What is College Football’s Magic Number?

On the eve of the second inaugural College Football Playoff, I ask, how many teams should get to play for a championship? Every sport does what is best for competition, MONEY, and its teams. As much as you do not want to exclude championship caliber teams, you also do not want undeserving teams taking part either. In short, there is no universal right answer, nor will any answer be perfect every year. The point is to get it right as often as possible and deal with abnormalities as they go.

For example, the MLB is very exclusive. Only a third of the league makes the postseason and 2 teams are eliminated after 1 game. On the other hand, the NBA is very inclusive. Over half the league makes the playoffs even though there are usually only 4 or 5 teams that people believe can win the championship. The NFL is kind of the middle ground. Very rarely do good teams miss the playoffs and usually bad teams are eliminated pretty early.

Then there is College Football. Outsiders do not understand, but true fans love the hysteria caused by the improbable accomplishment of playing for a National Championship. The former BCS system and current playoff format make every week feel like a playoff game. College Football easily has the most exciting regular season of any sport because every single game truly matters.

The only issue, is it enough? Is a 4 team playoff really large enough to crown a champion of 128 teams? First you must come to the realization that while there are 128 D1 teams, only about 70 teams realistically compete for, and even fewer actually expect to win, a national championships. The better question to ask is “does the current system exclude champions?”. I have looked back, and while obviously it is speculation, I feel supremely confident in saying that it would hurt College Football if the playoff was expanded to 8.

While the TV revenue would clearly push the “Non-profit”organization we call the NCAA to consider an 8-team playoff. If you look back at the polls released before bowl season in recent history. You often see teams that just lost their conference championship or finished 3rd or lower in their conference filling out the 7-10 range of the polls. I definitely do not want to reach a point where the regular season is so devalued that teams that are ranked 10th and have 2 losses to teams in the top-5 are saying they should get to play for a championship too. So before you start yelling for an 8 team playoff, ponder if you are only demanding that cause your team is ranked 7th or if you truly believe that would improve the sport.

The only expansion to the current system, I can listen to, would be a move to 6 teams. The biggest issue I have with the idea is that most supporters of a 6-team playoff believe that Power 5 conference champions should get an automatic bid. Stop right there. If a Power 5 Conference champion is deserving, they would already be ranked in the top-6. The system favors conference champions to begin with.

If we start handing out bids like the NCAA basketball tournament then the regular season becomes far less special. Out-of-conference games would mean little and determining the singular at-large bid would become the easiest conspiracy theory tale. All 5 conferences would argue their second best team is the most tested, and deserving, and there would never be a conclusive answer. If you are going to expand, stick to the system you have now. Conference champions are rewarded, but not anointed. You would not tarnish the regular season and the argument for who should be #6 and how to seed the teams would be just as passionate as it now, with 4 teams.

I am personally not calling for expansion, but it has been a topic of discussion. 4 teams is perfect for me and I am as big a college football fan as you will find. I love that every week matters and that bad teams are never involved in important postseason play. I believe 8 is too many and 2 was too few. 4 allows for colossal match-ups of the country’s best teams and incredible build up to the end of the season, but I am not afraid of change and maybe 6 has something to offer that I cannot predict.

Please share your concerns, suggestions, or thoughts in the comments below. Have a Happy New Year everybody! I look forward to writing more in 2016.

Read about the issues with College Football Polling here

And read about why I still love CFB polls here

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