- It is looking more and more likely that Notre Dame will go undefeated.
- If the Irish run the table, they will almost certainly steal a spot in the College Football Playoff from a champion of a Power 5 conference.
- There is a realistic scenario where three of the Power 5 conferences will be left out of playoff this season.
- Expanding the playoff to eight teams solves all the problems, allows schools to concentrate only on winning their conference, and still gives Notre Dame a path to the final four.
Chaos is coming to college football, and for once it might not be because the top teams are losing, but rather, because Notre Dame keeps winning.
After Notre Dame beat Stanford and Virginia Tech the last two weeks, it is looking more and more like the Fighting Irish will run the table against a favourable schedule and finish the season 12-0. If that happens, there is a realistic chance that three Power 5 conferences will be left out College Football Playoff.
The power of Notre Dame
If Notre Dame goes undefeated, they are in the playoff because they are Notre Dame. Even if we leave their name out of it, ESPN’s playoff predictor gives them a 62% chance to be one of the final four.
The winner of the SEC is also in because it is the SEC. One Big Ten team is almost certainly going to be in because of its depth. And if Georgia and Alabama are undefeated heading into the SEC title game, there is a good chance that conference will get two playoff bids.
If that happens, the ACC, the Big 12, and the Pac-12 will all be locked out of the playoff this season. The best-case scenario is if the SEC runner-up is kept out – despite being one of the best four teams – and only two of those conferences are without a chair when the music stops.
The weakness of the 4-team playoff
One argument in favour of the 4-team playoff is that we already have play-in games in the form of conference championship games. But as we have seen over and over, that is not the case.
It wasn’t a play-in game for Ohio State or USC last season, and it wasn’t for Oklahoma and Penn State in 2016, or Stanford in 2015.
Now we have a situation brewing where Notre Dame and a second SEC team could steal spots from one or two more conference champs.
Conference title games are also skewed to help the teams with one loss and hurt the undefeated teams. If Miami wins out and beats an undefeated Clemson in the ACC, a case could be made for the Hurricanes in some scenarios. More likely, it would just knock Clemson out. But if Notre Dame does go undefeated, they are going to be in the playoff, in part, because they don’t have to worry about soiling their record against another tough opponent.
There is also a lot of money on the line. Not only does Notre Dame boost the TV ratings for the NCAA and ESPN, we also have a situation where Pac-12 teams would hurt themselves if they beat Washington. If the Huskies don’t go undefeated at this point, it would likely eliminate the conference from playoff contention and cost all the schools in the Pac-12 a share of the playoff bonus.
The 8-team playoff solves all the problems
If you want to keep Notre Dame from stealing spots and give each Power 5 conference a fair shot, the solution is simple – expand the playoff to eight teams.
- Take the winner of each of the Power 5 conference championship games.
- Take the two highest-ranked non-champions.
- Take the top Group of Five team (GoF1) if they meet specific requirements (e.g., they are in the top 15, have no more than one loss, etc.).
We no longer have to worry about trying to compare the strengths of each conference based on a few non-conference games. Rather, the best team in each conference gets a chance to prove on the field that they belong.
Meanwhile, if Notre Dame wants to remain independent, they have a different path to the playoff and would need only be one of the two highest-ranked non-champions (or three if the GoF1 fails to meet the minimum standards).
An 8-team playoff would also open the door to another team in danger of getting screwed (again), in Central Florida, who is undefeated and ranked in the top 10. It is hard enough to get a Group of Five team in when there are not even enough spots for the Power 5 conference champs. It is never happening if two or three of those top conferences are being left out.
Of course, it is still early, and it is not strange to have this many undefeated teams at this point in the season. But what is unusual is that Notre Dame is one of them, and if they wind up running the table, it’s going to cause a new kind of chaos.
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