Barnard: College Football Playoff needs to expand

Colin Barnard

Months of ongoing debate were finally settled on Sunday morning when the final College Football Playoff rankings of 2016 were released. And not unlike the first two years of the CFP, many are left wondering what could have been.

Now in its third year, one thing is sure surrounding the CFP: the uncertainty of the selection process limits its potential. An easy fix to the conundrum is exactly what people have been calling for since its creation; expand the playoff from four teams to eight.

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Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington make up the field of the four-team playoff that kicks off on New Year’s Eve. This year perhaps more than ever, controversy surrounds the final rankings.

With such a wild final month of the college football season that saw top-10 teams lose a total of 12 games, some of that controversy is expected. However, it is the uncertain qualifications that the selection committee used in determining the field that intensifies the confusion for fans.

If the committee truly values conference championships, a selection factor listed on its website, then the Big 10 champion Penn State Nittany Lions should have an opportunity to play for a national title instead of No. 3 Ohio State, whom they also defeated in the regular season. In 2016, The Big 10 staked its claim as the nation’s best conference in emphatic fashion, finishing with four of the top eight teams in the final CFP rankings. The fact that the winner of the toughest conference in football is not included in the playoff shows a definite need to reconsider the format.

If instead the committee flat out searches for the best teams regardless of conference, as CFP chairman Kirby Hocutt said, Michigan, who finished No. 6, is more deserving than Washington. The Wolverines lost two games by a combined four points, one of which came on a last-second field goal and the other in a double overtime thriller that featured murky officiating.

But because we do not know the importance that the committee puts on each of these factors on a year-to-year basis, two very deserving teams were left on the outside looking in.

Controversial final rankings are not something new, either. In the inaugural 2014 rankings, two one-loss Big 12 teams, Baylor and TCU, were left wondering what more they could have done to prove they belong in the playoff. Last year, two more one-loss teams, Iowa and Ohio State, faced a similar fate.

Expanding to an eight-team playoff with more structure would solve these problems and relieve the selection committee of some of the pressure it faces.

The proposed plan would make room for the winner of each Power 5 conference, the highest ranked Group of Five champion, plus two additional at-large bids.

This takes away the controversial decision to include teams based on conference championships instead of overall quality, or vice versa. All conference champions of the Power Five are represented while allowing the selection committee the freedom to decide who the next best two teams are. This is where the strength of schedule, head-to-head matchups and other analytics that play a pivotal role in a team’s success come into play.

The last team included would represent the entire Group of Five, something that college football has lacked in its postseason play since the beginning of the Bowl Championship Series. Seemingly every year, there is a team not included in the media-dominated Power 5 conferences that controls their regular season opponents before being shorted in the final polls.

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The 2006-07 Boise State Broncos are the perfect example. The Broncos were kept out of the BCS national championship game after completing the undefeated regular season and instead sent to the Fiesta Bowl to play Oklahoma. A hook and ladder and statue of liberty later and the Broncos knocked off the favored Sooners en route to becoming one of the few lovable winners in college football.

Had they been using an eight-team playoff system, the Broncos would have carried that momentum into another game to see if David really could conquer Goliath in college football.

Fans love the Cinderella story, and an eight-team playoff introduces it as a real possibility in postseason college football play, something that has never before been a reality. Meanwhile, it allows conference champions as well as the best teams to be represented and provides a set structure for the selection committee to follow, thus relieving some of the more controversial decisions they are tasked with.

College football made the right decision when nixing the BCS.

Expanding the CFP is the next logical step.

Collegian sports reporter Colin Barnard can be reached by sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @ColinBarnard_