An Eight-Team Playoff Is Insufficient

In the spirit of Dave’s shameless self-promotion and in response to Steve’s point that Obama desires an eight-team playoff for college football, I feel obligated to point out that Heretical Idea’s featured article today by my colleague Jon Stonger weighs the pros and cons of various college playoff systems, and concludes that a twelve team playoff with the six conference champions and six wild cards is the superior solution.

Twelve seems to be the right number to me. It lets the good teams in while keeping out some of the dross (unless you win the ACC or Big East- but that can’t be helped). The conference season would still be important since the champions have automatic bids and potential byes. If Oklahoma beats Texas Tech on Saturday, there will be three teams in the Big 12 with one loss. Those three teams (Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Texas) are among the best 6 or 7 teams in the entire country. Any playoff that excludes one of these teams is incomplete, inadequate, and unfair.

I was an eight-team playoff supporter before, but I’m now convinced that twelve is a better system.

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. Why we worked so damned hard in Ohio…

  2. So much for two sport athletes if you are going to be playing college football into February. And of course, northern teams get screwed since, unless you have a dome, those games just aren’t going to happen except in the southern stadiums, and good luck getting fan bases to keep hitting the road week after week. A bowl game is one thing. Up to four “bowl” games is something else entirely. Maybe the answeer is to have these teams play tougher schedule earlier in the year instead of loading up on Northeastern Clopton State and it’s weak sisters,

    The situation in the Big 12 South is extremely unusual this year and, as someone else once wrote, tough cases make bad law. Maybe you should ask why Missouri gets to play inthe Big 12 championship game when it is probably the 5th best team in the Big 12?

    It’s true that lower divisions have playoffs, but there is little comparison to the expectations on student-athletes in lower divisions and those expectations of football players in BCS schools. The young men are in a meat grinder already. No reason to make it that much more difficult and induce that many more injuries.

    Was the problem with the occasional split championships pre-BCS so bad that the BCS or any of these other solutions was really necessary? Winning your conference used to mean something. Going to a bowl game used to mean something. Not so much anymore. Allowing ESPN and touts to drive the boat just to get a single big money payout is the problem, not the solution.

  3. Alex Knapp says:


    I’m okay with making up for the extra playoff games by shortening the regular season by a game or two.

  4. James Joyner says:

    There’s no perfect system, given that all conferences aren’t created equal. Why not an 8-team playoff based on the BCS rankings rather than automatic conference bids? There’s simply no reason to award automatic bids to the Big East or the Mountain West if they don’t have a deserving team.

    I also agree with shortening the regular season. Ten games was enough for Bear Bryant, it’s enough for Nick Saban. And let’s cancel the stupid conference championship games while we’re at at. Divisional play within the conferences is silly.

  5. WST says:

    The problem is that 12 teams is not enough. Nor is 16. Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Texas all had (or have) a chance at the national title. All they have to do is win on the field. It’s not clear to me why this argument is any different than the argument we’d be having about which team is 8th best, 12th best, or 16th best. It’s like moving first base to 91 feet to avoid the ties that occur with it 90 feet out.

    The best argument for a tournament is that a team can go undefeated and still not have a chance at the national title. Not just Auburn, but Utah on the same year as well as Boise State the year after.

    That’s not enough to convince me to be in favor of a tournament system, but it’s the primary source of my discomfort with the current system. Once you’re dealing with teams that have lost, you’re dealing with a level of subjectivity that’s not going away. The more layers you add, the less important the regular season becomes because more and more losses are forgiven. Right now college football is the only sport that guarantees the forgiveness of none. I really like it that way.

    Then the last thing is that a tournament at the end of the year only tells you who did the best in the tournament out of the tournament’s participants. That may be the best team in the country or it may not be. I don’t think it’s particularly more likely to accurately assess the best team than the current model except in years where you have several undefeated teams or if the best team happens to be coming out of the Mountain West Conference.

  6. Joe R. says:

    I also agree with shortening the regular season. Ten games was enough for Bear Bryant, it’s enough for Nick Saban. And let’s cancel the stupid conference championship games while we’re at at. Divisional play within the conferences is silly.

    But then how do you handle the 12-team conferences? Even if there were no non-conference games, teams would still have to pass up playing one of the conference teams. And even if the “skip” was rotated every year, you’d have controversies. For example, eventually either Auburn would not play Alabama, or the teams would be given an exception. Someone would be unhappy either way.

    Actually, Texas and Texas A&M from this season would be a better example. If this was their turn not to play each other, you either have the choice of eliminating a traditional rivalry, or forcing two highly ranked teams to play even if it was their turn to “skip” (which would artificially increase the difficulty of their schedule).

    The point is, a 10-game schedule combined with a playoff would eliminate some controversy while creating other controversy. I’m not automatically inclined to think either option is better or worse.

  7. Joe R. says:

    Err, make that Tech, not A&M.

  8. David Harris says:

    I’ve long been a fan of what Dr. Joyner is saying here: Use the BCS rankings as a process for SEEDING the top 8 teams. Relegate conference titles to their place as a feather in the cap for a great season, not an automatic entry into the “BCS discussion.” Three years ago it was the Big East that was top-heavy, with Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers all taking turns in the top 10. Using the BCS as seedings would reward the Big 12 properly this year.

    As to WST’s point: Who do you think has a more valid argument about being left out of the national title mix – The #3 team in the nation or the the #9 team? The #17 team? We’re talking about leaving out teams like Georgia and Ohio State, who have flopped (more than once) against better competition this year.

  9. WST says:

    To me the teams with the most valid argument are undefeated teams. I really don’t like that the current system has left out undefeated Auburn and Utah out.

    I could see an argument that conference champions in tough conferences (SEC being the perenniel example) ought to get ahead in line over undefeated teams in less competitive conferences (ACC, for instance). As such, I could conceivably support a playoff system involving only conference champions.

    But of course that’s not enough either because then you have teams like Texas this year that likely won’t win their conference but with legions of fans that will have a good argument to make that they are actually better than the team that does win their conference and a really good argument that they’re better than some other conference’s champion.

    And on and on it goes. The problem isn’t that the #9 team will think it deserved a shot. The problem is that they will almost certainly have a case that they are better than the #8 team (and maybe #6 and #7, too). You see that exact sort of thing now with who does and does not get into BCS games even when the higher ranked school is chosen.