. This is the cream of the crop, and we’re lucky if there are four teams that fit that bill.
Finally, and most importantly, there are rarely four teams that deserve a shot at the title. A qualified team needs to be both talented enough — a huge, and unfortunately, disqualifying requirement in most cases — and sufficiently accomplished to earn that spot. The uproar is always loudest when the 4-seed is weak, or Ohio State thinks they should be in with two losses.
We want to expand the playoff, only if we think that we are wrong in our assessment of the Top Four. There have been two 4-1 upsets in the six seasons of CFP, and these are the games that should be the least competitive, so maybe there is something to expansion. But look closer. You’ll see that in 2014, Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech by accident to start the season, then had Cardale Jones rocket them into the stratosphere en route to a title. In 2017, Alabama thumped a Clemson team that’s quarterback forgot the mechanics of the forward pass, right before Tua ripped off his jersey to show us he was Superman all along.
Excluding those two “upsets,” the 1-seed has beaten the 4-seed by a combined 83 points (an average margin of victory of 27 points). If you exclude LSU’s bye week last year, the 1-seed has won by a combined 48 points (or 16 points per game). If your team isn’t clearly better than these 4-seeds getting rocked in the semifinals, they should not be in the Playoff.
But wait, you say. The fact that the Playoff doesn’t go chalk is all the more reason to open it up. It’s proof of our fallibility as evaluators of greatness and there’s always room for some randomness and chaos. The football isn’t round, it’s oblong. Clean bounces aren’t guaranteed! After all, that’s the promise they sell us.
Do you know what happens when a playoff is expanded to include more teams? The top four seeds win anyway. Let’s look at the FCS Playoffs, which give us a wonderful comparison of a parallel universe of greater football opportunity. The current format has eight seeded teams, and the first round of play is effectively a play-in game for unseeded teams. This offers us some excellent comparisons of teams that would have been left out in seeds 5-8.
According to the NCAA, since 2013 (the first year of the current format), when seeds 1-4 play unranked teams, they are 22-6. Seeds 5-8 are 18-10. Head-to-head seeds 1-4 are 14-6 against seeds 5-8. When seeds 1-4 meet seeds 5-8 in the semi-finals, it gets ugly. The 1-4 seeds outscore their 5 to unranked opponents by 296 points in 13 games (almost 23 points per game).
Over that same time, the lowest seed to win it all is the 4-seed, and that was during 2016, a year logic decided to take off. That season, unranked Youngstown State exploded to make it all the way to the title game, only to lose to James Madison University by two touchdowns. Other than that, it’s 1’s and 2’s except for 2015 when the plucky little engine that could, North Dakota State, won as a 3-seed.
So, just looking at seeds 1-8, since nobody is talking about an FCS-style playoff, does expansion really seem worth it? Two out of seven championship games featured seeds 5-8. We don’t need to expand just so that two-loss, couldn’t-take-care-of-business, law-of-large-numbers-says-this-was-run-bound-to-happen
Towson can get blown out in the National Championship.
The best teams win.
While it’s fun to think about more teams getting in, adding additional games also increases the risk to unpaid student-athletes. Sure there will be more teams with greater-than-zero chance to win it, but those teams aren’t really all that good. It’s fun to say everyone deserves a shot until you think about what it means. More risks, just for a few more blowout games.
With all due respect to the UCF’s of the world, your team’s just not good enough.