What a 16-Team College Football Tournament Might Have Looked Like in 2016

Christopher Walsh@@WritingWalshCollege Football National ColumnistMarch 8, 2017

What a 16-Team College Football Tournament Might Have Looked Like in 2016

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    If the College Football Playoff was a 16-team tournament, would Clemson still have the title last season?
    If the College Football Playoff was a 16-team tournament, would Clemson still have the title last season?Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    "What if?" 

    They're the words nearly every sports fan is left with at the end of a season, regardless of the outcome, because things seldom go as expected.

    University of Alabama fans know this particularly well this offseason, after Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson connecting with wide receiver Hunter Renfrow for a two-yard touchdown with one second remaining determined the national champion.

    With the College Football Playoff, though, "what if?" can be applied to a lot more than a play or a game, but the structure of the tournament.

    What if instead of a four-team field, it had been larger in 2016?

    While the merits of such a change can be argued another day (and we'll ignore that the bowls would fight something like this with everything they had), here's what a 16-team playoff might have looked like.

The Field

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    If a Group of Five team was good enough to play in the Cotton Bowl, then it would have been included in a 16-team playoff.
    If a Group of Five team was good enough to play in the Cotton Bowl, then it would have been included in a 16-team playoff.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Going by the final rankings by the College Football Playoff committee, the straight-up brackets would been as follows: 

    No. 1 Alabama (13-0) vs. 16 West Virginia (10-2)
    No. 8 Wisconsin (10-3) vs. 9 Southern California (9-3) 

    No. 4 Washington (12-1) vs. No. 13 Louisville (9-3)
    No. 5 Penn State (11-2) vs. No. 12 Oklahoma State (9-3) 

    No. 6 Michigan (10-2) vs. No. 11 Florida State (9-3)
    No. 14 Auburn (8-4) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (11-1) 

    No. 7 Oklahoma (10-2) vs. No. 10 Colorado (10-3)
    No. 15 Western Michigan (13-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (12-1) 

    However, there would have been numerous potential problems with such a format. 

    Among them, the pairings wouldn't have taken into consideration geography, conference alignments or potential rematches. Consequently, not only could rivals play a second or even third time following conference championships, but potentially at the same location.

    They also wouldn't have included automatic bids for conference champions, which would be a factor any sort of playoff expansion. Plus, the straight-up brackets would reward numerous three-loss teams, and even a four-loss team would have been included.

    Instead, for our purposes, something similar to the bracket setup for the Football Championship Subdivision (once known as Division I-AA) will be used.

    For those who don't follow the lower football division, the FCS playoff field is 24 teams deep, with eight seeded teams earning first-round byes and each of the 10 participating conference receiving an automatic bid.

    To complete the field the FCS selection committee uses the NCAA Simple Rating System (SRS), based on win-loss record and strength of schedule. We'll do the same using the final College Football Playoff rankings.

    So in that scenario, the automatic bids would have been:

    ACC: Clemson
    American Athletic: Temple
    Big 12: Oklahoma*
    Big Ten: Penn State
    Conference USA: Western Kentucky
    Mid-American: Western Michigan
    Mountain West: San Diego State
    Pac-12: Washington
    SEC: Alabama
    Sun Belt: Appalachian State**

    (*no conference championship game until 2017; ** no title game until 2018)

    That leaves six at-large slots, which based on the playoff rankings would have been Ohio State, Michigan Wisconsin, USC, Colorado and Florida State.

The Brackets

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    Should the playoff expand to a 16-team field, avoiding rematches will be a challenge for the selection committee.
    Should the playoff expand to a 16-team field, avoiding rematches will be a challenge for the selection committee.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Now for the tricky part, the brackets.

    In this scenario, the top-seeded teams host during the first two rounds because not a lot of people are going to pay to travel for Alabama vs. Appalachian State at a neutral site. Plus, no fanbase, fresh off a conference championship game, can afford an additional four straight road trips around the holidays. 

    With the field set, teams are placed in tiers of four based on their rankings, prior to being placed in the brackets. In addition to trying to be geographically friendly, an emphasis is placed on avoiding conferences matchups in the first two rounds, and potential rematches before the semifinals: 

    1 Alabama
    2 Clemson
    3 Ohio State
    4 Washington 

    5 Penn State
    6 Michigan
    7 Oklahoma
    8 Wisconsin

    USC
    Colorado
    Florida State
    Western Michigan

    Temple
    San Diego State
    Western Kentucky
    Appalachian State 

    The overriding problem is Ohio State in a potential second-round matchup, as it already played all four teams in the second tier: Penn State, Michigan, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Of those, it faced only one team at home, and making the rival Wolverines visit Ohio Stadium twice in one year needs to be avoided.

    So Michigan and Penn State swap places in the bracket, but not their potential first-round opponents since they're seeded. USC and Colorado will switch to avoid a possible Alabama-USC rematch in the second round, while Temple and San Diego State are swapped in the fourth tier for more geographical-friendly pairings.

    So the brackets are as follows:

    Appalachian State at Alabama
    Colorado at Wisconsin 

    San Diego State at Washington
    Florida State at Michigan

    Temple at Ohio State
    Western Michigan at Penn State

    Western Kentucky at Clemson
    USC at Oklahoma 

    The scheduling would also be difficult. With conference championships on Dec. 2-3, followed by awards week and the Heisman Trophy presentation on Dec. 10, players would have to practice during finals week(s).

    First-round games would be played Dec. 15-17 to accommodate TV and avoid NFL games on Sunday. The second round would be a week later, Dec. 22-24, in order to keep the semifinals on Jan. 31.

    Moving the national championship game back another week doesn't appear to be an option either because most schools begin a new semester in January.

Opening Round, Part 1

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    With a 16-team playoff, some team would have squeezed into the tournament only to get Nick Saban and Alabama in the first round.
    With a 16-team playoff, some team would have squeezed into the tournament only to get Nick Saban and Alabama in the first round.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Appalachian State at Alabama

    The game pretty much goes as expected, with Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban electing not to run up the score once he has a comfortable lead at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Michael Rubino kicks a couple of field goals and the Mountaineers score a late touchdown against Alabama's reserves, who get plenty of playing time in the second half.

    Alabama 49, Appalachian State 13

     

    Colorado at Wisconsin

    Wisconsin freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook missed the Big Ten title game after suffering a concussion, and the guess here is that he still wouldn't be ready for this game either. Regardless, senior Bart Houston makes the start and doesn't have any major mistakes. Colorado isn't able to bounce back from its drubbing in the Pac-12 Championship Game as the Badgers pull out the low-scoring win.

    Wisconsin 13, Colorado 10

     

    San Diego State at Washington

    Washington plays with a chip on its shoulder due to those claiming it didn't deserve the No. 4 seeding. Consequently, the Huskies shut down Aztecs running backs Donnel Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny, especially in the interior, while Washington's offense has another big day led by quarterback Jake Browning and wide receiver John Ross.

    Washington 31, San Diego State 10

     

    Florida State at Michigan

    There's no need to speculate on this one as the teams met at the Orange Bowl in one of the best games of the bowl season. Granted, it was played in Florida State's home state, but the way the final minutes went back and forth, with Michigan taking a late lead only to see FSU quarterback Deondre Francois throw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Nyquan Murray with 36 seconds remaining, we'll go with the same result.

    Florida State 33, Michigan 32

Opening Round, Part 2

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    Instead of facing Penn State in the Rose Bowl, USC might have played a team like Oklahoma in a 16-team playoff last season.
    Instead of facing Penn State in the Rose Bowl, USC might have played a team like Oklahoma in a 16-team playoff last season.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Temple at Ohio State

    Although Temple at Penn State would have been a terrific first-round pairing, they met during the regular season. Despite the efforts of outgoing quarterback Phillip Walker, the Buckeyes simply have too much for the Owls, especially defensively. Quarterback J.T. Barrett has a huge game as Ohio State turns its attention to a familiar foe.

    Ohio State 27, Temple 10

     

    Western Michigan at Penn State

    Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck’s "Row The Boat" approach gets grounded at Ohio Stadium, but the Broncos don't go down quietly. The combination of Zach Terrell and Corey Davis are enough to find the end zone, but it is overshadowed by Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley, who both have standout performances.

    Penn State 31, Western Michigan 13

     

    USC at Oklahoma

    Of the at-large teams, the Sooners arguably draw the toughest opponent: red-hot USC riding a seven-game winning streak behind freshman quarterback Sam Darnold. The showdown with Baker Mayfield is the talk of the second day, and the game lives up to expectations. An early interception puts Darnold and the Trojans in an early hole, but he's able to bring his team back and with a wild finish pulls off the upset.

    USC 45, Oklahoma 42

     

    Western Kentucky at Clemson

    Fresh off its 42-35 victory over Virginia Tech in the ACC championship, Clemson looks like a focused team and easily dispatches the high-flying Hilltoppers. Quarterback Mike White is able to keep WKU in the game for a half, and wide receiver Taywan Taylor gives the Tigers secondary some problems, but the outcome is really never in doubt.

    Clemson 45, Western Michigan 17

Quarterfinals, Part 1

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    In a 16-team playoff, Washington almost certainly would have had a very tough quarterfinal game, making facing Alabama in the semifinals even tougher.
    In a 16-team playoff, Washington almost certainly would have had a very tough quarterfinal game, making facing Alabama in the semifinals even tougher.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Wisconsin at Alabama

    It takes Alabama a while to get its ground game going, but once it does, the Badgers don't have an answer.

    Running back Bo Scarbrough has a big second half to top the 100-yard mark yards, and quarterback Jalen Hurts doesn't make any costly mistakes. Houston starts again at quarterback for Wisconsin and just has a miserable time as the Crimson Tide's swarming front seven is all over him and notches numerous sacks.

    Alabama 38, Wisconsin 13

     

    Florida State at Washington

    Geographically the matchup is horrible, but it's a result of the Seminoles pulling off a road upset in the first round and there being so few teams in the tournament located west of the Mississippi River. After traveling to Michigan for the first-round game, the schedule catches up to the Seminoles, who play like a tired team.

    Running back Dalvin Cook isn't able to do much between the tackles, forcing Francois to try and carry the offense, only to see some key turnovers benefit the home team. Washington silences its critics with another impressive win and heads to football's version of the Final Four.

    Washington 35, Florida State 22

Quarterfinals, Part 2

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    Instead of playing each other in the Rose Bowl, Penn State and USC would have been teams to watch in a 16-team playoff and capable of making a title run.
    Instead of playing each other in the Rose Bowl, Penn State and USC would have been teams to watch in a 16-team playoff and capable of making a title run.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Penn State at Ohio State

    Although the teams met during the regular season, this time the Buckeyes have home-field advantage. Although Penn State is obviously a more confident team following the big 24-21 upset at Beaver Stadium on Oct. 23, it doesn't benefit from a play like the 60-yard return off a blocked field-goal attempt.

    Again the game is close, but Ohio State is able to survive at home with a long fourth-quarter drive that eats up the clock. Instead of waiting for next season, Ohio State exacts its revenge and moves on.

    Ohio State 27, Penn State 23

     

    USC at Clemson

    USC comes out firing and carries the momentum through the first half, but coming off an emotional win and being on the road finally catches up with the Trojans. Clemson's depth on the defensive line pays off as the Trojans running game is shut down and USC's pass blocking struggles as the game progresses.

    Darnold has another big passing game, throwing for more than 400 yards, but he is continually hassled and hit. It's only a matter of time before he makes a mistake, while Watson doesn't have that problem and wins the highly coveted holiday matchup.

    Clemson 44, USC 27

Football's Final Four

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    Even if the playoff field had been expanded, there's no reason to believe that Clemson wouldn't have won the championship.
    Even if the playoff field had been expanded, there's no reason to believe that Clemson wouldn't have won the championship.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    At this point, there's no mystery involved. The four semifinalists are the same that played at the end of the 2016 season, and unless a team is negatively impacted by the extra games and injuries—a real possibility when playing games Nos. 14, 15, 16 and 17— there's no reason to expect a different outcome. 

    • Alabama 24, Washington 7 at the Peach Bowl

    • Clemson 31, Ohio State 0 at the Fiesta Bowl

    • Clemson 35, Alabama 31 in the National Championship Game

    There's little doubt that the College Football Playoff selection committee had two best teams at No. 1 and No. 2, with Alabama and Clemson. They had the most talent, the most depth and the best records. They clearly deserved their seeding(s). 

    If anything, going to a 16-team field probably would have helped those two teams even more because they would have had the easiest paths to the title game and been the best equipped to handle the two extra rounds of games.

    Maybe with an expanded field, USC could have kept winning, or a team like Penn State might have pulled off a major upset. However, the chances of it doing so more than once aren't very good, especially when not playing at home.

    It's something to consider when weighing whether or not the playoff format should be expanded. 

     

    Christopher Walsh is a national college football columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.