While the UEFA Champions League has expanded over the years to its current format, its basic philosophy until the mid-1990s was simple: the champion of each European country played their way into a prestigious club competition after winning domestic leagues of varying strength. With its 2021-22 Finals coming up Saturday, the original “one champion, one spot” concept presents college football with an opportunity it should seize amid the broader upheaval over how the conferences move toward a champion. The opener is all about turning the college football playoffs into, well, real playoffs by allowing teams to work their way through it.
The NCAA recently opened the floodgates to change the way college football conferences crown their champions when the Division I board relaxed rules to no longer require divisions or a full round-robin schedule to be played for. host a conference title game. This would allow for the incorporation of conference championship games into the CFP, either explicitly (as a proper first round) or implicitly (forming a conference of champions – playoff only – or at least a system filled with champions at the overwhelming majority – 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 conference champion stipulation. Let’s work backwards.
The Pac-12 has already announced that attendees for its championship game will be determined by conference winning percentage. Translation: The two most deserving teams (you can discuss which constitutes the “best” between you) play the championship on Saturday in early December. It’s too late to change its 2022 schedule, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Pac-12 is likely to drop its divisions soon.
The Big Ten has arguably the most stacked division in the sport with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State taking turns smoking the Western entrant in the game for the title every year since the East/West alignment was established in 2014. The ACC is also sending signals that the divisions will soon be dead, and that’s inevitable for the SEC once Texas and Oklahoma enter in the league. Only the Sun Belt and MAC seem to be retaining divisions for the foreseeable future out of the 10 FBS conferences, and it seems that while the leagues will always differ in programming philosophy, the removal of divisions means the best two records in nearly every 10 will be guaranteed to play in every conference championship game.
As part of a Champions League CFP model, the college football regular season that so many find so important is preserved here by continuing the storyline throughout the season and building a season-long campaign. with something to play for beyond a conference championship. Conference title games are already lucrative for leagues to sell to their TV partners as standalone events. Divisions can sometimes produce a dud on paper — think of the 2018 ACC title game, which featured Clemson 12-0 to Pitt 7-5. While simply removing divisions may not have changed the participant, a more balanced schedule outside of the divisional 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: provide smaller conferences a path to a national title and not force champion Mountain West to play in a game against the Pac-12’s fourth-best team a week before Christmas. Give them a reason to play and make a national sport a national sport.
The CFP Selection Committee may still exist in a reduced role with a mandate such as seeded teams 1-10 on Selection Sunday, teams 7-10 playing a first-round match on the third Saturday of December in the home stadiums of numbers 7. and 8. After this round, they could reseed the teams like the NFL does. The lowest remaining seed plays No. 1 in the first round and the highest remaining seed plays No. 2. Teams can still schedule aggressively out of the conference given the risk/reward of a ranking boost at the end of the season.
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The quarter-finals would take place on December 26. The semifinals on New Year’s Day (let the Rose Bowl host every few years and otherwise host the Pac-12 and Big 12 conference title losers if they demand their precious Jan. 1 perch). The National Championship Game remains as it is now the following Monday night, so the season does not extend to NFL weekend.
It’s an adjustment to the favored expanded playoff format, which died for now after CFP chiefs failed to agree on it – that plan featured six at-larges and 12 teams . The fact is, to improve conference season runs and conference title games, the playoffs must remain exclusive. Create a closed system based on some kind of merit should be the reason we play games in the first place.
Which brings us to Notre Dame, and the biggest snag. The simplest answer would be for the Irish, and their other independent cohorts, to simply adapt to the times and join a conference. It happened in 2020 out of necessity for Notre Dame, and the fabric of the sport did not crumble. It could also be used as a means of brute force for the rest of the sport to bring the Irish into line.
In reality, given that the president and the sporting director of Notre Dame are part of the two committees that run the CFP, the Irish should probably accept this change in format of the Playoffs. This means one team will continue its outsized influence on the very structure of how the sport determines its champion, which could take the form of two wildcards to bring the 12-team system up.
If you must have at-larges, limit it to two because exclusivity is important. In doing so, some of the almost conventional CFP format could be borrowed: the top four ranked champions get a first-round bye, and teams 5-12 play first-round matches on campus (seeded hosts higher) work well to stop early breakouts.
There’s no playoff system that’s going to stop the lopsided results we’ve seen with Georgia vs. Michigan or Cincinnati vs. Alabama in 2020, but that’s not something a postseason can solve unless you return to the BCS era of only two teams. College football needs an egalitarian championship system if it is to try to reclaim some of its manifest destiny as a national sport. American sports fans demand finality from a champion, so the sport should use the examples we have to play our way there. But in doing so, he will have to resist the same temptations that have plagued the Champions League, as this competition looks to grow again in the near future.
Wildcards are simply parachutes to come in second. If you really want to improve the college football playoffs, focus on exclusivity. As much as possible in the system, if you want to win the national title, you have to win your conference along the way.
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