The top division of college football has always had a peculiar method of declaring its best team. Despite the majority of the athletic world producing a champion through a tournament of some sort, or head-to-head competition, what college football did for most of its existence was simply rely on the media to declare a champion.
What follows is a brief recapitulation of how the NCAA has selected its college football champion, including the three precursors to the BCS. Skip down for a new proposal for a College Football Postseason if you're uninterested in the history.
The term "Mythical National Championship" has been used since 1920 to describe the non-competitive national championship awarded in college football. In the 146-year history of college football, only 44 percent of seasons have ended with a sole program claiming the national championship.
More than half of college football seasons have multiple programs claiming to have been The Champion, which is less than ideal, and it's not all due to ancient history either. Since 1950 -- a year in which Princeton, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Kentucky all claim to be the best -- 29 seasons (45 percent of the time) had at least two teams claiming to be national champions.
The Associated Press began crowning champions after the 1963 season. College football operated this way for the next 29 years and the top two ranked teams only played each other in a bowl game six times. This didn't accomplish much in the way of producing a clear, undisputed champion following bowl season.
In 1992 -- following back to back co-national champions in 1990 and 1991 -- the SEC, Big 8, SWC, ACC, Big East, and Notre Dame finally decided they'd had enough of kissin' their sister and formed the Bowl Coalition. Under the agreement, the Sugar, Orange, Cotton, and Fiesta ("Tier 1") bowls would release a No. 1 or No. 2 ranked team from their specific tie-in so that it could play in a different Coalition bowl, setting up a de facto championship game.
Problem was, this didn't include either the Pac-10 or Big Ten. The Rose Bowl couldn't release either conference champion to play in a different bowl game without violating its television contract with ABC. The Coalition lasted three years until the Southwest Conference finalized its slow and majestic collapse, announcing it would dissolve following the 1995 season.
Enter the Bowl Alliance, formed from the remnants of the Bowl Coalition in 1995 ... and was essentially the same thing. Add another at-large bid with the newly formed Big 12, and the championship game was agreed to rotate between the (now) three "Tier 1" bowls; Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta. The AP and Coaches Polls were added together in some novel point system sort of way, and the resulting two highest ranking member teams would play in the "championship". This still excluded the PAC-10 and Big Ten, but more importantly for the era it also excluded "mid-majors".
That became a bigger issue -- when people viewed the Alliance system as collusion between the major bowls.
In 1996, BYU threw a monkey wrench at the Bowl Alliance, which culminated in head coach LaVell Edwards testifying in front of congress in an anti-trust hearing. His Cougars had finished ranked 5th in the AP and won the WAC for the 18th time in the last 23 years, but weren't allowed into one of the Tier 1 Alliance bowls. Edwards explained to congress how difficult it would be for a mid-major to compete in recruiting when they wouldn't be allowed in certain bowls.
The threat of anti-trust Congressional action has been a popular motivational tool for change in this country.
The Bowl Alliance reformed into the Bowl Championship Series following the hearings, in time for the 1998 season. Most of us are familiar with the BCS, which was in place from '98 until it was replaced by the College Football Playoff in 2014. The top-ranked (by the BCS) teams played each other in the championship game in 13 of 15 seasons, correcting what they didn't like about the former AP voting system.
Six conferences were "automatic qualifiers", meaning their champion would be selected to a BCS bowl no matter what: Big Ten, Pac-10/12, SEC, ACC, Big East, and the Big 12. Notre Dame automatically qualified if it finished ranked in the Top 8.
The BCS bowls were the Rose (Pac-10/12 and Big Ten Champions), Sugar (SEC Champion), Orange (ACC Champion), and Fiesta (Big 12 Champion). The Big East AQ would take one of the remaining spots.
There were a bunch of rules about BCS bowls selecting teams, and a strange, four-digit decimal score birthed by an algorithm no one quite understood that provided the all-important rankings. And again the issue was inclusiveness: highly ranked Utah, Boise State, and TCU teams from a "mid-major" conference each failed to get a shot at a championship. This system also included a smattering of "who's most deserving?" debates between number two and number three ranked teams.
It was mostly confusing, and especially so considering every other major athletic endeavor on Earth, including every other football league -- even lower divisions of the NCAA -- has some form of a tournament to produce a champion. Continuing to not do so in the highest level of college football became increasingly difficult to rationally justify.
So, we got a College Football Playoff (CFP), and it's mostly fine. Gone are the weird algorithms and in their place, we have things like a spokesman dry-panning how a "body clock" can affect play. It's inarguably more human if that was the intent. Thirteen football people use their best football judgment to rank teams and the Top Four make the playoffs. The playoff games rotate between the bowls that are now being called the "New Year's Six": Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Peach, and Fiesta.
There is still an issue with exclusivity. The odds a Group Of Five (GOF) -- formerly "mid-major" -- conference member slides into the Top Four are extremely slim. Worse than that, with four spots and five conferences in the aptly named "Power Five" (P5), at a minimum a champion from one of the most highly competitive conferences in college football is omitted from participating every year. Which doesn't make a ton of sense, or speak well toward being inclusive.
Let's fix all that.
Proposed: 16-Team College Football Postseason
College football is a regional sport, which is one of the most endearing things about it, and has a history that can both be preserved and co-opted into a modern playoff. Something that would most certainly be abolished if an expanded seeded bracket model were to be adopted. This proposed postseason would begin on December 31 and play the Championship at the end of January. It would contain two "rounds" that will produce a single champion.
The first is the Traditional Bowl Round, which attempts to hold true to the historic conference tie-ins of each of the major bowl games. Two additional bowls will either need to be created or have an existing bowl committee adopt the responsibilities and tie-ins. This brings a total 16 NCAA Division 1 teams into the College Football Postseason.
Rose: Pac-12 champion vs Big Ten Champion
Sugar: SEC Champion vs At Large #1
Orange: ACC Champion vs Big 12 2nd (or At-Large #2)
Cotton: Big 12 Champion vs Big Ten 2nd (or At-Large #6)
Peach: ACC 2nd (or At-Large #3) vs SEC 2nd (or At-Large #4)
Fiesta: PAC-12 2nd (or At-Large #5) vs GOF #1 (or At-Large #6)
Independent (new): Independent (or At-Large #7) vs At Large #8
GOF (new): GOF #2 (or At-Large #9) vs GOF #3 (or At-Large #10)
In order to qualify as an "At-Large," a Power Five team must finish ranked 16th or better by the College Football Playoff selection committee, and a Group Of Five must finish ranked anywhere in the Top 25.
The second-highest ranked team from a conference within the Top 16 are what we're calling "Conference Seconds". Both the Champion and the Second (if qualifying) are always assigned to their respective bowls and cannot be At-Large selections.
In the past, "At-Large" meant the bowl would be able to pick a team outside of its tie-in, here that terminology is bent a little bit. The bowl is obligated to select the highest ranking team available at their turn in the selection, not free to choose whoever they want. The selection order is Sugar, Orange, Peach, Fiesta, Cotton, Independent, GOF. Typically, there are four to six At-Large teams selected each year and the first At-Large is ranked around 8th.
If the NCAA wants to keep pretending New Year's Eve is a good time for football*, the two new bowls would provide some pretty exciting contests. Any independent (Notre Dame, BYU, Army, UMass) that is ranked in the Top 16 will play in a designated bowl against an At-Large, which is very typically ranked between 10th and 13th. If multiple Independents are ranked above 16th, the highest gets the designated bowl and the other(s) become At-Large teams.
If you want eyeballs on a NYE game, guaranteeing a good Notre Dame or BYU team is a pretty sure fire way to do it.
*[Editor's Note: This was done before the announcement that the NCAA is considering moving games off New Year's Eve, which would be a good idea. These two bowls could be moved to their own separate dates at any point between Dec. 26th and Dec. 31st]
The GOF death-match bowl is a thing that needs to happen. Saving three spots out of sixteen for GOF members isn't a large ask. Occasionally there weren't even three ranked GOF teams at the end of the season and those spots went to P5 teams that were ranked 13th through 16th.
No matter where we draw the arbitrary line in the sand that says "you must be at least this highly ranked in order to ride the ride", we should all be able to agree that a team outside the Top 10 is an outstanding long-shot to win the Championship and an even bigger long-shot to be the consensus Best Team in College Football if they do.
I'd rather give those spots to a few GOF teams and see what happens, than to some P5 that finished third or fourth in their conference -- which is what those ranked spots typically are.
2015 would have looked like this:
With the second Pac-12 team -- Oregon -- ranked 15th and three qualifying GOF teams, Northwestern (13) and Michigan (14) get left out simply due to the Fiesta conference tie-in. To that I say, variety is the spice of life and don't finish third or fourth in your conference and expect to be in the running for Best Team in America. Finishing in the Top 12 mathematically guarantees you a spot in the playoff.
That sort of left-outness of the 13th through 16th ranked teams does occasionally happen in years with all three qualifying GOF members residing outside the Top 16 and a 16th ranked conference Second. I don't feel particularly aggrieved by it. The qualification of a Second to be automatically placed in the tie-in could be adjusted to a Top 12 ranking if occasionally leaving out a 13th ranked team is an indignity we just cannot abide.
I retroactively selected these bowls for all seasons going back to 1995, which you can check out here if you're curious. Current conference affiliation was used for the whole timeline which messed with some of the tie-ins but for the most part you get a good idea of how this system would perform.
Here's how the strength of the Traditional Round bowls compare:
|BOWL||AVG Rank of participants||AVG diff in rank between opponents|
|Group Of Five||17.5||4.2|
Which brings us to the second "round" of the postseason.
Immediately following the massive weekend of Traditional Bowl games, the CFP Selection Committee (they're doing fine) will rank the eight victors again, with an added focus on bowl performance. These will be the seeds for a single elimination playoff.
It would be easy for PAC-12 and Big Ten conference members to cry foul, as the Rose Bowl is the only Traditional Round game that will pit two conference champions against one another. This would be the only plausible scenario where the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams would meet before a seeded bracket...but also hasn't happened in the last 20 years.
Here's where I think holding the tradition of the Rose Bowl (and other bowls) trumps guaranteeing a path for the top-ranked teams to meet in the title game like a 16 team seeded bracket would do. Firstly, college football fans should be used to this situation anyway. How often are the top ranked teams in a conference in the same division? Conference title games themselves aren't even guaranteed to match the best two teams. A Champion produced by this method will likely have to beat two other conference champions to claim the title and it shouldn't much matter when in the tournament they're forced to do it.
This runs counter to the March Madness playoff model programmed into our lizard brains that place importance on Final Fours and Sweet Sixteens, on milestones that aren't winning the championship. Where it's important to go far enough in a tournament to either justify or disprove your seeding. If you don't go deep in the playoffs you're labeled "overrated", the scarlet letter badge of college fanbases. Give yourself a little mental challenge; which teams lost in the NFC divisional round two years ago? Five years ago? How many times has the AFC South made it to the championship round in the last 10 years? We don't mentally track or care about these things in a football playoff.
I've only given a little thought as to where to play the Seeded Tournament Round games. It would be easiest to have four permanent, regional hosts for the quarterfinals. Games could be randomly assigned, or venues would host specific brackets on a rotation, or select brackets on rotation, or be assigned match-ups based on how geographically close they are to the highest ranked participant in the game. There's a lot of different ways that could work, and I really don't have an opinion of which would be best (avoids most -- if not all -- bias toward any one team or bowl committee or venue).
The other option would be to play the games at the home field of the highest seed. Fans have already traveled for the Traditional Bowl game, and this huge advantage would place a massive importance on ranking at the end of the season, which transfers that importance onto the regular season. I really like the idea of having playoff games on home fields, potential bad weather and all.
Combining these two "rounds" into a single Postseason should not only produce a clear, unquestioned Best Team in College Football through a more inclusive tournament but maintains a lot of the tradition and regionalism that would almost certainly be lost by simply expanding a seeded bracket.