College Football Analysis: Reviewing the Latest Playoff Plan


Like rooting for your favorite shelled amphibian in a turtle race, college football fans are patiently watching the NCAA crawl towards a monumental change to college football’s post-season. Brett McMurphy of wrote a detailed story fleshing out where the playoff seems to be headed, basing his conclusions on a survey of conference commissioners.

Using McMurphy’s results, I speculated backwards on what the past six seasons’ post-seasons might have looked like. You’ll need to read his article to get all the details, but the Cliffs Notes version is this:

Four-team playoff. First round at home fields of higher seeds a few days after Christmas. Three highest-ranked conference champions get invited. The fourth spot is a wild card, going to the highest-ranked team not qualifying as a top-3 conference champion. The championship game (played at a current BCS bowl site) occurs between January 7th and 13th.

I’m only going to add one “rule” to McMurphy’s, and that’s only because I can’t imagine the power conferences not insisting on some favor. I believe that only the Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Big 12, and Pac-12 conferences will see their conference champs get auto-invites.

All right. Let’s get to it.

(I’m using the past BCS polls because I can’t fathom a selection committee being used for a tournament this lucrative for participating teams and conferences. Some sort of poll must be used.)

2006 Season

Friday, Dec. 29

No. 5 USC at No. 1 Ohio State

No. 3 Michigan at No. 2 Florida

Friday, January 12—Championship game at Fiesta Bowl

Who wins?

Ohio State, Florida, and USC all qualified as conference champions. No. 3 Michigan—loser of a heartbreaking season-finale at OSU—would get a fair shot at redemption through the at-large bid. These four titans would create a ratings bonanza, and it’s hard to say who would win the semi-final games.

Who loses?

No. 4 LSU misses an at-large bid, but if they had made the SEC title game, that would have been a moot point. No. 6 Louisville wouldn’t have had many supporters lamenting their absence. The Big 12 and ACC would have been shut out.

2007 Season

Friday, Dec. 28

No. 4 Oklahoma at No. 1 Ohio State

No. 3 Virginia Tech at No. 2 LSU

Friday, January 11—Championship game at Sugar Bowl

Who wins?

All four teams qualified for the playoff as conference champions. Ratings for OU/OSU would be huge, but both games would be competitive.

Who loses?

Pac-10 champ USC (No. 7) was the only major conference champ left out. No. 6 Missouri (loser of Big 12 champ game to OU) and No. 7 Georgia (who didn’t even win its SEC East division) both wouldn’t have gotten much sympathy.

2008 season

Monday, Dec. 29

No. 3 Texas at No. 2 Florida

No. 5 USC at No. 1 Oklahoma

Friday, January 9—Championship game at Orange Bowl

Who wins?

The highest three conference champions (OU, UF, and USC) got auto-bids. Texas gets at-large bid as second Big 12 entry. USC, definitely a championship-contending team, would have gotten a chance to make up for their yearly head-scratching loss. Both semi-finals would be blockbuster ratings bonanzas, and it’s hard to predict who would win any of them.

Who loses?

No. 4 Alabama lost in the SEC championship game and then missed out on the at-large bid to higher-ranked Texas. No. 6 Utah (undefeated and not in a major conference), No. 7 Texas Tech (snubbed from a BCS boll in reality as well), and No. 8 Penn State (Big Ten champ) would have missed out too. The Big Ten and ACC would be shut out.

2009 Season

Monday, Dec. 28

No. 7 Oregon at No. 1 Alabama

No. 3 Cincinnati at No. 2 Texas

Friday, January 8—Championship game at Rose Bowl

Who wins?

The auto-bids go to Alabama (SEC), Texas (Big 12), and Oregon (Pac-10). The at-large goes to Cincinnati (whose Big East conference wasn’t left out previously but will be in the future). Oregon is a huge winner in this scenario. Ratings would be lower for these matchups than in 2008’s playoff, and it’s hard to imagine Texas or Alabama losing. The title game would have been no different than what we got.

Who loses?

Undefeated No. 4 TCU and No. 6 Boise State lose big time since Cincinnati took their at-large spots. No. 5 Florida (loser of the SEC title game) would certainly feel slighted as well. No. 8 Ohio State (just points behind Oregon in the poll) barely missed snagging the last conference champ slot. The Big Ten and ACC would be shut out.

2010 Season

Monday, Dec. 27

No. 5 Wisconsin at No. 1 Auburn

No. 3 TCU at No. 2 Oregon

Friday, January 7—Championship game at Fiesta Bowl

Who wins?

The champs of the SEC (Auburn), Pac-10 (Oregon), and Big Ten (Wisconsin) snagged the invites. While a BCS-buster finally would crash the party—No. 3 TCU. The ratings would be worse than both 2008 and 2009 without any legendary programs involved, but the competition would be stellar in both games.

Who loses?

No. 4 Stanford lost to Oregon earlier in the season but the game was in Eugene, Oregon. No. 6 Ohio State lost the Big Ten’s tie-breaker to the Badgers. No. 7 Oklahoma (Big 12 champ) might also lament their near-miss. The Big 12 and ACC would be shut out.

2011 Season

Friday, December 30

No. 5 Oregon at No. 1 LSU

No. 2 Alabama at No. 3 Oklahoma State

Friday, January 13—Championship game at Sugar Bowl

Who wins?

SEC champ (LSU), Big 12 champ (Oklahoma State), and Pac-12 champ (Oregon) made it in automatically. No. 2 Alabama got the at-large. Oregon, by way of their earlier win over No. 4 Stanford, would relish a rematch against LSU. The SEC would get the double playoff entries they’d been denied in the previous three years. Both games would be great for ratings, and this would be the perfect year to use a playoff to prove worthy combatants.

Who loses?

No. 4 Stanford. And that’s about it.  The Big Ten and ACC would be shut out, for the third time in four years.


The conference champion system works out fine, as long as there is one spot available for an at-large. Considering the antitrust lawsuits the BCS was threatened with, I can’t fathom them creating a playoff that excludes anyone. Above, we saw two teams (2010 TCU and 2009 Cincinnati) crash the party from outside the main five conferences. The “at-large” spot should create enough good will to allow the major five conferences to get some special preference over the rest for their conference champs.

The lowest-ranked team to make the playoff was No. 7 Oregon in 2009. Otherwise, No. 5s often eclipsed No. 4 teams, but never did a No. 3 team get snubbed.

In the six year sampled here, the SEC never missed the playoff and the ACC only made it in once. The Pac-10/Pac-12 (made 5 of 6 playoffs), Big 12 (4 of 6), and Big Ten (3 of 6) all had healthy representation overall.

A single conference doubled up on entries three times. The Big Ten (2006), Big 12 (2008), and SEC (2011) all would have had huge payouts in those years, and no one would have begrudged them.

Is any system perfect? No, but this system—in addition to creating more thrilling football games to watch—would have provided fairer access to the national title than currently exists.

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