Top 5 Reasons for an Expanded College Football Playoff
After a half-dozen iterations of the College Football Playoff, the four-team tournament has showed room for improvement.
Good arguments exist both for and against expansion, but it's likely to happen. We're looking at five benefits to increasing the playoff field.
In the interest of clarity: The biggest reason is a larger financial incentive. While a bolstered revenue stream is valuable—especially as 2020 has showed—our focus is on reasons that would improve the sport on a season-to-season basis.
Also, you might not agree. And that's perfectly OK. This is not intended to convince you the current format is inadequate; rather, it's an overview of five positive changes that expansion could provide.
This piece uses an eight-team tournament as the expansion model.
Increased Margin for Error
We're not begging for a 10-3 team to reach the CFP. But when a one-loss power-conference team—no matter if it wins a league title—misses, that's a tough result.
Both TCU and Baylor finished 11-1 in 2014 and didn't make it. The next season, Iowa and Ohio State ended 12-1 and 11-1, respectively. In 2017, 12-1 Wisconsin missed the cut. Ohio State followed suit in 2018, falling short despite a 12-1 record.
Perfection is the goal, yes. If that's your metric, though, the size of the playoff should vary annually based on the number of undefeated teams. Sounds like a good idea! It will never happen.
One downside is the high probability of a two-loss team. Even including the top Group of Five program, it's highly unlikely seven power-conferences schools would have zero losses or one.
But it's unfortunate to watch competitive 11-1 or 12-1 teams be shut out of the CFP when another one makes it.
Quarterfinal Games at Campus Sites
The CFP setup uses a neutral site for the semifinals and championship. Expansion likely would not change that, either.
But if the playoff adds a quarterfinal round, the system needs to reward the four highest-ranked teams in some way. Winning three games against top-level competition is incredibly hard! So, starting that championship run with a home contest would be valuable.
In a season not altered by a pandemic, stadiums are filled to capacity and sport a raucous environment. That home-field advantage is part of what makes college football so entertaining.
While a noisy crowd isn't necessarily missing from the CFP, students are exceptionally limited in their ability to attend these games. Putting the quarterfinals on campus offers a special experience to the most successful teams and their fans.
Logistically, this is the most appealing part of expansion.
Group of 5 Actually Has a Shot
Good news: In 2020, 7-0 Cincinnati has a fighting chance. Don't bet on it happening, but the Bearcats are in the conversation because of the extremely rare circumstance of uneven schedules.
The same, however, cannot be said for about any of the 2014-19 campaigns or a future season with a four-team playoff.
UCF finished 12-0 in both 2017 and 2018 but rose no higher than eighth in the CFP poll. Western Michigan went 13-0 in 2016 and finished 15th. No one-loss Group of Five champion has ended better than 17th in the CFP rankings.
That means, in reality, the system eliminates every Group of Five program at the exact moment it starts the season.
Would a Cincinnati or UCF or Boise State or Appalachian State actually win three games? Probably not. But to never even have an opportunity to spring one upset is ridiculous.
Access for Power 5 Conferences
To be clear, we have no sympathy for power conferences when they complain about not making the CFP. When the leagues agreed on a four-team format, five was indeed greater than four. That math hasn't changed during the last six years.
The arrangement shouldn't have happened in the first place, but fixing the setup late is better than never adjusting it.
With an eight-team format, each Power Five league should find itself represented in the CFP.
Now, as long as conferences are split into divisions—as the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC are—automatic bids are unnecessary. Divisions bring the possibility of a 7-5 or 8-4 team stealing a spot in the CFP, so auto-bids invite a bad scenario. (Only the Big 12 places the teams holding the two best conference records in the title game.)
But the six-year playoff era doesn't include an outlier of that nature. The lone power-conference winner with more than two losses was 2018 Washington (10-3), which didn't make the playoff.
Expanding the field increases access for the sport's financial engines. And doing so without auto-bids provides a much-needed barrier for the leagues' also-rans.
More Games Between Top Teams
Every year, it's obvious which two or three programs are the best in the country. The next tier, however, is less clear.
A larger playoff would help settle some of the debates about squads on the four-team bubble. The opening round of the CFP would pit No. 6 against No. 3 and No. 5 opposite No. 4.
Additionally, those are good potential matchups. Last season, that would've meant Clemson hosting Oregon and Georgia heading to Oklahoma. The 2018 playoff would've included Georgia at Oklahoma and Ohio State traveling to Notre Dame.
No amount of expansion will ever be perfect; consider how the men's NCAA basketball tournament features 68 teams, yet we argue over which program should be the last one included. That wouldn't change with football's debate over No. 8.
But we'd happily take more showdowns of top teams on the way to determining the national champion.