Since it was created in 2014, the College Football Playoff has been a source of both excitement and anxiety for the vast majority of NCAA’s Division I FBS programs. Despite the enthusiasm and endless debate it provides, does the playoff structure make college football better, or does it reward the few while ignoring the many?
At its initial inception, the CFP was greeted with applause from just about everyone, mainly due to its predecessor. The highly controversial BCS system selected just two teams to play each other for the National Championship, a process that often enraged snubbed teams over its sixteen-year existence.
However, it appears that the new format is just as exclusive, with just eleven different programs making the cut over the course of six years. This has had a trickle-down effect, where many of the same core playoff programs are recruiting at a higher level than almost everyone else, creating a talent gap that ensures only a select few have the talent needed to make the postseason.
While it is completely understandable that the best high school players in the country would want to go play for the teams getting the most exposure, recruits flocking to the same group of playoff teams has created a very skewed power dynamic in the FBS.
2020 has amplified this disparity between the haves and the have-nots, with competitive programs at Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina, and BYU all making claims for one of the four top spots. Their standing outside of the Power Five conferences has made winning over the CFP committee a nearly impossible task:
Additionally, fans across the country have had raised eyebrows at Ohio State's position as the fourth best team, despite playing just five games. To some, allowing OSU to play a fraction of a normal season has revealed the true motives of the committee, which is to give the sport's biggest conferences every opportunity to be represented in the playoffs. Buckeye supporters have pointed to the fact that OSU could not control COVID-related cancellations at other schools.
In search of some kind of parity, perhaps the fans should look to the FCS, Division II and Division III, the less popular but more equitable NCAA playoffs.
The FCS, compromised of the 'other' Division I schools, has taken a wildly different approach compared to the CFP. As opposed to being highly selective, the playoffs since 2013 have selected twenty four teams to compete against one another.
This massive field has many advantages, notably allowing nearly every conference champion within the FCS a spot. The excitement, and additional revenue, such a format could create for the FBS is hard to imagine.
However, it is fair to say that this would never fly in the CFP. Ignoring the incredible amount of over-saturation. the sport's blue-bloods would never go along with it. The reputation of losing to a non-Power 5 school is something that would be hard to wash off, and have a potentially negative impact on recruiting. No school would want to risk any of that just for some added financial profit.
One note worth mentioning: for those who would embrace the FCS format due to more teams getting in, be careful what you wish for. The North Dakota State Bison have won eight of the last nine FCS championships.
Here we have the playoff format that may make the most sense for a future expansion.
Division II football has seven teams make the cut, a system that is slightly less than double the current CFP. Eight teams has often been a suggested next step, but this change actually makes more sense. Throwing in a bye week for the nation's top team ensures that the elites still have incentive going down the stretch, all while maintaining the high-stakes intensity of the regular season.
Theoretically, if the NCAA were to add three more teams, it would allow for all five of the major conference winners to advance, a move that would surely delight beleaguered conferences like the Big-12 and Pac-12. The final two spots are somewhat up in the air; two additional 'wild cards' could sneak in this way, not to mention the looming threat of Notre Dame. A plucky Group of Five upstart like this year's Cincinnati Bearcats would also be in the thick of the race.
Although any increase in playoff teams still feels too good to be true, the D-II model appears to make the most sense in terms of parity and finding the right balance between giving every team a shot and rewarding truly exceptional regular seasons.
While the Division II playoffs are a logical next step for the CFP, there is something about the D-III system that just looks...fun.
A sixteen-team field makes it entirely feasible that two, three, or even four teams from one conference could make the postseason, creating the possibility that rivals could meet on the sport's biggest stage. In addition, one or two Group of Five schools would almost have to be given the chance to prove themselves against top-tier competition. The top eight teams would still get the chance to host a game at home, creating scenarios where postseason games can be held in Tuscaloosa and South Bend for the first time ever.
While critics would point to the playoffs being watered down (they probably wouldn't be wrong), anyone looking at this bracket would have to be intrigued:
Still, it would be unlikely to see the College Football Playoff expand any time soon, let alone by adding twelve more teams. A push for something more gradual, such as Division II's setup, would be a more logical approach.
Hopefully, the NCAA can properly assess why a large portion of their fans are frustrated with the current system, rather than maintaining a status-quo bracket that creates massive gaps in competition between programs. The CFP is a great idea on paper, but with the same schools making an appearance every year, it will continue to be a small step up from the much-maligned BCS. To keep college football from becoming stale, it is time to make the playoffs a goal every team can strive for, not just the usual suspects.