What do you think would be the best college football playoff format?

Four teams? Eight teams? Sixteen? BCS? What playoff would you like?

After discussing how good the playoff is for college football, what do you think would be the best college football playoff format and why?

Rick Chen: Take a page from the NCAA Division I Football Championship and create a 16-team bracket-style post-season tournament. Give every Power Five conference champion an automatic bid and have 11 other at-large bids. Set up the bracket by geography, and you force the College Football Playoff selection committee to include independents and teams from smaller conferences. For example, a West bracket might often include BYU or a Mountain West champion, in addition to one or two teams from the Pac-12. The geographic proximity requirement might even encourage some conference realignment, particularly in the southern U.S.

Terence Lau: each team nominates a fighter for an underground Kumite tournament in Hong Kong. In actuality, there’s no answer that balances the requirements of academics (hahaha) and television money and an actual national champion that media and fans will complain about anyways.

So to that end, I propose returning to a pre BCS pre-National Championship era - it’s unrealistic and will cause a bunch of dissatisfaction but on the other hand, the interest for a lot of the more prestigious bowls that get ignored now will come back (maybe?)

I don’t care about a true national champion in the modern era any more than I did pre BCS. Alabama will still probably play LSU or Auburn or OSU in any case. 

Avinash: I think the ultimate playoff that will satisfy most parties without needing further additions is an eight-team playoff. One team from each P5, top G5 team, two at-larges.

1) It's really hard to go past team #8 in the rankings and foreseeing a squad capable of winning more than three in a row against other top-8 teams.

2) It allows for equal representation among the Power 5 conferences. There might be some questions about who should get in from each conference (ie conference champ vs. highest-ranked team, particularly if the two differ), but having one member in should provide a more equitable playing field.

3) It should allow for a G5 team to get in every year. They might end up playing the #1 team every year, but hey, it at least puts them in the conversation and prevents annoying annual discussions of exclusion.

4) Most of the debate discussions now will center around the two at-larges, similar to college basketball and the bubble. It widens the playing field enough to put enough teams into the endgame in the final week, and teams that are left out will recognize that destiny in their hand. Now, there is probably an issue if the biggest two bluebloods left out of the mix keep on getting these at-large spots, but we already have that with the four-team playoff anyway.

The 2019 playoff under this format (let's skip the odious 2020 situation):

1. LSU vs. Memphis

2. Ohio State vs. Baylor

3. Clemson vs. Oregon

4. Oklahoma vs. Georgia

Pretty compelling lineup!

Nick Kranz: I think there are a couple of questions you need to answer before creating a playoff structure proposal. First: Are you trying to maximize fairness, or maximize entertainment? Second: Are you trying to maximize fairness from an absolute access perspective or fairness from a perspective of who could actually win the title?

(Also I'm just going to leave out all of the athletic/academic balance and making money off of amateurs issues that playoffs also create because that's 2 or 3 articles by itself.)

If you're trying to maximize fun, then obviously a 16 team format is best. More teams, more games, more variety, more possibility of goofiness. Just like March Madness is the most fun post-season in sports, this would be crazy entertaining.

If you're trying to maximize fairness from an access perspective, then you either want a 6 team playoff (P5 champs plus best G5) or a 12 team playoff (all 10 conference champ + 2 at larges).

And if you're trying to maximize fairness from a 'who is actually good enough that they have a credible chance of winning the playoffs' perspective . . . well, honestly 4 might be the right number, but I'd say expand the playoffs to 6 teams with no automatic spots and have teams picked purely on resume. Because let's be honest, in the current landscape of college athletics it's pretty clear that a handful of teams are head and shoulders above the rest, and the regular season does a pretty good job of clearing those teams out of contention. For example, in 2019 the eventual MAC champion went 8-6 and lost to Ohio State by 71 points. I think it's rather silly to suggest that they had any meaningful argument to play for a championship.

I'm personally of the opinion that a 6 team playoff is probably the right balance between valuing the regular season without risking leaving out a team that could plausibly win the title. But if you're an agent of chaos and all you care about is entertainment, I respect that, and wouldn't complain about a 16 team playoff.

Erik Johannessen: Personally, I'm all about maximizing fun. College Football should be fun. We all started following/obsessing over it because it was fun. The sport will generate more revenue for everyone when lots of people pay attention, and they pay attention because it is fun. Frankly, some amount of *slight* unfairness probably generates more fun when underdogs overcome it! And honestly, does anyone gripe when the "best" team doesn't win the NCAA basketball tournament?

For me, my waning interest in the College Football Playoff has less to do with the format and more to do with the nationalization of college recruiting and the concentration of most of the top talent at a handful of top schools. Seeing those schools duke it out year after year in a playoff just becomes less and less compelling, and no format changes are going to fix that.

Still, I think the best way to maximize fun is to expand the playoffs dramatically, including all the conference champions (even, perhaps especially, the massive underdogs) as well as the highest-rated runners up to round out the field. With 10 FBS conferences, I think you could manage this with a 12-team playoff, where the Top 4 conference winners are granted a bye (thus rewarding jockeying for the top spots, even among conference champs), and the field isn't *too* diluted with Power Conference also-rans that the regular season doesn't mean anything. I also would try and favor geographic and traditional bowl tie-ins to help build natural rivalries and reduce travel.


For instance, taking the 2020 season as an example, you might end up with the following 12-team format:

Oregon (Pac-12) v SJ State (Mountain West) (Fiesta)
Winner v Ohio State (Big Ten) (Rose)

Cincinnati (American) v Coastal Carolina (Sun Belt) (Alamo)
Winner v Oklahoma (Big 12) (Cotton)

Notre Dame (ACC No. 2) v Ball State (MAC) (Citrus)
Winner v Clemson (ACC) (Orange)

Texas A&M (SEC No. 2) v UAB (C-USA) (Peach)
Winner v Alabama (SEC) (Sugar)

Note that the No. 2 from a conference doesn't have to be the conference title game loser (i.e. Florida) if there's a stronger candidate. Also notably left out are Top-10 ranked Georgia and Iowa State, the latter getting knocked out after losing a close Big XII title game.

Is this the best field we can come up with? I don't know! Does Alabama still win the title? Probably, although now they have to win the third game to do it. Can any of the G5 conference winners pull an upset or two along the way? Undoubtedly. All I want from a playoff is more fun, more games like the 2007 Fiesta Bowl (Boise State vs. Oklahoma), and I think this format gives us a good shot at setting up more of those types of games.

Berkelium97: My ideal playoff format preserves tradition embedded in several prestigious bowl games while expanding the field so that the same teams are not filling out the bracket year after year.  I've completely lost interest in the CFP because it's always the same few teams: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and some other team that's almost certainly going to lose in the first round.  Expanding the field to eight allows the playoff to bring in more teams, including G5 teams.  

Ideally, the Power 5 conference champions would auto-qualify along with the highest-ranked G5 team and two at-large bids.  To preserve tradition, the bowl matchups should reflect their historic tie-ins.  The Rose Bowl features the Pac-12 and Big Ten winners, the Sugar Bowl features the SEC winner, the ACC winner goes to the Orange Bowl, and the Fiesta Bowl features the Big 12 winner.  Without preset opponents in the Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta Bowls, the format has some flexibility to try to balance the seeding.  The highest-ranked team among the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 winners play the lowest-ranked at-large/G5 team, second-highest among them plays the second-lowest ranked at-large/G5 team, and so on.  The potential slight imbalances in seeding (e.g. a #1 Pac-12 team playing a #2 Big Ten team) is worth it to preserve several decades of tradition where conference winners go to the same traditional, prestigious bowl year after year.  If people are particularly bothered about the lack of balanced seeding, then teams can be reseeded after the first round.