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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

A System Critique of the College Football Playoffs


Penn State Nittany Lions vs. University of Virginia Cavaliers.

We’re getting to the end of the fall semester—also known as college football season.

Those with seasons good enough are now receiving invitations to bowl games or the NCAA’s Division tournament championship, applying the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) respectively.

For some FBS schools, they’re anxious as to whether their body of work is enough to get them into the FBS’s own national championship tournament, the College Football Playoff (CFP).

In its fourth year as the de facto national championship for the NCAA FBS division after the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) carried the title for 16 years, the College Football Playoffs are, on paper, and in many minds, a step up from the previous system. The College Football Playoff gives four teams a shot at the national title, compared to only the top two at the season-ending BCS rankings. But there are certain flaws with the system that have some thinking the CFP can be much like its predecessor.

The hallmark of the CFP system is the overall strength of schedule. It rewards schools who schedule non-conference games against a good opposition. It is the highest priority by the organization’s selection committee—composed of former coaches, players, athletic directors, conference commissioners, and sports journalists—to make weekly ranking releases. Other ranking polls, such as the Associated Press, are not taken into consideration for the rankings.

The one issue I have with the process is that it does not consider the scheduling of teams from the Football Championship Subdivision, which was formerly classified by the NCAA as Division I-AA. As much as I don’t want to penalize Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams who schedule games against Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) elite teams to get a decent payday for their athletic department, something needs to be done to discourage this practice to ensure an FBS team’s best chances for making the playoffs.

The Big Ten tried to address this by barring its members from scheduling such games. This was before allowing them to do it again this year on the condition of having four league games at home as a prerequisite. The main issue with that was the difficulty in scheduling games with other FBS schools while getting at least seven home games a season.

I think a penalty system, such as ranking point deductions related to games scheduled with FCS opposition, or emphasizing the ranking system to count only games with FBS opposition where the more games played, the greater the empirical impact that can improve a team’s strength of schedule. Of the teams of greatest consideration for the four playoff spots, only Oklahoma and Wisconsin’s schedules have consisted solely of FBS opposition. And given their overall bodies of work, with Oklahoma’s 10-1 record and Wisconsin’s 11-0 record, I would put them towards the top of the rankings, even as Wisconsin’s SOS isn’t very good due to the mediocrity of their opponents from the Big Ten’s West division.

The emphasis on scheduling only FBS teams can also help two-loss teams, like Notre Dame, whose losses came from Power Five and fellow CFP contenders Georgia and Miami, claw their way back into consideration for the playoffs. It would’ve likely helped Penn State last year too, which didn’t do what playoff teams Alabama, Washington, and Clemson did, scheduling FCS teams Chattanooga, Portland State, and South Carolina State respectively.

Overall, the College Football Playoff (CFP) has proven to be a better system than the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Aside from the strength of schedule emphasis, it also accounts for injuries and weather that can affect quality of play, as well as making the impact of forcing games to be rescheduled or canceled, as Hurricane Irma did to Miami this year, forcing them to have just an 11-game schedule instead of the usual 12.

That’s a matter I would consider for another day, as well as expanding the playoff field beyond the current four-team setup. The matter would be logistical, as far as TV contracts and arrangements with the various big-name bowl games are concerned. That will take time and great planning.

Eventually, those expansion plans will be off the ground. The CFP has been the best ranking system to come to a great sport with an illustrious history, going nearly 150 years, but there’s proof that they have the room to grow.