What a 16-Team College Football Tournament Would've Looked Like in 2017
The Ohio State Buckeyes thought they deserved a place in the College Football Playoff in 2017, but the selection committee instead tabbed the Alabama Crimson Tide, who eventually won the national title.
Had the season-ending tournament included 16 teams, however, there wouldn't have been any controversy surrounding Urban Meyer's club—or the undefeated UCF Knights.
No, our hypothetical won't change anything. But let's have some fun.
First, some ground rules: No touching of the hair or face. Second, enjoy yourself. This isn't a pitch to increase the field to 16 teams, and our method isn't the only reasonable way to change the playoff. That's an entirely different conversation.
As March Madness approaches in college basketball, we're interested in exploring a larger tournament for football using the results from the 2017 campaign.
In a hypothetical 16-team tournament, there are two obvious choices for how to determine which teams are included.
First up is the simple route of taking the top 16 in the CFP rankings. However, this is only for reference and will not be used:
No. 1 Clemson (12-1) vs. No. 16 Michigan State (9-3)
No. 8 USC (11-2) vs. No. 9 Penn State (10-2)
No. 4 Alabama (11-1) vs. No. 13 Stanford (9-4)
No. 5 Ohio State (11-2) vs. No. 12 UCF (12-0)
No. 3 Georgia (12-1) vs. No. 14 Notre Dame (9-3)
No. 6 Wisconsin (12-1) vs. No. 11 Washington (11-2)
No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1) vs. No. 15 TCU (10-3)
No. 7 Auburn (10-3) vs. No. 10 Miami (10-2)
*Records are pre-2017 bowl games
The alternative is providing an automatic bid to every conference winner, then giving at-large bids to the next six highest-ranked teams. This is our method of choice:
Power-conference champions: Clemson (ACC), Ohio State (Big Ten), Oklahoma (Big 12), USC (Pac-12) and Georgia (SEC)
Group of Five champions: UCF (AAC), Florida Atlantic (C-USA), Toledo (MAC), Boise State (MWC) and—by virtue of a better overall record than Appalachian State—Troy (Sun Belt)
At-large teams: Alabama, Wisconsin, Auburn, Penn State, Miami and Washington
Note: One potential flaw is an expanded playoff could eliminate all conference championship games. As a result, TCU would've been in position to reach the playoff (with Stanford as the first team out) if that were the case. Plus, Miami would be a top-eight team, not USC.
In order to both increase fan involvement and level the playing field, our tournament won't put Group of Five champions at an extreme disadvantage. Geography will shape matchups.
And as a "prize" for success, higher-ranked teams will host the opening two rounds. This is similar to how the Football Championship Subdivision plays its tournament but accounts for a smaller number of qualifiers and the existing neutral-site semifinal round.
Rematches and intra-conference games would also be avoided when possible, though that doesn't include actual bowl matchups of 2017.
Hosts: Clemson (1), Oklahoma (2), Georgia (3), Alabama (4), Ohio State (5), Wisconsin (6), Auburn (7), USC (8)
Road Teams: Penn State, Miami, Washington, UCF, Florida Atlantic, Toledo, Boise State, Troy
Using the above guidelines, here's our championship tournament:
No. 1 Clemson (12-1) vs. Florida Atlantic (10-3)
No. 8 USC (11-2) vs. Boise State (10-3)
No. 4 Alabama (11-1) vs. Troy (10-2)
No. 5 Ohio State (11-2) vs. Toledo (11-2)
No. 3 Georgia (12-1) vs. Miami (10-2)
No. 6 Wisconsin (12-1) vs. Washington (10-2)
No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1) vs. Penn State (10-2)
No. 7 Auburn (10-3) vs. UCF (12-0)
Toledo playing at Ohio State is obvious. Let's continue.
With just three programs from the West Coast and two hailing from the Pac-12, USC needed to host the only option (Boise State). Washington's "closest" possible host is Wisconsin, which cannot play Big Ten foe Penn State in the opening round.
Technically, the best option for Oklahoma would then be Troy, but Tuscaloosa makes the most sense because of the greater distance Florida schools would travel compared to Auburn. Consequently, Penn State will head to Norman.
Miami, UCF and Florida Atlantic are then linked to the remaining options, with Miami avoiding fellow ACC school Clemson.
Opening Round, Part 1
Florida Atlantic at Clemson
Lane Kiffin is plenty familiar with Clemson, and he could scheme a couple of big plays against the talented unit. But to overthrow the Tigers would mean consistently picking apart one of the country's best defenses while holding off a diverse running game. We're sticking with the ACC champions.
Boise State at USC
Efficient offenses proved to be Boise State's downfall in 2017. The Broncos finished 2-3 when surrendering 4.8 yards per play or greater, and USC averaged less than 5.0 just once. Overall, the Trojans ranked 15th nationally at 6.6 yards per snap. Sam Darnold and Co. would eventually pull away from a stout defense.
Troy at Alabama
In September, Troy pulled off a memorable upset at LSU. There won't be a second SEC West shocker, though. Alabama hasn't allowed more than four yards per carry in a game since 2014, and Troy's worst performances, not coincidentally, occurred when the rushing attack stalled. The Tide roll.
Toledo at Ohio State
Toledo boasted a prolific offense thanks to Logan Woodside, so Ohio State's outstanding defense wouldn't completely shut down the MAC champions. But the Rockets surrendered 28-plus point six times and six-plus yards per carry in four contests last season. Those struggles would help the Buckeyes ease into the quarterfinals.
Winner: Ohio State
Opening Round, Part 2
Miami at Georgia
For a moment, it seemed the Mark Richt Reunion Game might actually happen. Instead, injuries at skill positions depleted Miami as the season wound down. Between those absences and the Hurricanes' average offensive line opposite a menacing front seven, Kirby Smart and the Dawgs would emerge victorious.
Washington at Wisconsin
This showdown is arguably the most difficult to predict because both defenses were absolutely stellar in 2017, tying for third nationally with 4.42 yards allowed per snap. In a matchup this even, home-field advantage would play a small yet impactful role. That advantage goes to Wisconsin in a low-scoring slugfest.
Penn State at Oklahoma
While the matchup in Madison is harder to predict, the clash in Norman could be the most entertaining first-round tilt. Do you like points? This is the one to watch. Saquon Barkley would have a huge day, but Penn State's secondary stumbled against top competition. Baker Mayfield would provide the difference.
UCF at Auburn
Hey, we know what happens here! UCF earned a 34-27 triumph in the Peach Bowl. The caveat is Auburn would host the clash as opposed to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Still, we'll favor the self-proclaimed national champions in another tight finish.
Quarterfinals, Part 1
USC at Clemson
USC's shaky offensive line opposite a tremendous front seven would put a considerable strain on Sam Darnold to play mistake-free football in Death Valley. Unfortunately for the Trojans, only seven teams committed more turnovers in 2017. Kelly Bryant and the Clemson rushing attack would steadily seal the result.
Ohio State at Alabama
Remember what happened when Clemson gave Ohio State no choice but to make J.T. Barrett throw the ball? In case you forgot, 31-0 happened. Without question, the Buckeyes were a top-six team in the nation and deserved a place in the CFP conversation. Yet that doesn't mean the gap between these programs wouldn't be apparent.
Quarterfinals, Part 2
Wisconsin at Georgia
After clipping a comparable Washington team in the opener, Wisconsin would encounter a similar style with Georgia. The Bulldogs, however, present a more efficient passing game and more dynamic rushing attack. Alex Hornibrook would need to have an Orange Bowl-like performance (23-of-34, four TDs), which would be unlikely against UGA's secondary.
UCF at Oklahoma
In the 2017 AAC Championship Game, UCF outlasted Memphis 62-55 in a double-overtime thriller. It's easy to believe this quarterfinal wouldn't be much different—just put Mayfield and the Sooners in the favored slot. UCF ceded 7.4 yards per pass attempt on the season, and Oklahoma's top-tier offensive line would consistently open up running room for Rodney Anderson.
Football's Final Four
Here's the thing with a pretend tournament: picking winners is fun and entertaining! But in real life, fatigue would be a factor that could be showing at this point. Plus, it's likely that injuries from the round of 16 and quarterfinals would affect these results.
That's not something we can measure. But our Final Four is composed of the actual CFP qualifiers, and this is what we know happened:
Rose Bowl: Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48
Sugar Bowl: Alabama 24, Clemson 6
National Championship: Alabama 26, Georgia 23
Alabama showed it deserved a place in the four-team field, and the all-SEC showdown was a memorable game. The CFP selection committee had three easy choices and nailed the fourth.
The footnotes are the most enlightening part of the exercise. Would expanding to 16 teams eliminate conference championship games? That seems the prudent choice, and it would've shifted a home contest from USC to Miami. Plus, TCU would've qualified.
And that, fellow college football fans, is the topic that must be remembered in these discussions. Adding more programs doesn't affect the top; it merely changes the perception of the bottom teams.