If the College Football Playoff was to begin today, it would look something like this: Ohio State vs LSU; Baylor vs Clemson. According to the coaches’ polls, those teams are supposedly the best, however coaches historically tend to miss the full story. Todays playoff (in some committee based polls) would be excluding TCU, who has beaten every team they have played in close to convincing fashion. It would be skipping on Alabama, who other than one blunder with a loss to Ole Miss, has beaten everyone they’ve played (including 4 ranked teams) with pure domination. Clemson (according to some polls) is not a lock, and they're a team that has repeatedly proven it is good enough to crack the top four. The list of equally deserving teams does not stop there. There’s Michigan State, Stanford, Iowa, Notre Dame, Florida State, Florida and hell, even Michigan has looked impressive this season. All these talented and deserving football squads shed a clear light on a key flaw of the College Football Playoff: it only includes four teams.
Taking a look back to last season clearly exposes this college football flaw. The team's participating in the inaugural year of the Playoff system included Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State, while Baylor and TCU were passed over. Baylor and TCU, the two first teams out, are Big 12 foes, and at the time arguably two of the best teams in the country. Many speculate today that neither team made the playoff due to the lack of the Big 12 featuring a Championship Game, however regardless of the fact, each team was doomed from the get go.
The reason why is actually quite simple: The NCAA is a business. The teams accepted into last seasons playoff included some of the most affluent and lucrative schools in the nation. Ohio State has a total yearly revenue of $58 million. Florida State reels in $38 million on a yearly basis. Oregon brings in another $51 million a year, and unsurprisingly, Alabama trumps the list, making $81 million in football revenue each season.
On the other side of the spectrum you have Baylor and TCU. Baylor ranks behind Kansas in Big 12 football revenue, at around $14 million per year. TCU on the other hand brings in $40 million per year, however they often fail to break even, and when they do, it isn’t by much. While Baylor currently is on pace to earn a playoff spot, it is clear that the NCAA doesn’t give them, or smaller teams like them the benefit of the doubt. This is why:
The playoff states on their website that a main rationale for their FBS postseason overhaul was to “increase revenue for all conferences and independent institutions”, however it isn’t the institutions that profit from this new system, it's the league. ESPN payed the NCAA $470 million for coverage of last years playoff alone (these figures are excluding the 36 other bowl games that have to be played). To understand how substantial those numbers are, understand the fact that across all 39 bowl games, schools and conferences made a grand total of $505 million (about $6 million per school). Schools payed a total of $102 to participate in the games ($1.3 million per school). The NCAA, a “non-for-profit” organization makes nearly as much as every team and conference competing in a bowl game put together. Clearly, the schools are getting the short end of the stick when coming to bowl games, but how does this all relate?
Proving that the NCAA capitalizes off profits helps us better understand some motives when selecting teams to participate in the playoffs. Being that the teams participating are naturally some of the wealthiest in the nation allows the NCAA to maximize profits from ESPN, as well as ticket sales, merchandise sales, and advertisements. The teams that are the wealthiest happen to possess the largest groups of alums in the nation, and thus the most fans. Simply put, the NCAA favors the larger schools when selecting the College Football Playoff because they can make massive amounts of revenue (comparatively to smaller markets). The fact that the NCAA is selecting teams based off of self interest and revenue is an issue that will need to be directly addressed moving forward into the season.
The selection controversy over teams’ financial capacity is in need of conversation, however the issues with the College Football Playoffs don’t stop there. Nowadays the teams making the playoffs can suffer a maximum of one loss. This is an issue because often the teams that are undefeated, or have suffered one loss, are not the best teams. This ties back to my introduction which discusses the teams currently in line to participate vs the teams on the “outside looking in.” While the Playoff Poll is yet to be released, a good guideline for the teams on pace to make the Playoffs is the Associated Press Poll and the Coaches Poll. The current poll’s have reached a consensus in 3 of the top 4, with Ohio State, Baylor, and LSU, however it’s the 4th team where variance starts to occur. The Associated Press has Clemson participating, while the Coaches has TCU. Neither of the polls decide who is going to participate in the College Football playoff, however they both do a valid job at predicting who exactly has the edge. A key flaw clearly outlined with this system is the fact that both polls have different rankings, rather than one coherent system. This proves that bias amongst committees clearly exists, and expecting them to accurately decide who makes the playoff or not is blasphemous of us.
There is a clear solution to the woes that exist amongst the committees: completely abolish them. Rather than putting the fate of a team on the decision of a biased human being, we should be using solely computer algorithms. The computer blocks all potential bias it uses purely statistics, and its accuracy rate of its selection over the “best teams” is much higher. Systems like this currently exist. The S&P+ rankings are devised purely by statistical analysis. The poll uses algorithms and computes rankings based off of a team’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, as well as scoring margin (including margin against quality opponents) and drive finishing ability. The top 10 rankings look like this:
- Ohio State
- Notre Dame
- West Virginia
While it comes as a surprise to many that the ranking is led by Clemson and Michigan, statistically speaking this should not come as news to anyone. Rather than listing statistics here I urge you to read into the Football Outsiders report on the poll (I will post the link below).
The S&P+ Poll outlines another key flaw with the selection committees, the “best” teams are often not actually the best teams. The committees are quick to select based on predetermined bias, and in this case it makes or breaks a team's entire season. Often a less powerful team with one quality loss (example: Utah) will be unfairly penalized to the point that a single loss eliminates them from all contention. This once again ties back to profit, as the smaller teams often do not receive the benefit of the doubt. If the system were to expand to 8 or 16 teams, however, those teams would still slide into the race, causing the ultimate best team to win.
The Playoff is in desperate need of expansion for multiple reasons, however change is not something the NCAA accomplishes easily. From the faulty BCS system reigning supreme for a decade too long, to Northwestern’s failed unionization attempt, the NCAA historically has proven it likes to stick to its guns. But expansion from 4 to 8 or 16 teams is one mutually beneficial for the league as it is the schools. For starters, the NCAA makes mammoth amounts of money from distributing its broadcasting rights to ESPN ($470 million for the rights to three games). Expansion of the Playoffs from three total games to 15 (as this new 16 team system proposes) would allow the NCAA to increase broadcasting revenues exponentially. It doesn’t stop there. Revenue would increase from ticket sales, merchandise, and advertisements; all by aggressive rates. Revenue for the participating schools will also increase dramatically by this new system.
Tournaments have visibly affected the revenue hauled in by the NCAA on a yearly basis. March Madness alone generates well over $700 million per year. Seeing as this trend would continue and escalate with expansion, the NCAA would be ludicrous to overlook it. Perhaps pushing the season earlier a week or two would be beneficial, but whatever the case, this change is needed.
Nowadays teams are inequitably neglected by the NCAA and its College Football Playoff committee for financial reasons. Expansion ends the issue.
Teams are out of contention due to one loss, which causes the Playoff system to lack the best real talent. Expansion ends that issue too.
Selection committees are often filled with human bias, an overhaul to the system will either give committees more leeway, or end them once and for all. Expansion ends that issue as well.
To top it all off, both the NCAA and college athletic departments will relish in exponential revenue gains.
Expansion is both needed and desired by the fans, and the universities. The NCAA would be naive to decline such a lucrative offer placed in their hands.