Skip to content

The Case for Expanded Playoffs

College football is a sport of tradition. Of pageantry and bizarre rituals that only people who went to that school truly understand. It’s a sport that has people who prefer wins over their own little slice of the world rather than being a national brand or a hated dominant power.

That’s at least what people want you to think. In many cases, people say it without even realizing how little they believe it. How many fans wish they had the star power of teams like Alabama or Ohia State? How many fans wish their team had a real chance to stir things up like Auburn or Oregon? How many fans have complained about seeing the same few teams being in the BCS championship game or the CFP?

I’ve seen the argument that the expanded playoff push is driving a push for a 32-team or 4-16 team mega-conference “upper tier” that will move itself away from the NCAA and do its own thing. Because of this, college football is losing its identity and becoming just another version of the NFL. Those people are either deluding themselves, or they have been successfully brainwashed by the biggest schools that stand to benefit by keeping a small group of teams in the top.

The fact is that we’ve had 11 total teams play in the playoffs in the last 7 years. That’s 11 unique teams in 28 possible slots. The BCS had 16 seasons with 32 possible slots and 15 unique teams play for a chance at the title. Between those, there are a possibly 60 unique teams that could make it. If you combine the BCS teams and the CFP teams who played, there are 7 teams who appeared in both at least once. Take away those duplicate appearances and we have 19 unique teams who have had a real chance at the national championship in 23 years. The FBS currently has a total of 130 teams. Roughly 15% of the teams in FBS have had a chance to play for the national title in nearly a quarter of a century.

In contrast, the NFL has had every team in the playoffs at least once since 2010. 100% of the teams have had a chance to play for the super bowl. If you want to break it down further, every division of the 8 NFL divisions has had a chance to play for the title. The NFL is a pretty balanced league with teams rising and falling over time. The exception to that has been the success of the Patriots over the past 25 years, but they’re an anomaly. The NFL has rules in place to prevent the rich from getting richer, whereas college rewards the rich by making them richer.

If you’re a fan of college football, you know already that the P5 (soon to be P4) conferences are the only conferences who really get a shot at the national title. This has been true since the inception of the BCS. Prior to that, anybody could really claim a national title based on some poll ranking (UCF recently did this when they finished 13-0 as well). The Bowl Alliance was the first attempt at finding a “true” champion.

Because the P5 is the only set of conferences to get to play for the title, they get the best recruits. They have the best facilities. They make the most money from bowl tie-ins. They have the benefit of networks talking about them all the time. Even in games between two G5 teams, you’ll hear about the “blue blood” teams of FBS. It’s always been this way, but people like to pretend it hasn’t been because they either are too young to remember it or didn’t really pay attention in years past.

The expanded playoff is the only way to let teams like 2007 Kansas, 2004 Utah, 2006 Boise State, 2017 UCF, 2020 Cincinnati, et al to have a chance at playing for the actual national championship. Teams like Iowa State, Oklahoma State, UCLA, Iowa, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Duke all have a legitimate chance to play for the title if they have a remarkable season. That would never happen under the BCS or the current 4-team playoff. We already saw TCU and Baylor snubbed in favor of Ohia State in 2014.

The bigger teams hope to maintain this control with an expanded playoff, of course. Making the field larger does in fact give teams a mulligan. Think of a scenario where a 1-loss Penn State wins the Big Ten while a 1-loss Ohia State sits on the outside looking in. In the expanded playoff, OSU gets the chance for revenge and a way to win the title. This brings more money to the Big Ten and more prestige if they can find a way to win it. The argument that traditionalists have against this is that the same few teams will win the national title every year because they’ll have more opportunities to do it. The problem with this argument is that the current system is setup so those teams are the only ones to have a chance in the first place. In an expanded playoff, they can’t rig a game to make their teams win. Non-blue blood teams can win it all by having a magical season.

What teams need is a chance and the only way they get a chance is an expanded playoff. Continuing with the bowl/playoff hybrid structure is a way to try to compromise with traditionalists who like to pretend the Rose Bowl is the most important game. They only say this because they never win it (or even get to it) but their team once won in 1932. There is this sort of pretension that they’re “above” a playoff. Playoffs are for dumb apes who watch the NFL, not for sophisticated, regional snobs who only know they hate the team nearby because their grandpappy said so. It’s like a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but instead of being held captive, they’re signed up as the perennial whipping boys for the blue bloods to warm up on before the select few play for it all.

The difference between the NFL and college football is that tons of people go to college or have a family member who went there; very few people played in the NFL or had a family member play for a specific team.

And what these fans fail to realize is that all college sports, including the FCS (you know, the other chunk of division 1 schools) have a playoff for their sports. FBS is the only one that has somehow tricked their fans into thinking this is all normal. What people really fear is that traditional powers lose their footing and become another Chicago Maroons. I look forward to a day when Washington State wins the national title against Vanderbilt.