Come Tuesday evening, there will be a new, if temporary, top table in college football. In the aftermath of arguably the most consequential evening of the year, Georgia and Notre Dame will likely drop out of the playoff picture, and it’s difficult to see a way back in for the latter. Replacing Saturday’s fallen teams (both of whom were frankly humiliated) will be Miami and Oklahoma — and the SEC’s loss will be the ACC’s gain.
Before Auburn’s and Miami’s Week 11 victories, the playoff picture was alarmingly crowded and appeared almost impossible to untangle. With seven teams in position to contend for a playoff spot, there was a genuine concern that at least one worthy program — most likely Wisconsin — would miss out. Now, things are decidedly clearer. With Notre Dame effectively eliminated, and the PAC-12 in cannibalistic mood, there are now four playoff spots for four conferences. For the first time this season, the math makes sense. Alabama, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Clemson/Miami is each in control of its own destiny: Win out, and you’re in. And should one of the aforementioned programs slip up, there will be others ready to move on up and vie for a National Championship.
Indeed, the playoff equation has changed dramatically. Just 24 hours ago, we were concerned that at least one deserving program could face a controversial exclusion at the hands of a Committee that values wins and shrugs off losses. Today, that risk has all but evaporated. The SEC is unlikely to field two teams in the final four, and this year’s playoff will not feature an FBS Independent. The four playoff spots could be filled with conference champions, and the natural order will be healthily restored. Equally likely is the prospect of Wisconsin will missing out (following an entirely foreseeable loss to Ohio State) and Miami taking the Badgers’ place. Either way, the selection process should be fairly straightforward.
The implications, however, of last night’s results run much deeper than just this year’s playoff race. The realities, it’s clear, of the post-Week 11 world make the clamour of appeals for an eight team playoff appear overblown and somewhat misguided. Throughout the past month, observers have once again been insisting on the creation of an expanded playoff that would include the Power Five conference champions along with three wildcards (including a G5 program). The theory is that an expansion to eight teams would remove the prospect of controversy, and limit the Committee’s purview to the selection of the just three additional P5 teams. “Five”, so the refrain goes, “does not go into four”.
Although there is considerable logic to the eight-team playoff case, on closer inspection it seems to miss the point of college football. When it comes to the very top of the sport, this is game that lives on controversy and subjectivity. These qualities are, in a sense, what make college football unique, and, not to mention, so compelling.
While the argument that the very existence of a playoff would ruin the excitement of the regular season has rightfully discarded, one could make the same case more successfully in relation to an eight team playoff. Take last night as a case in point. Under an eight team playoff, would last night’s Miami-Notre Dame game have been that significant? A loss for Miami would have been far from fatal, and Notre Dame would, this morning, still be on the bubble. Similarly, would the ACC Championship game be as consequential as it will be this year? In an eight-team format, it’s almost certain that the loser of a Week 14 Clemson-Miami match-up would receive a playoff spot nonetheless.
The prospect of an expanded playoff can also be questioned from a different perspective, namely the prospect that “undeserving” teams would gain entry. Right now, the PAC-12 has no business entering a team into the playoffs, and everyone knows it. Washington has achieved nothing out-of-conference, and USC was crushed 49-14 at Notre Dame just a month ago. Yet, under an expanded format, one of these two teams would gain admission to the playoff by virtue of winning a conference that has shown itself to be the poor relation of the Power Five. It would, frankly, be a crime to reward Washington’s appalling schedule, but under an expanded playoff, the Huskies would almost be incentivised to continue calling up the likes of Rutgers and Fresno State.
In a sport where scheduling parity is far from guaranteed, the maintenance of subjective debate and discussion is crucial. It’s ultimately what makes college football so intriguing, differentiating it from leagues like the NFL, Premier League, and NBA in which simple mathematics reign. Far from undermining the regular season, the existence of a four team playoff makes it the most compelling show in town. Tamper with it at your own risk.
Onside View’s Final Top Four Projection: