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What’s the Ideal Size for the College Football Playoff?

Six teams? Eight? Sixteen? Literally everyone?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The playoff is college football’s best innovation in decades. And while I think the committee made the right decision on Sunday, something still feels off about Penn State’s absence from the field. I don’t think the Nittany Lions are a better team than Ohio State, but it seems wrong to tell a team that hit such meaningful benchmarks — they beat Ohio State and won the Big Ten — that they don’t deserve to compete for a national championship. So as long as teams like Penn State get left out — and as long as there are only four teams in the playoff, there will be teams like Penn State left out — we will wonder if we’ve hit the right number.

So let’s take a look at every potential size for a college football playoff. Which sizes are right? Which have the most reasonable methods for selecting participants? Which please the shadowy cabal of conference executives and bowl representatives that would rather receive a steady stream of cash than institute a playoff system that makes sense for college football? Although I wouldn’t give a bag of my dog’s poop to help these dudes, none of these ideas stand a chance of happening if they don’t please the people in power.


Wait. We did this already, and it was bad. There are no pros.

Imagine if we only had a national championship game this year! We’d have Alabama vs. one of Clemson, Ohio State, or Washington, leaving two frustrated one-loss teams. We wouldn’t even be talking about Penn State under the old system.

Looking back at how much we hated the BCS, it’s easy to forget that it was a huge improvement on the Bowl Alliance/Bowl Coalition setup, which tried to set up a national championship game between the two best teams in the country unless one of those teams was from the Big Ten or Pac-10, and the lack of a system before that. (I was born in 1990. How did you guys follow a sport where we just kinda guessed at who had won the national championship most years?)

That should remind us not to be satisfied. Just because the playoff is much better than the old system, it still might not be ideal.


Does it have more teams? Four is more teams than two! It’s two more good teams!

Who gets in? Whoever the committee says, which has been a point of controversy.

Is somebody disappointed at being left out? Every damn year. We have five major conferences and only four spots. Do the math. This year, two conference champions were left out. Big Ten commish Jim Delany is fine with it because he got a team in, but Big 12 commish Bob Bowlsby is off hopelessly caterwauling about the system’s unfairness.

Is it a fun scenario? There’s something satisfying about what’s currently in place — four contestants, three games, two finalists, one champion. Semifinal day is a great evening of football (unless it’s on New Year’s Eve, like last year). It’s definitely better than two!

Is it too big? Too small? The best argument against the four-team system came in 2014. There were six teams in the mix. The selection committee made the controversial decision to change pretty much everything in its final poll of the year, jumping Ohio State into the field after its previous rankings hadn’t included the Buckeyes. And then the Buckeyes went and won the whole dang thing, steamrolling Alabama and Oregon.

Including Ohio State made the committee look wise; it picked a team some might not have, and it turned out to be a team good enough to win the dang ’ship. But it also proved that a four-team playoff could very, very nearly exclude a potential champion.


Does it have more teams? Six is more teams than four! That’s two more good teams!

Who gets in? We give automatic bids to every conference champion and have one at-large. The committee’s real work would be in seeding, which would have renewed importance. The six-team layout would divide teams into three tiers: The top two get byes into the existing semifinal system, the second two get to host first-round matchups at home, and the third two are happy to be in the playoff.

Would somebody still be disappointed at being left out? Yes, of course. There will always be somebody disappointed at being left out. The fight for that one at-large spot would be brutal.

Is it a fun scenario? “Home playoff games” would be the coolest thing in any of these systems. Home college football games are the best thing about this sport, but unfortunately the games in lifeless domes owned by NFL teams seem to make the most money for everybody.

Would it please the shadowy cabal? The conferences would love this. The championship games are their largest moneymakers of the year, and this would add a new level of importance to those. I have faith in the bowl people to find a way to make money off of the home playoff games.

Is it too big? Too small? Or … just right?


Does it have more teams? Eight is more than six! That’s two more good teams!

Who gets in? We could have all five major conference champions, and we could include a spot for Group of Five champions, although I bet the powers that be in college football would make them share it with independents to get Notre Dame into the playoff from time to time. I’d be fine with that, since it would turn every year into a direct face-off between Notre Dame and some random school that’s successful only once every few decades, and we could all root for that other school.

Would somebody still be disappointed at being left out? Yes, of course. There will always be somebody disappointed at being left out.

Is it a fun scenario? I think three back-to-back-to-back weeks of extremely important football games would be quite dope.

Would it please the shadowy cabal? They’d love it! This system wouldn’t need home games: With seven games — four first-rounders, two semifinals, and a championship game — we could perfectly adapt the existing New Year’s Six and championship game. All their bowls are still super important!

Is it too big? Rarely will the eighth-best team in college football be good enough to win the title. There might be a few first-round blowouts. But we’re essentially talking about making the season one game longer. I don’t think that’s too big.


Does it have more teams? TWICE AS MANY.

Who gets in? We could include all 10 conference champions! That’d be pretty cool! Basketball’s NCAA tournament does it, and we love it, even if it doesn’t include the best 68 teams.

Would somebody still be disappointed at getting left out? Yes, of course. There will always be somebody disappointed at being left out.

Is it a fun scenario? If we gave every league champion a bid, there’d be a little bit more chaff mixed in with the wheat. With games like Alabama vs. Appalachian State and Clemson–Western Kentucky, the first week might be kinda crappy, but it’d provide an occasional upset that would go down in history.

Would it please the shadowy cabal? They’d be worried. Will people pay attention to league title games if the loser still has a really good shot at the playoff?? Would people still watch the precious Rose Bowl if it was an 8–9 first-round matchup?

Of course we would. We watched the Rose Bowl for decades when it was just a game. Hell, we’ll watch the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. We’ll watch any football substance you put on our TV. You own us.

Remember: The people in charge of college football clung to the BCS for years because they were worried that the playoff would diminish the importance of a bowl system. They didn’t realize that adding a multistage playoff would generate even more money than anything they’d previously conceived. Now that the playoff is printing cash, they’ll be hesitant to change again. But there would be money for them if they did.

Is it too big? We should be worried about the well-being of the players: They’re teenagers and early-20-somethings risking their physical health without any monetary payment. But the FCS tacks a 24-team playoff onto an 11-game season, and nobody seems majorly concerned about that.



Who gets in? The entire Top 25, plus any league champions not included in the Top 25, plus some other teams.

Would somebody still be disappointed at getting left out? Yes. There is always somebody disappointed at getting left out. Have you watched the basketball NCAA tournament selection show? There are 68 teams, and being 69th isn’t nice. They have no shot at the title, but they want to participate in the beautiful monster of a tournament everybody loves.

Is it a fun scenario? Every college football playoff scenario is fun. College football is fun. Single-elimination college football is fun.

Would it please the shadowy cabal? Whenever 32 teams even becomes a remote possibly, they’ll already have realized how much damn money they can make off of this.

Is it too big? Teams would now be regularly playing 16 games a year. To fix this, we could drop a game from everybody’s schedule, which would work from a competitive perspective but would cost 128 teams gate receipts for something that would only seriously affect the four teams that end up having to play an unexpectedly large amount of games.

Or maybe — and I’m just throwing this out there — we can try to justify asking unpaid athletes to play so many games by making them paid athletes. Take a portion of the incredibly large sums of money generated by a 32-team playoff to provide compensation of some sort to the pla — [is suddenly murdered by a man in a trench coat holding a garrote.]


Does it have more teams? Yes. It has all the teams.

Who gets in? Everybody. If college football did not want us to have a 128-team playoff, there would not be exactly 128 teams in the FBS. Numbers explain everything. We would rename the Heisman Trophy after Fibonacci.

Would somebody still be disappointed at getting left out. NO. WHAT DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND? EVERYBODY IS PLAYING IN THIS.

Is it a fun scenario? Yes, if you win. To have a 128-team playoff, we’d have to eliminate the entire regular season. We’d do seeding off of the previous year’s playoff, and schools that lost would be stuck in purgatory: They’d struggle in recruiting, then they’d show up Week 1, and if they did poorly the year before, they’d get a bad matchup, leading to another poor performance and another bad matchup. If you’re scheduled to play Alabama, whoops! Your season’s over.

Would it please the shadowy cabal? Everything is now bowls. There is no more money. We now work our jobs for tickets that allow us to watch units of College Football Playoff action. Food is rationed to us by the committee based on performance of local teams. The Southeast becomes our most prosperous region.

Is it too big? It is as big as can possibly be, and yet it is not big enough. The only way for the College Football Playoff to please everybody is for it to be so big that it is the only thing that exists. Then we can be happy in its all-encompassing presence.