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What if there was a Different Playoff Model in 2021

SARAH PHIPPS/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK

Before COVID came along and screwed up all our plans, I had an annual tradition of laying out my preferred 8-team College Football Playoff model using the current season as an example. I did this in 2017, 2018, and 2019. 2020 was just way too weird in the college football world for me to do another installment. 2021 is getting back to normal, but this time we have new models being debated. So, instead of only looking at my preferred model alone, I'll walk through a few of them and see how they would have played out in 2021.

Now, I'm convinced that the committee often does mild rearrangements of rankings at 5 through 12 to ensure the bowl match-ups that everyone wants. For example, there was a time when Michigan State and Mississippi State were quietly swapped even though neither team had played that weekend. Digging into it further, it was clear that the swap was made so that the Big Ten sent a team to the Orange Bowl instead of the SEC. While that sounds like an odd thing for the committee to worry about, it ensured that all bowl-eligible teams from the Big Ten had access to a bowl. So, as we walk through this exercise, it's worth remembering that we could see similar deviations based on the model in use.

The Final Rankings

First, the final CFP rankings for the 2021 season.

1 *Alabama 2 *Michigan 3 Georgia 4 *Cincinnati
5 Notre Dame 6 Ohio State 7 *Baylor 8 Mississippi
9 Oklahoma State 10 Michigan State 11 *Utah 12 *Pitt

Existing 4-Team CFP

Match-up Year A (2021-2022) Year B Year C
1 Alabama vs 4 Cincinnati Cotton Bowl Peach Bowl Sugar Bowl
2 Michigan vs 3 Georgia Orange Bowl Fiesta Bowl Rose Bowl

Other NY6 Bowls in 2021-2022:

  • Fiesta Bowl: 5 Notre Dame vs 9 Oklahoma State
  • Rose Bowl: 6 Ohio State vs 11 Utah
  • Sugar Bowl: 7 Baylor vs 8 Mississippi
  • Peach Bowl: 10 Michigan State vs 12 Pitt

There's a lot to like about all of these match-ups, thanks in part due to those minor deviations in rankings between 5 and 12. Still, my thoughts are mixed:

  • Following heartening seasons for both teams, Michigan State and Pitt each get a great opponent -- each other. For two teams that aren't really in the national championship conversation, the bowl experience on New Years Day in Atlanta is a lot better than having to play road games at Georgia or Ohio State.
  • While people assume that assigning Ohio State to the Rose Bowl helps retain the traditional link to the game and to Pasadena, it does the opposite. The bowl now becomes a consolation prize for a team that couldn't win their division.
  • I can't put in to words how much I dislike the fact that the semi-final games rotate through the six major bowls. The semi-finals, and the associated kickoff times, vary from year-to-year.

Proposed 12-team CFP

  • Six best conference champions are automatically included. Four best champions get a first-round bye.
  • Six remaining at-large teams fill the 12-team bracket.
  • The tournament bracket is built entirely based on ranking match-ups -- no attempt to avoid rematches.
  • First round games are played on campus.
  • (Assumption) The 12-team bracket is set in advance and teams are not reseeded after the first round games.
  • (Assumption) Conferences do not have contract bowls, but the top seeds play in the conference's historically-aligned bowl.

First Round Games:

  • 12 Pitt @ 3 Georgia
  • 11 Utah @ 5 Notre Dame
  • 10 Michigan State @ 6 Ohio State
  • 9 Oklahoma State @ 8 Mississippi

New Years Second Round Games:

  • Sugar Bowl: 1 Alabama vs (8 Mississippi / 9 Ok State)
  • Orange Bowl: 2 Michigan vs (6 Ohio State / 10 Michigan State)
  • Rose Bowl: 4 Cincinnati vs (5 Notre Dame / 11 Utah)
  • Cotton Bowl: 7 Baylor vs (3 Georgia / 12 Pitt)

Right off the bat, there's a lot to talk about.

  • Ohio State would have to prove that it is better then Michigan State for a second time after that late November beat-down. That's arguably not a difficult task, but why should OSU be forced to do it again? Then, Michigan would likely have to beat Ohio State for a second time -- a distinctly difficult thing to do against a quality opponent.
  • The same is true for the probable Alabama/Mississippi match-up after Alabama won that match-up in early October. Now, to be fair, the committee could rearrange rankings to avoid these match-ups.
  • #7 Baylor gets a first-round bye but #5 Notre Dame does not? Granted, a #5 team can't complain that it doesn't get an advantage only afforded to four teams. Imagine if they were a top-4 team.
  • Two of the four play-in games are on northern campuses. Are those stadiums winterized? (In this case, probably. But, would Michigan State, Utah, or BYU want that expense?) The alternative would be to play in nearby NFL stadiums. Could the stadiums in Cincinnati, Cleveland, or Indianapolis be available?

My 8-team Proposal

  • The best six conference champions get an automatic bid. I can't take credit for this one. I had automatic bids for the Power 5 conferences and no others -- though I've always relented on including a Group of Five auto-bid as well. Their model is better than mine, so I'm adopting it.
  • Having said that, I'm not against an additional rule that removes a particularly weak Power 5 champion. Perhaps a rule like that could be written as: "The best 5 conference champions are automatically included. If a Group of Five champion is not one of the top five champions, the highest ranked Group of Five champion is also automatically included."
  • All of the Power 5 conferences have contractual bowl alignments (assuming they are among the top six champions), with one caveat. The committee can remove the worst of the five champions from their contractual home and place them wherever they want within the bracket. Big Ten and Pac-12 -- Rose, SEC -- Sugar, Big 12 -- Cotton, ACC -- Orange.
  • Teams are re-seeded after the first round games. The two semi-finals are played in one host venue on consecutive nights.

Quarterfinal (a.k.a. New Years Six) games:

  • Sugar Bowl: #1 Alabama vs #12 Pitt
  • Rose Bowl: #2 Michigan vs #11 Utah
  • Orange Bowl: #4 Cincinnati vs #5 Notre Dame
  • Cotton Bowl: #7 Baylor vs #3 Georgia

Some thoughts:

  • You might assume that the contractual tie-ins would be very restrictive more often than not, but you'd be surprised how often they work out this cleanly. It's not always 1vs8, 2vs7, 3vs6, and 4vs5. But, it works out pretty cleanly most of the time.
  • Here's why I'm not totally against only including the top five champions. A really interesting tournament materializes if we replace Pitt with Ohio State and flip Ohio State with Notre Dame to avoid the repeat opponent. Utah gets bumped from the Rose Bowl to the Sugar Bowl against #1 Alabama, Michigan now plays Notre Dame in Pasadena, and Cincinnati now plays Ohio State in Miami.
  • The Rose Bowl goes back to being the prize for winning the conference while also being a step on the way towards a National Championship. Granted, I presume the currently proposed 12-team model would retain this connection for the better of the two contractual conference winners more often than not.

My 10-team Compromise

So, it turns out there are numbers between 8 and 12. Three of them. The college football world has seemingly forgotten that it is possible to have 9-team, 10-team, or 11-team models too. Here's a 10-team proposal that I think could be a compromise between all the interested parties:

  • The best six conference champions get an automatic bid.
  • All of the Power 5 conferences have contractual bowl alignments (if they are among the top six champions), with my caveat from above. The committee can remove the worst of the five champions from their contractual home and place them wherever they want within the bracket.
  • I'm once again totally open to completely removing the fifth-best power conference champion, provided there's always representation from the Group of Five.
  • At-large teams fill the 12-team bracket.
  • First round games are played on campus. We have two play-in games instead of four. This reduces the opportunities for a northern school to have to figure out hosting a play-in game. It also drastically reduces the chances that a team plays three tournament games instead of two. (We assume teams ranked seven through ten aren't as likely to go all the way to the championship game as teams ranked five and six.)

First round games:

  • #8 Mississippi @ #6 Ohio State
  • #12 Pitt @ #5 Notre Dame

New Years Quarterfinals:

  • Sugar Bowl: #1 Alabama vs (#6 Ohio State or #8 Mississippi)
  • Rose Bowl: #2 Michigan vs #11 Utah
  • Orange Bowl: #3 Georgia vs (#5 Notre Dame or #12 Pitt)
  • Cotton Bowl: #7 Baylor vs #4 Cincinnati

Some notes relative to the other models:

  • Any playoff that adds #11 Utah and #12 Pitt as automatic qualifiers while leaving out higher ranked teams deserves a bit of scrutiny. If the alternative is the current 4-team model, you can probably add #7 Baylor to that discussion. None of those teams are in the same tier as national contenders like Alabama and Michigan. I would argue that the auto-bid approach ensures that all regions of the college football world are included in the tournament. If Utah was not included, fans in the western half of the country could feel completely shut out. The same is true of Pitt, though to a lesser extent.
  • You can argue Cincinnati is clearly a tier below as well based on some sort of eye test or statistical review, but I'd argue a 13-0 team with a marque win deserves a shot against those top teams -- if for no other reason than to give them a chance to prove us wrong. Thankfully, all the models discussed here got this right. Fans from UCF have experienced otherwise recently.
  • The two teams left out relative to the 12-team proposal are #9 Oklahoma State and #10 Michigan State. Can you make a case that these two teams are part of the National Championship conversation? I can't. I'd love to point to the Spartans win over Michigan but the two losses to Purdue and Ohio State prove otherwise. The case for the Cowboys isn't quite as weak, but losses to 7-5 Iowa State and Baylor is tough to overcome without a marque win.
  • There is also a trickle-down effect within the bracket as well. #3 Georgia and #11 Utah get to avoid the pre-bowl first round games. Mississippi has to play on the road instead of at home.
  • The two teams added relative to the 8-team model are Ohio State and Mississippi. Now, it's a little harder to argue against these two teams. Both have solid resumes, but match-ups against eventual playoff teams (Oregon/Michigan and Alabama respectively) paint them as a tier below.

So, tell me which you'd prefer!