College Football Analysis: A 6-Team Playoff Makes the Most Sense


NCAA football playoff proposals are like noses. Everybody’s got one. But with an actual honest-to-goodness 4-team playoff starting to take form (check out CBSSports’s Brett McMurphy’s article fleshed out last week), some serious problems have also emerged.

First of all, if conference champs are given automatic bids, which conferences’ champs qualify? AQ status is disappearing as we know it, but surely a highly-ranked MAC champ (hey, it could happen) is not going to be given precedence over a Pac-12 champ.

Secondly, even if automatic bids are given to the five major conferences (sorry Big East), there still aren’t enough seats at a 4-team playoff table for everyone. Would a conference (like the ACC or Big Ten, which both have had poor track records the last six years) sign on to a system that shuts them out?

My proposal addresses a few key dilemmas but also lines up pretty closely with the survey that McMurphy did of conference commissioners.

  1. The power players must maintain power. If the five power conferences sign on, they want to have an advantage financially. Thus, all five of them must see their champion in the playoff. And that means four isn’t enough.
  1. You can’t exclude smaller schools (or independents like Notre Dame, for that matter), so there must be an at-large spot still. Also, the South would have seceded again last season if mighty Alabama had been denied a spot in the title game. A spot for strong teams who are No. 2 in their own conference must be allotted.

If you do the math, that comes to 6 teams. Which is more than 4 and less than 8. Many playoff proponents (like NCAA president Mark Emmert) think 8 is the magic number (if they aren’t tin-foil-hat-wearing, 16-team-playoff whack jobs), but let’s face it: the status quo can only change so much at once. What would you really be getting with 8 teams anyway? Two more lower ranked entrants into your playoff.

So, if 4 won’t work and 8 is too many, why not just stop at 6?

Instinctively, you’ll say that 6 can’t work because you’ve never heard of a tournament of 6. The NCAA basketball divides in half from 64 all the way down to 2. The NFL reduces its teams from 32 to 12 in the playoffs to the 2 in the Super Bowl. Six, though, just might be the perfect solution for college football’s current landscape.

The five conference champs and one at-large team (who can’t receive a bye since it didn’t win its conference) are seeded after conference championship game Saturday. Seeds 1 and 2 get byes. Seed 6 travels to seed 3 while seed 5 travels to seed 4 the very next week. No need to worry about filling seats on such short notice; the home crowd will sell the game out easily.

The losers of these games still can attend bowls. This will (ironically) make the Pac-12 and Big Ten happy, as it gives a greater likelihood of their best teams going to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl instead of their No. 2 teams.

The winners of these games go home and take their final exams. They practice and travel the week after that to play the top two seeds, who had received byes after conference championship game week. A few days after Christmas, the winner of the 4/5 game plays at the 1-seed’s home stadium, and the winner of the 3/6 game plays at the 2-seed’s home stadium.

With over two weeks to prepare and travel, more tickets for the visiting teams would be allotted. This also would level the home-field advantage a bit, while giving these non-bowl-bound teams’ fans somewhere to travel during the holidays.

Then, sometime between January 7th and 13th, the two teams standing can square off for a true national championship game. This game can be played at a rotating site among current BCS bowls (to make Bill Hancock and his cronies happy).

Having a hard time picturing it? Here’s a sample from last season.

No. 1—LSU (SEC champ)

No. 2—Oklahoma State (Big 12 champ)

No. 3—Alabama (at-large)

No. 4—Oregon (Pac-12 champ)

No. 5—Wisconsin (Big 10 champ)

No. 6—Clemson (ACC champ)

LSU and Oklahoma State get byes. Clemson travels to Alabama on December 10 for a 5:30pm EST game. Wisconsin travels to Oregon on the same date for a 9pm EST game.

Then, the winners (let’s assume the higher seeds) play on Friday, December 30. No. 4 Oregon at No. 1 LSU, and No. 3 Alabama at No. 2 Oklahoma St.

The losers go to bowls, which means that Clemson plays West Virginia in the Orange (I wonder how they’ll do?) and Wisconsin plays 11-1 Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

Naysayers might point to the teams excluded from such a playoff. In the final BCS poll from last December, No. 4 Stanford, No. 6 Arkansas, No. 7 Boise State, and even No. 11 Virginia Tech (higher ranked than Clemson even though they lost to them in the ACC title game) all would be excluded from the playoff. While No. 7 Boise State might have a serious gripe, the other three come from the major conferences and would be resigned to its rules. If the power players want the scales tipped in their favor, they aren’t going to complain about a small hint of injustice.

A 6-team system still has hints of zaniness (10-3 and fifteenth-ranked Clemson, really?) and injustice (even if Boise State had gone undefeated at 12-0, it’s probable that 11-1 Alabama finished ahead of them and stole their at-large). But a 6-team playoff will be a ratings bonanza, will placate the power players by getting everyone's conference champion in, and will create an appearance of sanity for the fans who want a champion crowned on the field and not only in the polls.

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