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This year’s College Football Playoff rankings were unveiled for the first time on Nov. 5, and the debate began immediately.
An undefeated Clemson team with a weak schedule was left on the outside looking in, while Penn State joined Ohio State as the second Big Ten representative.
While a subsequent loss by the Nittany Lions immediately shuffled things up and opened the door for the Tigers to move into the Top Four, that initial debate once again shined a light on the shortcomings of a four-team playoff system.
Last year, Oklahoma and Ohio State had compelling cases for the final spot in the College Football Playoff, and it seems each season there is at least one championship-caliber team left out of the mix.
At the same time, the current system also makes it almost impossible for a Group of Five school to crack the four-team field, which slams the door on any potential underdog story.
It’s not hard to find talking points for why the CFP system should be expanded, and here are the top five reasons.
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With LSU, Ohio State and Clemson still boasting undefeated records at the top of the College Football Playoff rankings, there are several one-loss teams on the outside looking in.
When the initial CFP rankings released, Penn State was slotted in the No. 4 spot, ahead of a big matchup with undefeated Minnesota.
A 31-26 loss in that game immediately sent the Nittany Lions tumbling to No. 9 in the rankings and essentially extinguished their chances of earning a playoff spot.
Fast-forward to Saturday, and the Golden Gophers found themselves in a nearly identical situation, with a 23-19 loss to Iowa marking their first defeat of the season and an end to their hopes of sneaking into the playoff picture.
An expanded field would mean both of those teams are still alive, and that first loss of the season would not have the same dire consequences it does under the current system.
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While the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl have no conference affiliation, the same is not true of the Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl in years they are not part of the College Football Playoff.
Here’s their respective tie-ins:
- Orange Bowl: ACC vs. Big Ten/SEC/Notre Dame
- Rose Bowl: Big Ten vs. Pac-12
- Sugar Bowl: SEC vs. Big 12
It’s a setup that made a lot more sense when the gap was wider between Power Five teams and Group of Five teams, and there’s a lot of history and tradition in play here.
However, if the New Year’s Six games are going to be framed as the marquee matchups of bowl season, wouldn’t it make sense to have them truly feature the nation’s best teams?
This year creates a prime example.
Assuming Clemson earns a spot in the College Football Playoff, an extremely weak ACC will get a second New Year’s Six representative by way of an automatic bid to the Orange Bowl.
That means someone like Virginia, Virginia Tech or Pittsburgh in a New Year’s Six game ahead of what will almost certainly be a handful of supremely deserving teams.
Using all six of these bowl games in the CFP process would ensure the best possible product on the field for those matchups.
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In 2016, Leonard Fournette (LSU) and Christian McCaffrey (Stanford) decided to skip their respective bowl games in an effort to avoid injury and begin preparing for the NFL draft.
Their decisions were met with great scrutiny, and it has started a trend of marquee NFL prospects foregoing postseason play.
Here’s a look at the NFL prospects who skipped bowl games last year, via 247Sports:
- Ed Oliver, DL, Houston—1st round, 9th overall
- Devin Bush, LB, Michigan—1st round, 10th overall
- Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan—1st round, 12th overall
- Noah Fant, TE, Iowa—1st round, 20th overall
- N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State—1st round, 32nd overall
- Deebo Samuel, WR, South Carolina—2nd round, 36th overall
- Greedy Williams, CB, LSU—2nd round, 46th overall
- Germaine Pratt, LB, NC State—3rd round, 72nd overall
- Will Grier, QB, West Virginia—3rd round, 100th overall
- Yodny Cajuste, OT, West Virginia—3rd round, 101st overall
- Bryce Love, RB, Stanford—4th round, 112th overall
- Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State—4th round, 113th overall
- Isaiah Johnson, CB, Houston—4th round, 129th overall
- Kelvin Harmon, WR, NC State—6th round, 206th overall
- Donnell Greene, OT, Minnesota—Undrafted
- Karan Higdon, RB, Michigan—Undrafted
The common thread among all of those players? None of them came from one of the teams playing in a CFP bowl game. In fact, since the playoff system began, no notable player has opted to sit out a CFB bowl game.
More CFP bowl games, more future NFL talent on the field during bowl season, better overall product.
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We are five years into the College Football Playoff system, which means that 20 teams have participated in the playoffs since its inception.
Here’s a breakdown of the participants by conference:
- SEC: 6
- ACC: 5
- Big Ten: 3
- Big 12: 3
- Pac-12: 2
- Independent: 1
One of the reasons that March Madness is so wildly popular is that everyone loves a good Cinderella story, and under the current four-team format, there’s zero opportunity for such a storyline to emerge in a field annually populated by college football blue bloods.
Two years ago, an undefeated UCF team earned a trip to the Peach Bowl, where the Knights walked away with a 34-27 victory over Auburn.
That same Auburn team had just handed eventual national champion Alabama its only loss of the year a few weeks earlier in the regular-season finale. The transitive property doesn’t have much of a place in sports, but it’s enough to make you think.
Could that UCF team have gone on an unlikely run to a national title?
Expanding the field would allow for such a Cinderella story to unfold, and while Group of Five teams would still need a compelling case for inclusion, the door would at least be open.
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The best case for an expanded playoff format is also the most obvious.
With five major conferences and only four spots, the cream of the crop in at least one of the nation’s premier conferences is left on the outside looking in each year.
Ohio State was the unlucky one last season.
The Buckeyes finished the regular season 12-1, with a hiccup against Purdue in October dropping them below fellow one-loss team Oklahoma for the No. 4 spot in the CFP rankings.
They settled for a trip to the Rose Bowl, where they knocked off Washington, while the Sooners lost to Alabama 45-34 in the CFP semifinals.
Would Ohio State have prevailed?
Who knows, but they were squarely in the conversation among college football’s elite teams all season, and the four-team format did not afford them—and by extension, the Big Ten—the opportunity they deserved.
Expanding to eight teams would open things up for each of the five major conferences to be represented, meaning a one-loss team from a power conference would never again draw the short straw.