College football is leading the most significant regular season of any sport, while stalling with a consistently lackluster postseason.
As the playoffs evolved from the traditional bowl era to the bowl championship series to the four-team college football playoffs, determining a national champion became a fairer process, but no more convincing.
Often the best drama occurs in November, weeks before the playoffs arrive.
Then came a brilliant proposal last summer: a 12-team playoff that would expand playoff access while preserving the value of the regular season by awarding automatic qualifying offers to the top six conference champions, as well as first-round byes for the top four teams.
Feuds among conference leaders hampered progress and pushed back the savvy idea of expansion.
Angered by the SEC’s raid on Big 12 Oklahoma and Texas, Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC commissioners rejected the SEC-backed proposal for a 12-team playoff.
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Now, in a move so infuriating it seems almost satirical, the Big Ten and Pac-12 commissioners are calling for playoff expansion, just months after they stood in the way of the 12-team format. Some Big Ten leaders are rushing for a 16-team playoff.
College football shouldn’t stretch its playoffs at the expense of its best attribute — a drama-filled regular season in which every game matters.
In a 16-team no-bye playoff, what’s the motivation to go undefeated against 11-1? Consider last season’s SEC championship between then-No. 1 Georgia and No. 3 Alabama. The outcome of this game would have been trivial had a 16-team playoff been in place.
Come November, the focus would shift from the top teams and focus on the battle for the 16 seeds. And what is the reward for winning 16th place? The opportunity to lose by 28 points to the No. 1 seed in the first round.
The current four-team playoffs feature enough blowouts. Surely we don’t need No. 1 against No. 16 or No. 2 against No. 15.
Here are three formats that are superior to a 16-team playoff, if only conference leaders would put their pettiness aside long enough to collectively embrace logical playoff expansion.
Six-team playoff (no automatic qualifiers)
How it would work: Bye to the top two teams, pairing No. 3 against No. 6 and No. 4 against No. 5 in the first round
The regular season drama would unfold on multiple fronts. Along with the battle for the coveted first-round byes, a handful of teams would vie for the No. 6 seed. Last season, the final offer debate reportedly included Ohio State, Baylor and Ole Miss, a trio of two-game losing streaks.
Teams would be incentivized to play a tough non-conference schedule, as the strength of the schedule could also be a big factor in deciding whether a team earns a top-two seed.
12-team playoff (six automatic playoffs)
How it would work: Goodbye for the top four teams; automatic bidding for the top six conference champions
This is the format that the Alliance rejected several months ago. I still like the idea, though.
It creates important conference championship runs, preserves the importance of the regular season by awarding byes, and provides access to at least one Group of Five team.
In addition, it sets up a first round conducive to upheavals. No. 11 beating No. 6 would no longer be reserved for March Madness.
14-team playoff (six automatic playoffs)
How it would work: Goodbye for the two best teams; automatic bidding for the top six conference champions
It’s my favorite format. Same idea as the 12-team playoffs, except with two more offers, but two less byes.
By granting just two byes, teams would be encouraged to face tough non-conference opponents to bolster their schedule in a quest to claim a top-two seed.
On the other end of the spectrum, dozens of teams could spend November battling to be among the eight overall selections that don’t win a conference championship.
Bonus: no wasted time with playoff match #1 vs #16.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s cover, consider a digital subscription which will allow you to access all of this.