Wait Until After The Bowls To Bracket The College Football Playoff

I’ve long been an advocate of waiting until after the bowl season to begin a college football playoff, and this season’s results are a vivid demonstration as to why. If we went back to traditional tie-ins for the bowls, then selected four teams when it was over, we would have both a more entertaining system and a fairer bracket. Let me explain why.

Yesterday’s post about Alabama and the SEC West is the most vivid illustration. The SEC West got enormous props, including from me, for just how good they were. They went undefeated in non-conference play in the regular season. But that only includes a handful of games (at best) that are real measuring sticks of league strength. Most of the SEC West’s 28-0 record was piled up in matchups no fan should be required to pay for to watch.
You can’t say the same about the division’s performance in the bowls. At the point of the college football season when everyone is playing a team of similar stature from another league, the SEC West completely flopped, losing five of seven games. But we didn’t know any of this when the four teams for the College Football Playoff were chosen.
College Football HistoryExpanding the bracket to eight teams won’t help—in fact, it will make it worse. The SEC West would have been in position to grab at least one, and perhaps two more spots in the top eight. That’s where a traditional bowl system can work hand-in-hand with the playoff.
The bowls are essentially the first round of a three-round system—it’s an unbracketed, un-seeded round and there’s nothing saying it has to be win-or-go-home, but it would serve a vital role in keeping more teams alive.
Here’s my proposal. Restore all the traditional tie-ins. The Big Ten & Pac-12 go to the Rose, SEC to the Sugar, Big 12 to the Fiesta (or Cotton, if you want to make that change) and ACC to the Orange. The top midmajor is also guaranteed a bid somewhere. The Cotton continues to be a fifth bowl game, albeit without a conference champion.
The playoff qualification rules are this—if you win a conference championship and its accompanying major bowl game, you are automatically in the College Football Playoff. This guarantees that all five major conference champions have a clear path to the playoff. The Big Ten & Pac-12 would play a de facto quarterfinal game every year, and the other three conferences could fill up the other spots and eliminate any debate.
It’s not required though, that a team has to win its bowl game to qualify. If a team is #1 in the country and loses a heartbreaker in the bowl game, you can still certainly place them in the playoff as a lower seed. In fact, had the SEC West lived up to its reputation this bowl season, Alabama would have been a perfect example of a 1-seed that could survive a close loss.
The committee should also make it very clear that how a conference performs in the bowl season is going to impact how its teams are viewed if there ends up being debate over any spots in the bracket. No more excuses given how teams weren’t fired up to play in a bowl game. Their conference brethren will be holding their feet to the fire and debate over how each game should affect the selection process will keep talk shows full of material for a few weeks.
Here’s an example of how the major bowls might have looked this year. The automatic spots are in bold. The other teams are how I would match them up, but that’s of course subject to your own creative thinking. And with all due respect to the Peach Bowl, I’ve tossed them out of this process. Five big bowl games is enough, at least for sorting out the playoff teams.
Sugar: Alabama-TCU
Rose: Ohio State-Oregon
Fiesta: Baylor-Michigan State
Orange: Florida State-Ole Miss
Cotton: Boise State-Miss State
The Rose Bowl would almost always be the marquee matchup, a guaranteed play-in game either way. The Sugar would not be far behind, as there would be a big push for TCU if they could beat Alabama, with the only question being what conference champion they could displace. Let’s say the Horned Frogs beat the Tide in a close game, while Michigan State beats Baylor, as actually happened on the field this year. Then Baylor is out, while both TCU and Alabama could qualify.

You can also argue that, based on what we knew about Alabama and the SEC West prior to the bowls (when we thought they were great), that the Tide should get an easier game. Then you shift TCU to the Orange to play Florida State in a clear de facto quarterfinal game.
The matchups of course are subject to debate and personal preference. The strength of this system is that we wait until we have a real read on conference strength before bracketing and seeding teams. And even though these games aren’t an official “playoff”, it’s essentially the first stage of a three-round fight. Even better in fact, because there are a lot more variables in play and if you structure the matchups right, you could make all five games have playoff implications (just shift TCU to the Cotton), rather than just four.
Then there’s the question of when to play the semi-finals and championship game. The date and times are easy. You play the semis on the same weekend as the second round of the NFL playoffs. There’s an open TV time slot in the early afternoon window on Saturday and prime-time on Sunday. Then the national championship would be played in the off-week prior to the Super Bowl.
Everybody wins—college football retains the best of its great traditions, while not compromising the need for settling the championship on the field, giving every conference champion a chance and providing a TV bonanza. A traditional bowl system followed by a four-team College Football Playoff is the way to go.