While the UEFA Champions League has evolved over the years into its current format, up until the mid-1990s its core ethos was simple: the champions of each European country earned their place in a prestigious club competition after winning domestic leagues of varying strength. With the 2021-22 finals due Saturday, the original concept of “one champion, one place” offers college football an opportunity to seize amid the broader upheaval over how conferences lead to a champion. The opening is designed to turn the College Football Playoff into a real playoff by allowing teams to play their way into it.
The NCAA recently opened the floodgates to changes in how college football conferences crown their champions when the Division I Council relaxed the rules to no longer require divisions or a full round-robin schedule to hold a conference title game. It would allow conference championship games to be included in the CFP, whether explicitly (as a proper first round) or implicitly (through the formation of a conference champions-only playoff — or at least an overwhelmingly champion-filled system — with the 10 teams). . By definition, this is an expansion as it adds more teams to the existing four-team system, but retains exclusivity with the designation of the conference champion. Let’s work backwards.
The Pac-12 has previously announced that its championship game contestants will be determined by the conference win percentage. Translation: The two most deserving teams (one can argue among themselves which is “best”) play on Championship Saturday in early December. It’s too late to change the 2022 timeline, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Pac-12 will likely be giving up divisions soon.
The Big Ten has arguably the most stacked division in sports, with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State taking turns smoking West’s competitor in the title game every year since the East/West alignment was established in 2014. The ACC is also sending signals that divisions will soon be dead, and it’s an inevitability for the SEC once Texas and Oklahoma enter the league. Only the Sun Belt and MAC appear to be sticking with the divisions of the 10 FBS conferences for the foreseeable future, and it seems like the leagues, while they will still differ in planning philosophy, will see the divisions distance the top two records in almost means all 10 are guaranteed to play in every conference championship game.
Under a Champions League-like CFP model, the college football regular season that so many consider so important is preserved here by continuing the intrigue throughout the season and building a season-long campaign with something to do that you can actually play beyond a conference championship. Conference title games are already lucrative for the leagues when sold as standalone events to their TV partners. Divisions can sometimes produce a dud on paper — think of the 2018 ACC title game where Clemson performed 12-0 to Pitt 7-5. While simply removing departments might not have changed the participant, a more balanced schedule outside of the department structure might have. A guarantee of better matchups would likely come at a higher price thanks to a more stacked championship weekend. It also does the unthinkable: give the smaller conferences a path to a national title and not force the Mountain West champion to face the Pac-12’s fourth-best team in a game a week before Christmas. Give them something to play for and actually make a national sport a national sport.
The CFP Selection Committee may continue to exist in a limited role with a mandate such as seeding teams 1–10 on Selection Sunday, with teams 7–10 playing a first round match at the home stadiums of Nos. 7 and 8 on the third Saturday in December this round, they could reset teams like the NFL does. The lowest remaining seed will play #1 in the first round and the higher remaining seed will play #2. Teams can still plan aggressively outside of the conference given the risk/reward of a seeding boost at the end of the season.
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The quarterfinals would take place on December 26th. The New Year’s Day semifinals (have the Rose Bowl hosted every few years and otherwise host the losers of the Pac-12 and Big 12 conference titles when they claim their prized Jan. 1 spot). The national championship game remains as it is now next Monday night lest the season extend into the NFL’s wildcard weekend.
This is all a change from the preferred extended playoff format, which is dead for now after the CFP leadership failed to agree on it — that plan had six at-lass and 12 teams. The point is that the playoffs should remain exclusive to enhance conference season racing and conference title games. Build a closed system based on some kind of merit should be the reason we play the games in the first place.
Which brings us to Notre Dame and the biggest catch. The simplest answer would be for the Irish and their other independent cohorts to just move with the times and join a conference. That was bound to happen for Notre Dame in 2020, and the fabric of the sport didn’t crumble. This could also be used as a brute force method for the rest of the sport to get the Irish to line up.
In reality, the Irish would likely have to agree to this change in playoff format given that Notre Dame’s president and athletic director sit on both committees that run the CFP. That means one team will continue its outsized influence on the structure of how the sport determines its champion, which could take the form of two wild cards to bring the system to 12 teams.
If you must have at large, limit it to two as exclusivity is important. This could borrow some of the almost-agreed formats of the CFP: the top four ranked champions get a bye in the first round and teams 5-12 playing on campus in the first round (higher-seeded hosts) work well, to stop early outbreaks.
There’s no playoff system that’s going to stop the one-sided results we saw in 2020 at Georgia vs. Michigan or Cincinnati vs. Alabama, but that can’t solve a postseason unless you lead it back to the BCS -Era with only two teams. College football needs an egalitarian championship system if it is to attempt to reclaim anything of its apparent destiny as a national sport. US esports fans demand champion finality, so esports should take inspiration from the examples we have to play through there. In doing so, however, it must resist the same temptations as the Champions League as this competition is set to grow even more in the near future.
Wildcards are simply parachutes for second place. If you really want to improve college football’s postseason, focus on exclusivity. If you want to win the national title, the system should require you to win your conference on the side.
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