After reading a conversation today  where a coach mentioned that a playoff was not a natural fit for the sport of college football, I pondered what it would look like this year if there was a genuine playoff. For those who are not particular fans of college football, and who might not be aware, for about a decade and a half there has been a system known as the Bowl Championship Series that has sought to establish a national championship game after decades of the Bowl Alliance had led to numerous mythical champions. Of course, the fact that only two teams could play in the national championship game has led to the exclusion of numerous teams from the game, like Auburn in 2003 and USC in 2004. Next year, of course, there will be a four team playoff with the top 4 teams, which will of course lead to more excluded teams.
Let us assume, though, that like college basketball, we wanted to make an NCAA playoff with sixteen teams, a “sweet sixteen” of sorts. As an NCAA-sanctioned event, it would have to include all ten of the conference champions, along with the remaining six spots being filled with at-large teams (which for the purposes of simplicity we will take in order from the BCS). In what is called the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A), these are the conferences: the American Athletic Conference (AAC), Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big 12, Big 10, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West, Pac-12, Southeastern Conference (SEC), and the Sun Belt Conference. So, given the close of the regular season this weekend, what would such a college football playoff look like?
Before we examine the teams, let us make a short comment about matchups. First of all, all ten conference champions must be included to make it a genuine NCAA event. This is not to say that the Sun Belt conference winner will be even the 16th best team in the country, but that is one of the ways that things work with the NCAA. Second, like one of the regions of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the first ranked team will play the 16th ranked team, and so on until the 8th and 9th ranked teams play each other. One of the advantages of a team doing better will be to play much weaker teams en route to a real championship game. This sort of playoff would continue for four rounds until there was a champion. Any bowl games that existed would be exhibitions in addition to the games, and they could take whomever they chose, as it would not make much of a difference. However, a conference that was particularly strong could have a lot of at-large teams and that would mean a lot of money for that conference, making strength of schedule a serious matter with the amount of money that would be involved in such a playoff.
Which teams would make it to such a playoff this year? The automatic qualifies are straightforward. #1 FSU would be the ACC Automatic qualifier, #2 Auburn would be the SEC champion, #4 Michigan State would be the Big 10 Champion, #5 Stanford would be the Pac-12 autobid, #6 Baylor would be the Big 12 automatic qualifer, #15 UCF would be the AAC automatic qualifier, #20 Fresno State would be the MWC automatic qualifier, while Bowling Green would represent the MAC, Rice would represent Conference USA, and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette would represent the Sun Belt. The remaining six spots would be filled by #3 Alabama, #7 Ohio State, #8 Missouri, #9 South Carolina, #10 Oregon, and #11 Oklahoma would be the at large teams. Teams that might feel a bit unfairly excluded from this include #12 Clemson, #13 Oklahoma State, #14 Arizona State, and #16 LSU, but most of these teams got beat in their last games and had their own destiny in their hands and failed to win when it most counted. This would give the SEC 4 bids, and the Pac-12, Big 12 and Big 10 two bids, and every other conference would get one bid. Those conferences that had the strongest schedules and had succeeded the best in them would get the most money.
So, what would the matchups be? #1 FSU would be seeded first, against Louisiana-Lafayette, which would enter the game as a huge underdog. #2 Auburn would be slated to play Rice from Conference USA, another “easy” game. #3 Alabama would be rewarded for its season (even as an at-large) by playing Bowling Green in its opening game. #4 Michigan State would play #20 Fresno State, #5 Stanford would play #15 UCF, #6 Baylor would play #11 Oklahoma in an intraconference challenge (although it could play #10 Oregon if there were rules preventing teams from the same conference from playing each other in the first round). #7 Ohio State would play #10 Oregon (or #9 South Carolina if there were rules against intraconference matchups), while #8 Missouri would play #9 South Carolina in an SEC East Division rematch. Most of these are very compelling games, even more so as the games advance.
If the higher seeds won out, the second round would feature the following games: #1 FSU against #8 Missouri, #2 Auburn against #10 Oregon, #3 Alabama against #6 Baylor, #4 Michigan State against #5 Stanford. Again, assuming the top ranked teams won out, we would have #1 FSU against #4 Michigan State in the semifinals and an epic Iron Bowl grudge match with Alabama and Auburn slugging it out for the opportunity to play a likely mighty FSU team in a national championship game. Of course, there may be upsets in the tournament but then there would be no question that the champion would have gone through a gauntlet of tough teams. If a Sun Belt team even made the semifinal game, it would earn a great deal of respect. If all of the SEC teams lost their games, they would lose reputation. Sure, there will be teams with 2 and 3 losses that might grouse about losing out to a lower-conference champion, but if they want to guarantee their place in the playoff, they can win their conference, or at least make sure they don’t lose their rivalry games at the end. Win your conference and you’re in, and win enough of your other games, and you’re in as well. Everyone else can take their complaints to the Whiner Bowl and enjoy the show. Who wouldn’t want four weeks of college football like that? Who says that college football isn’t ideal for playoff?