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On college football, part 2: The 18-team playoff

Oh yeah, we’re going there.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Ohio State vs Alabama Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the first four-team tournament in 2014-15, I’ve been thinking a lot about playoff expansion. And after years of deliberation, countless notes on my iPhone, excessive text messages to friends to check out my next scheme, I finally have it: the 18-team playoff. Buckle your seatbelts, this is going to get weird.


Currently, there are ten conferences in FBS (though with Texas and Oklahoma bouncing to the SEC, that could be subject to change). All ten conference champions plus the next eight highest-ranked teams in the final College Football Playoff rankings advance to the playoff in my system. All first-round games will be played at home stadiums, with the quarterfinals and semifinals games rotating between six bowls: Rose, Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Sugar, and Peach. Before the playoff, two bowls will be selected as semifinal games, with the remaining four hosting quarterfinal games.

Now you’re probably wondering, how does the bracket work with 18 teams? Having nine first-round games makes no sense. Well, here’s the fun part: All conference champions will be seeded higher than the at-large teams, ensuring that if you don’t win your conference, you have to win a game on the road to be the champion. The bottom four conference champions—almost certain to be the lowest-ranked teams in the field—will do a first-four style play-in tournament for the 7 and 8 seeds, where the 7 seed hosts the 10 seed, and the 8 seed hosts the 9 seed. The highest-ranked team left becomes the 7 seed, and the other team is the 8 seed. Keeping in the spirit of March Madness brackets, there’s no reseeding after each round.

Here’s how the field would’ve shaped up had there been a playoff in place last season (obviously with all the uncertainty last year, a system like this wouldn’t have been practical, but this is just a hypothetical):

1. Alabama (SEC)

2. Clemson (ACC)

3. Ohio State (Big Ten)

4. Oklahoma (Big 12)

5. Cincinnati (American)

6. Oregon (Pac-12)

7. TBD (Play-in)

8. TBD (Play-in)

9. Notre Dame (at large – 4 in CFP rankings)

10. Texas A&M (at large – 5 in CFP rankings)

11. Florida (at large – 7 in CFP rankings)

12. Georgia (at large – 9 in CFP rankings)

13. Iowa State (at large – 10 in CFP rankings)

14. Indiana (at large – 11 in CFP rankings)

15. North Carolina (at large – 13 in CFP rankings)

16. Northwestern (at large – 14 in CFP rankings)

Play in matchups

(4) UAB (C-USA) @ (1) Coastal Carolina (Sun Belt)

(3) Ball State (MAC) @ (2) San Jose State (Mountain West)

Main Draw

(16) Northwestern @ (1) Alabama

(15) North Carolina @ (2) Clemson

(14) Indiana @ (3) Ohio State

(13) Iowa State @ (4) Oklahoma

(12) Georgia @ (5) Cincinnati

(11) Florida @ (6) Oregon

(10) Texas A&M @ (7) Coastal/SJS/Ball

(9) Notre Dame @ (8) SJS/Ball/UAB

Are there some laughers there? Sure. But most of the matchups are probably better than you expected. Assuming Coastal won their play-in game, almost all of these games are compelling! Indiana played Ohio State really close during the season (albeit before Michael Penix’s injury). North Carolina was a Jekyll-and-Hyde team all year, but could Sam Howell, two NFL backs, and two NFL receivers have given Clemson a shootout? Hell yeah. Other than Alabama-Northwestern (lol) and Notre Dame-(insert 8 seed here), most of the matchups are pretty interesting.

Assuming the play-in games happen the week of or the week right after the Army-Navy game, the calendar isn’t impacted too much. If teams raise safety concerns at the potential for extra games (very valid, in a sport like this), we could explore options like standardizing 11 game schedules (8 conference games, 3 non-conference games), getting rid of conference championship games, or adding more open weeks to the regular season or within the playoff schedule. The FCS already has a 16-team playoff and has been for years—it can be done, even if officials have to get creative about implementing it. And before you say anything, non-New Year’s Six bowl games became afterthoughts the second the first College Football Playoff was announced. This is the world we live in, so we might as well lean all the way in.


I started watching college football in 2007, when Missouri, Kansas, Boston College, USF (!!!), and West Virginia all had top-two rankings at some point during the year. How did we go from that beautiful mess to what we have now? Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State (maybe you can throw Oklahoma and Georgia in that group) are always there at the top, and no one can really touch them. What’s the fun in that?

Think about it this way: When four teams can make the playoff, maybe ten teams have a legitimate shot at a berth, and that’s probably being generous. But with the system I outlined above, close to 50 teams would have a real shot at playing for a championship. When more teams have a puncher’s chance, they can sell their program as having championship aspirations—they can recruit and fundraise better, and maybe, just maybe, with a great coaching staff and the right mix of players, truly challenge the big boys.

Maybe chaos can reign, once again.


But what are your ideas? How many teams is your ideal playoff? Would college football be better today had we never held a national championship game? Let me know in the comments.

Stay tuned for part 3: Virginia Tech’s place in the college football landscape