The question of whether or not college football needs to expand its established two-round, four-team postseason system has become increasingly pressing during the last few weeks. Myriad teams possess a convincing claim for a top four ranking in the nation, and therefore a playoff spot, yet have inevitably come up just short of continuing their championship pursuit. While it’s hard to argue that Alabama, the school eventually rewarded with the decisive fourth and final seed, doesn’t deserve to advance, claiming that other comparable teams with an arguably more convincing resume aren’t worthy of postseason contention is a troublesome statement.
No matter from which angle you approach this debate, a convincing mention could be made for multiple contenders, bringing an ambiguity to every outcome that only results in frustration under the minimal scope of the NCAA postseason as it currently operates. A simple glance at each team’s win-loss record might cause some to scratch their heads – though Alabama is a formidable 11-1, both Wisconsin and UCF top them with 12-1 and 12-0 marks, respectively, the latter team boasting the only undefeated record in the NCAA. Additionally, Wisconsin reached its conference championship game, whereas Alabama did not, and its only loss came against No. 5 Ohio State in that same contest, a team that ranks higher than the team that topped Alabama, that being seventh ranked Auburn.
So, why not select Wisconsin or UCF for that final spot? Closer examination reveals that their strength of schedule is woefully lacking, a fatal flaw that ensured Wisconsin would immediately be eliminated if they faltered even once, having beaten only one ranked team all season (No. 20 Northwestern), and one that practically locked UCF out of serious contention from the get go.
However, with that framework in mind, giving Alabama a free pass seems hypocritical. The school’s only victories over ranked teams come against No. 17 LSU and No. 23 Mississippi State, topping Wisconsin’s schedule by a hair yet still failing to impress, especially after having scheduled pushover teams such as Mercer and Colorado State for ostensibly free wins. Its only serious test came against Auburn, which, again, resulted in a loss.
Alabama looks better on paper, but in reality it’s unproven compared to more convincing top tier teams such as Ohio State, which topped No. 9 Penn State, No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 16 Michigan State, or USC, which overcame No. 13 Stanford, No. 14 Notre Dame and No. 18 Washington State, not to mention an Auburn team that handily beat them and No. 3 Georgia. All of those organizations have one glaring loss to their name (Iowa? Really, Ohio State?), but they’ve risked far more than Alabama and, according to the strength of schedule argument, should be rewarded for their success over difficult opponents. They deserve a playoff position.
Once again, we have roughly 8-10 teams with legitimate claims to a postseason berth, half of which are outed thanks to an arbitrary rankings system that results in dissatisfied fandoms and fruitless debates. The solution is simple: expand to accommodate eight teams.
Doing so would make for a more compelling tournament that more decisively indicates which team is ultimately the nation’s best, as these fringe teams would claim the postseason berths they deserve and the season wouldn’t end on such a dissatisfying, anticlimactic note for so many. Of course, some teams will always get left out – it’s likely that UCF would still not have a chance under such a system – but if this season is any indication, there’s a drastically more tangible drop-off of playoff talent after the first eight seeds than the ambiguous top four (only Penn State would realistically have a legitimate argument for a top eight spot), making eight a less controversial, more ideal sweet spot to stride for. The capacity for enhanced representation from other conferences would be significantly enhanced, offering a more comprehensive view of which region truly holds the country’s best talent while opening the window for more exciting underdog storylines against the heavily favored SEC. Some would argue that an additional game is demanding too much physical strain, but if you asked the teams robbed of the playoffs this season whether they would endure the risk of an extra game for the potential reward of immortalization in the record books, what do you suppose their answer would be?
It’s such a simple and elegant solution that every fan seems to be in unanimous agreement about, but the NCAA has yet to budge. Transitioning to a playoff format from the miserably unbalanced BCS system was a significant first step, but in order to make good on the promise of a satisfying postseason system, college football must expand once more.