Big Ten conference powers Penn State and Michigan, fifth and sixth in Sunday’s final rankings, deserve to play in the College Football Playoff, as do the four invited by a group of 12 coaches, athletic directors and former secretaries of state. The Nittany Lions have reeled off nine straight wins, including the top pelt of the season against Ohio State, in capturing the nation’s best conference. The Wolverines downed three top 10 teams (twice convincingly), and with an injured quarterback and some zebra interference, lost in two overtimes at Columbus.
Many pundits clamor for an eight-team bracket, but recent history shows that (seeds) seven and eight add up to nothing. This year, Oklahoma played two strong nonconference opponents, and lost both games by double digits. Wisconsin had three cracks against top 10 foes, dropping them all. In five of the previous eight years, the seventh-ranked team lost more games than No. 6.
But imagine how epic this playoff would be with a six-team tournament. Give Alabama and Clemson byes as conference champions with impressive pedigrees. The first weekend features a juicy twinbill, of Meyer-Harbaugh II, at The Shoe (a matchup of the 3-6 seeds), and Washington and Penn State (4-5) in a rosy Pac 12-Big Ten battle in Seattle. The winners play Bama and Clemson at neutral sites, and so on.
With a six-team bracket, a deserving Power 5 conference champion would be guaranteed a berth; all five winners would have made the playoff from ’13-’15. Yet Cinderella could crash the ball. In the Super Six playoff model, (then) non-power conference members Utah, Boise State and TCU (twice) would have earned bids based on final rankings within the past dozen years.
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The first-round bye rewards the elite teams. Generally, two teams rise above the pack (Bama/Texas in ’09, Auburn/Oregon in ’10, LSU/Bama in ’11, Florida State/Auburn in ’13, Bama/Oregon in ’14, Clemson/Bama in ’15). In five of the past eight years of the BCS system, the third-ranked team hailed from a much weaker conference (TCU, Cincinnati) or was not a conference champion (Texas, Florida, Alabama), which is possibly why computers spit them out of the title game. The NFL has thrived with this playoff format (three 5 or 6 seeds have won Super Bowls in the past 12 years).
The logistics of four quarterfinal games (eight-team playoff) in one day are untenable. Games spread over two days would result in a shorter prep week for two winning teams, along with a clash with the mighty NFL. Simultaneous games — a necessary scenario with four games on one day — hurt the bottom line and shortchange the fans. A rare-mentioned flaw of the wondrous NCAA basketball tournament are competing time-slot games in the Sweet 16 round … the best two nights of the sport.
The race for the Super Six and the Top Two would elicit even more passionate debate, which already separates and enhances this sport from all others. Having meaningful, competitive postseason games for three weekends allows college football to own December and the New Year. Pick six. Touchdown.
Vince Benigni is a professor of communication at College of Charleston. His research focuses on the impact of fan-based internet sports communities and social media platforms in intercollegiate athletics.