Projecting What a 16-Team College Football Tournament Would Look Like for 2019

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVMarch 11, 2019

Projecting What a 16-Team College Football Tournament Would Look Like for 2019

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    The college football four-team playoff has brought us five years of good matchups and decisive champions, but that doesn't mean it's a perfect format. Some yearn for a return to the old Bowl Championship Series format, but many want an expansion of the College Football Playoff to include more teams.

    While there's momentum toward an eight-team playoff already, how fun would it be to open the pool to 16 teams?

    Some fear this would dilute the regular season, but let's be honest: It would be more exciting to trim some of the noncompetitive nonconference games in favor of fresh matchups. Smaller schools would have the chance to prove themselves against powerhouses on a national stage, and we'd see blue bloods battle regularly.

    If you have a 16-team playoff, you can feature every major conference champion, including Group of Five participants. College football lovers should be able to agree that adding more important games only enhances the season.

    Let's take a look at what a 16-team playoff in 2019 may look like.

The Field

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    Programs would get automatic bids for winning their conference championship games or the regular-season title. Here are our projected 2019 conference winners:

    ACC: Clemson

    American Athletic Conference: Cincinnati

    Big 12: Oklahoma

    Big Ten: Ohio State

    Conference USA: North Texas

    Mid-American: Western Michigan

    Mountain West: Utah State

    Pac-12: Washington

    SEC: Alabama

    Sun Belt: Appalachian State

    That leaves six at-large spots, which will all come from Power Five conferences. Notable absences include Mississippi State, Utah and Penn State.

    At-Large (SEC): LSU

    At-Large (Big Ten): Michigan

    At-Large (Independent): Notre Dame

    At-Large (Big 12): Texas

    At-Large (SEC): Georgia

    At-Large (SEC): Texas A&M

The Brackets

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    My colleague David Kenyon perfectly outlined playoff criteria and bracket parameters two years ago, so that's the formula we'll proceed with.

    We'll take geography, conference affiliation and nonconference schedules into account to build the opening-round matchups. Seeds 1-8 would host the first set of games.

    Proximity was factored into the equation to maximize regional interest and limit travel requirements. 

    Group of Five champions are rewarded for winning their conferences, and if they don't host a game, they at least won't be traveling across the country.


    No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 16 Western Michigan

    No. 8 Washington vs. No. 9 Utah State

    No. 4 Georgia vs. No. 13 Michigan

    No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Cincinnati

    No. 6 Texas vs. No. 11 Texas A&M

    No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Appalachian State

    No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 10 LSU

    No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 15 North Texas

Opening Round, Part 1

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    No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 16 Western Michigan

    The MAC conference race will be tight in 2019; both Buffalo and Ohio could take massive steps back due to graduations and NFL draft declarations. Western Michigan can emerge as the winner, as its offense is bringing back budding quarterback Jon Wassink and star rusher LeVante Bellamy. Unfortunately, the Broncos will be running into a potential all-time offense in Clemson.

    The Tigers have too much firepower for Western Michigan to match, but this would still be a great season for head coach Tim Lester.


    No. 8 Washington vs. No. 9 Utah State

    The Washington Huskies lost a lot of talent from their 2018 squad, but Chris Petersen is an elite coach capable of replenishing their resources. Utah could swoop in and take their crown, but we have faith that Petersen and new quarterback Jacob Eason—who redshirted last season after transferring from Georgia—will repeat Washington's Pac-12 title.

    The Huskies would draw a tough matchup against a very good Utah State team. The Aggies have the best quarterback who gets little buzz in Jordan Love and a defense that averaged 2.5 turnovers per game last season. We're looking at an upset as the Aggies can go toe-to-toe with the rebuilding Huskies.


    No. 4 Georgia vs. No. 13 Michigan

    The first blue-blood matchup would be a thriller. The Georgia Bulldogs could win the SEC if their recent recruiting success translates to early production. Quarterback Jake Fromm must take the next step in his development for the Bulldogs to reach their potential, and he'll be aided by star running back D'Andre Swift.

    Michigan's defense lost significant trench talent, but the offense looks to be trending upward. Shea Patterson is surrounded by quality receivers, and another year of development should help his blockers improve.

    Still, Georgia will be too fast and physical for the Wolverines in this first-round game.


    No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Cincinnati

    Former Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell has done a tremendous job with the Cincinnati Bearcats, and it could culminate with an AAC title in 2019.

    Cincinnati has an efficient offense that runs through talented running back Michael Warren II and a defense that creates tackles for loss (82 in 2018, tied for 49th out of 130 FBS teams) and sacks (31, tied for 45th) with ease. The Bearcats are a gritty team that can push any foe in the country.

    However, they'd be running into an Ohio State team that has continued to bring in talent even without head coach Urban Meyer, who announced his retirement in December.

    The Buckeyes landed quarterback Justin Fields—who was granted eligibility to play in 2019 after transferring from Georgia—and a great recruiting class (14th nationally). That puts new head coach Ryan Day into a position to win the conference again. The Buckeyes will pull this one out because of their athletic advantages.

Opening Round, Part 2

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    No. 6 Texas vs. No. 11 Texas A&M

    The Jimbo Fisher era started off well in College Station considering the low expectations for the Texas A&M Aggies in 2018. They're tough to shake because of their defensive talent and discipline, but they need more consistency on both sides of the ball. They're a candidate, however, to continue ascending and be a force in 2019.

    Their rival Longhorns are one step ahead in the process. Head coach Tom Herman has done an excellent job of replenishing the well and building an effective offense. If we see another jump from quarterback Sam Ehlinger and this offense, Herman will have his Longhorns advancing far.

    Texas would survive this battle thanks to its more established identity and its consistency.


    No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Appalachian State

    The Oklahoma Sooners offense may not look the same as the last two seasons with dynamic quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, but don't discount what head coach Lincoln Riley will do with Alabama graduate transfer Jalen Hurts.

    Hurts will have a plethora of receiving talent at his disposal, including CeeDee Lamb, and will provide a different spark to the Sooners' running game. Their ceiling is still capped by his passing ability and their defense, but they're an elite team entering the season.

    The Sun Belt has been hotly contested in recent reasons as Appalachian State joined the fray. The Mountaineers have been sole conference champions once and co-champions twice in the last three years and figure to again be a force. Their run-heavy offense and speedy defense create nightmares as they shorten games and score efficiently.

    This game may resemble Oklahoma's near-loss to Army in 2018, but the Sooners will escape with a win.


    No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 10 LSU

    The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have undoubtedly struggled whenever they've had the chance to take on the nation's elite teams because of their lack of upper-echelon athleticism. They were exposed once more against Clemson in last season's 27-point defeat in the College Football Playoff Semifinal.

    But, with quarterback Ian Book as the unquestioned starter, the Irish should be one of the better teams even if this is another bad matchup for them.

    LSU brings speed and physicality to overwhelm its foes, which is the perfect recipe to upset Notre Dame. The Tigers offense must finally take a leap for the team to be a serious title contender, but the parts are there. Watch for incoming 5-star running back John Emery Jr. to be a big force this season.

    The Tigers would bring another upset to the first round by pulverizing the Irish in the trenches and winning an ugly game overall.


    No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 15 North Texas

    Clemson and Alabama are the two clear favorites entering the season after each program has established itself as a mainstay. The Crimson Tide will again boast an excellent offense with 2018 Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa and company, and the defense has promising recent recruits ready to hit the field.

    North Texas is one of the more fun offenses to watch (20th nationally last campaign), so make sure you catch the Mean Green in 2019 before quarterback Mason Fine graduates. They don't have the talent to compete in this game, but head coach Seth Littrell deserves a lot of credit and recognition for reviving this program.

Quarterfinals, Part 1

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    No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 9 Utah State

    One of the best possible outcomes from a 16-team playoff is the chance for upsets. Who wouldn't have loved to see the 2006 Boise State Broncos have the opportunity to play in a tournament? Utah State could be that team in 2019.

    Unfortunately for the Aggies, this bracket would square them off with the best team in the nation. Though Utah State's offense is balanced and challenges defenses with deep passing from Jordan Love, it's hard to see them slowing down the Tigers offense enough. Facing a more flawed team like Ohio State or Oklahoma could be enough for an upset.

    For Clemson, this game is about continuing to maximize its superstars by getting them into space. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is so talented and has so much talent around him that teams won't slow down this Tigers unit unless it gets sloppy with the ball.


    No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 4 Georgia

    The last time we saw Georgia and Oklahoma square off, it was a double-overtime event with 102 total points. Georgia's punishing running game dominated the afternoon, and eventually, the Bulldogs defense clamped down on Baker Mayfield. Neither team has many of the same players as two years ago, but this would be a nail-biting rematch.

    The Bulldogs' recipe has remained the same, but now the pressure is on Jake Fromm. He has to be more than a game manager in his junior season. He's flashed the ability to make clutch throws, but the onus will be greater than ever for him to carry his offense in games like these.

    Oklahoma, on the other hand, has even more offensive talent. The team has addressed its defense nicely in recruiting hauls, but that must translate to on-field production right away (the unit finished last season 114th nationally in total defense).

    It's hard to separate these two teams, but the Oklahoma defense should improve enough to help the Sooners win a close game.

Quarterfinals, Part 2

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    No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 6 Texas

    Ohio State is set up to play another former assistant after facing Luke Fickell in the opening round. Texas' Tom Herman was instrumental in the Buckeyes' last championship in 2014, but now he's a rival.

    Both teams have relative unknown factors despite projecting so favorably, but it's easier to trust the Buckeyes' recent program history. They have a ton of star power—including Justin Fields, running back J.K. Dobbins, a deep receiving corps and defensive end Chase Young—in order to overcome some of the roster's weaknesses. The same can't be said for the stout but developing Longhorns.

    We'll take the Buckeyes, but it's close. The Longhorns have the young talent to leapfrog Ohio State during the regular season, but in this game, they'll have to prove it before we buy in.


    No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 10 LSU

    Head coach Ed Orgeron and the LSU Tigers have tried to out-Alabama the Crimson Tide at their own game for the past three years without success. Unfortunately for them, 2019 doesn't appear to hold much hope unless Joe Burrow becomes much more dynamic in the pocket.

    We know how these games play out: They're physical and low-scoring, but Alabama has a little more on offense to get the win. The Tide would win this rivalry rematch and advance, especially since they're retaining so much speed at wide receiver, including Jaylen Waddle.

FBS Final Four

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    Here's where the business side of college football will show itself. The strategy for maximizing ticket sales means putting the remaining highest seeds closest to home and pitting the best storylines against each other.

    The good news for the committee is that Ohio State will draw anywhere, and recent history says Clemson will travel well too. With Alabama close to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta and Oklahoma near the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona, it's not hard to envision the Final Four looking like this:

    Fiesta Bowl: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 3 Oklahoma

    Peach Bowl: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 5 Ohio State

    Sure, there's not a Group of Five darling to make it into the remaining four, but Clemson and Alabama already seem like locks. Both distinguished themselves in 2018 and returned almost their entire offenses, meaning they'll cruise most weeks.

    Clemson smacked Oklahoma in both 2014 and 2015, winning by a combined 77-23 margin. Both programs are dramatically different in terms of personnel now, though. Each is offensive-based and loaded with future NFL talent. But because of the throwing disparity between Trevor Lawrence and Jalen Hurts, we'll take Clemson to outscore the Sooners.

    At the Peach Bowl, Ohio State's defensive issues could arise again. Losing Nick Bosa and Dre'mont Jones to the NFL will put a lot of pressure on unproven talent. And asking Ryan Day to outcoach Nick Saban isn't fair right now. Saban will do enough to slow down the Buckeyes offense and continue taking advantage of his offense's strengths.


    National Championship: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 2 Alabama

    Clemson and Alabama are at it in the championship game for the fourth time since 2015. The last two meetings went in favor of the Tigers, but the five-game series (counting the 2017 Sugar Bowl semifinal) is split 2-2.

    The everlasting image from the 2018 national title game wasn't that a great Tigers pass rush stifled Alabama, though it did. It was that the Tide couldn't slow down Lawrence and the Clemson offense. Clemson hung 44 points on Saban's defense—which only allowed 17.8 points per game during the regular season—and the Tide are even younger on the unit this year.

    Clemson is our projected winner of what would be an exhilarating 16-team playoff in 2019.