Why the College Football Playoff should not expand past four teams

By: Joe Pohoryles

Tonight, we will see the 2019 college football season come to an end, culminating in an all-Tiger national championship game between No. 1 LSU and No. 3 Clemson. Prior to the elimination of Oklahoma and Ohio State, fans debated for weeks about which teams should make up the top four in the playoff.

They also debated whether it should even be a top four at all.

With much controversy surrounding the CFP selection committee’s decisions every year, the media, fans and even some coaches have suggested expanding the field. Fields of six, eight and 16 have all been discussed in national conversations, but the means of expansion being discussed by those actually in charge have not been publicly disclosed, at least not in detail.

While many believe expanding the playoff field would be better for the game, I believe the current format is great just the way it is, and expanding it would be worse for college football.

Why the College Football Playoff should not expand:

  • We already see lopsided semifinal games every year, expanding the field would create even less interesting games
  • It would give the end of the regular season less importance, and would remove the de facto play-in games we see in the final weeks of the regular season, as well as the conference championships.
  • It would not squash any controversy, arguments over who deserves the last spot would remain.
  • It would make the other bowl games even less relevant. Worse teams would be playing in the prestigious non-CFP bowls

The quality of teams at the top of the national rankings changes every year. This year, LSU, Ohio State and Clemson all finished undefeated. Last year, Alabama and Clemson were the two best teams by far. In the first edition of the CFP back in the 2014 season, Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State all seemed capable of winning it all, and No. 4 Ohio State was the team that came out on top.

Ohio State may not have even made the playoffs at all that year, as No. 5 Baylor and No. 6 TCU each made convincing cases to be the last team in, though the Buckeyes clearly proved to be the right choice. The point is, every year is different, but typically there are only two or three teams that truly separate themselves from the rest, so including more good-but-not-great teams will just lessen the quality of the playoff games.

We still see blowouts in the current four-team format. Oklahoma was the No. 4 team in each of the past two seasons, and were clearly overmatched both times, despite having a Heisman-caliber quarterback at the helm (Kyler Murray won in 2018; Jalen Hurts was a distant-second in 2019). Alabama built a 31-10 lead by halftime in the 2018 semifinal, and overcame Oklahoma’s late comeback attempt, still winning comfortably by a score of 45-34. The other semifinal game that year between Clemson and Notre Dame was an even bigger blowout, as Clemson led 23-3 at halftime, before eventually winning 30-3 without either team scoring in the fourth quarter. At least Oklahoma became competitive late in the game.

This year’s Oklahoma team suffered worst of all. LSU smacked the Sooners 63-28. The game was well in-hand for the Tigers by halftime, making the second half merely a formality fans had to wait through before being rewarded with a thriller between Ohio State and Clemson. This year, Oklahoma was clearly the odd team out, so why add teams that are perceived to be worse to the mix when the “best of the rest” was clearly out-matched?

Of the 12 semifinal games that have been played since the inception of the current playoff format, nine have been won by double-digit margins, and six of those have been won by 20 points or more. If we add the supposed seventh- and eighth-ranked teams into the mix, the blowouts would become even more lopsided against the superpowers we see occupying the top spots every year. Who would want to watch match-ups even worse than the ones we already see in the semifinals?

Margins of victory in CFP semifinal games (2014-2019)

Twice as many CFP semifinal games were decided by 20+ points as there were games decided by single digits. (Infographic by Joe Pohoryles).

Of course, any team can win on any given day, and we may see an upset here and there, but more often than not, the truly great teams will be the last ones standing. That’s how it has been in recent years. The committee did not make a mistake at No. 4. This year there were just three teams significantly better than everyone else, and it showed. Georgia ended the year at No. 5, and we saw them get smoked by LSU in the SEC Championship, which leads me to my next point.

Expanding the playoff field would lessen the importance of the games at the end of the regular season. If Georgia had beaten LSU in the SEC Championship this year, it would have likely been enough for the Bulldogs to punch their ticket to the playoff, while the loss ended their hopes. Entering the match-up, the game had much higher stakes. If the playoff field was six or eight teams, Georgia would have made the playoffs despite losing, which would make the game less important from a playoff perspective.

The Big 12 Championship also had major implications. Oklahoma beat Baylor and earned the No. 4 slot. Had Baylor won, and everything else remained the same, they likely would have earned it instead. With the loss, Baylor finished as No. 7, but still would have made the playoff in an eight-team field. An expanded field would just take away the extra excitement we currently see in these games. Georgia and Baylor effectively lost their play-in games, as a Georgia victory would have locked in their place in the playoff, and a Baylor win with a Georgia loss would have vaulted the Bears to No. 4.

Not to mention, Utah was ranked No. 5 entering the PAC-12 Championship, and a win over Oregon combined with Georgia’s loss likely would have given Utah the edge. The conference championship weekend was chock full of intense “play-in” games this season.

Even games late in the regular season have playoff importance. Back in 2016, No. 2 Ohio State hosted No. 3 Michigan. Arguably the biggest rivalry in college football, match-ups between these two teams are always exciting, but the fact that the loser of that game would likely see their playoff hopes die just added extra juice to the match-up.

Ohio State edged Michigan 30-27 in double overtime, one of the best games of the year made even better because of the implications. Ohio State ended the year ranked third in the CFP rankings, making the playoffs. Michigan ended at No. 6, and likely would have made it had they won. Yet in a six or eight team field, Michigan still would have gotten in. We see examples of these de-facto play-in games every season, yet expanding the field would diminish the instances of these, if not completely eliminate them.

Nearly every season there is controversy about the teams ranked fifth and sixth that just barely miss out. People believe they deserve the fourth spot, and should not have to miss out on the playoff, which is another reason why people call for expansion. Expanding it does not eliminate that problem, and in fact arguably makes it worse the more you expand the field. If the field becomes six teams, then the arguments will just become about why the seventh or eight team deserves to be in. With eight, it’ll be about No. 9 and No. 10.

With the current format, typically the top two or three teams are markedly better than No. 4 and No. 5, while the fourth receives the edge based on a factor or two where they distinctly have the advantage over the fifth- and sixth-ranked teams. Arguments can be made, but typically they have good reason to be the final team selected. With an expanded field, that means the comparisons are made between the sixth- and seventh-ranked teams, or eighth and ninth. What makes the eighth-best team that much better than No. 9? The differences are much easier to spot near the top of the list, but the further you go down, the more the lines blur.

If anything it would cause even more controversy surrounding the final team that gets in, and it all would not matter in the end as the top three teams would likely knock them out anyway.

Number of CFP appearances by every team that has qualified since its inception

In the CFP era, just four teams (Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State) have made the playoff more than once, and each of those teams, except Oklahoma, are the only teams that have ever won the championship. LSU could change that tonight with a victory over Clemson. (Infographic by Joe Pohoryles).

An expanded playoff would also lessen the quality of the other bowl games. The non-CFP New Year’s Six bowls have already lost some of its luster, but at least we still get compelling match-ups.

This year we saw No. 6 Oregon edge No. 8 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, 28-27. Either team would likely get blown out by the likes of LSU, Ohio State and Clemson, but their own match-up made the Rose Bowl an exciting game. No. 5 Georgia beat No. 7 Baylor more convincingly in the Sugar Bowl, 26-14, but fans still got to see a top-tier match-up despite it not taking place in the CFP.

If these teams all made the playoff, we’d have teams outside the national top 10 participating in these marquee bowl games, and while the teams would likely be evenly matched, the interest in the games would likely take a hit on the national level, as all the better teams are in the CFP. We see this effect already, but it would be even more noticeable with an expanded field.

Expanding the CFP to include more teams seems tempting on the surface, but based on the history of the semifinals, the excitement of late season games, the drop-off in talent outside the top 3-4 and the quality of other bowl games, the College Football Playoff should remain at four teams.

(Cover Photo Credit: LA Times, Rick Scuteri/Associated Press)

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