Central Florida is hanging banners. Big Ten fans are threatening a boycott. As usual, strife permeates the college football postseason.
As the Southeastern Conference turns the national championship game into a neighborhood tussle, those on the outside are fomenting revolution. Or at least putting on a theatrical rendition of a revolution. With an American Athletic Conference school unilaterally claiming the national championship and a heavyweight league pointing at its 7-1 bowl record as proof of playoff robbery, there is fresh rhetorical ammo for the ever-vigilant Playoff Expansion Militia.
So we’re hearing a lot of chatter about expanding from four teams to six or eight. Either of those would be good, but why stop there, when it would still fail to be a fully inclusive and national tournament? If we’re going to blow up the current structure, why not replace it with a big-boy playoff that actually allows access to every league in FBS, mirroring both the scope and populist appeal of the NCAA basketball tournament?
Why not embrace the Patton Plan? Let me introduce it to you.
Over a beer about a month ago, my buddy Mike Patton reached into his pocket and produced a single sheet of notebook paper. This, he told me, is the playoff college football needs and deserves.
My thought bubble: For the love of Keith Jackson, no. Not another one.
If you’ve been a sportswriter for any length of time, you’ve had five dozen — a hundred, a thousand — College Football Playoff proposals thrust at you. People mean well. Some of them put a lot of effort into the exercise. Some proposals are flat stupid. But the sheer volume and repetition of ideas make you wish you had a spam filter for playoff emails alone.
So I was fully prepared to resist the 16-team Patton Plan, to politely debunk it and be done with it. But the more I heard, the more I liked.
It’s crazy and radical and at least partially nonsensical. but it would be a lot of fun. Here are the basic premises:
* Every Power Five conference goes to 14 teams, with one exception. The Atlantic Coast, Big Ten and SEC already are there. The Big 12 adds four (say UCF, USF, Memphis, Cincinnati). The Pac-12 adds two (say, Boise State and BYU). Independents are told to join up or get out. The exception: ACC adds Notre Dame to go to 15.
* Every power league then has two seven-team divisions, with the ACC having eight in one and seven in the other due to Notre Dame (which goes in the Coastal Division instead of the loaded Atlantic).
* Conference championship games are eradicated at the Power Five level. Divisional champions are crowned and make the playoff, which means you have 10 divisional champs. For 2017 season purposes, those would be the following: Clemson and Miami from ACC; Oklahoma and TCU from the 14-team, two-division Big 12; Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Big Ten; Stanford and USC from the Pac-12; Georgia and Auburn from the SEC. During the regular season they all play round-robin within the division, plus three or four crossover games to maintain some level of conference continuity and rivalry games like Tennessee-Alabama or Auburn-Georgia.
* From the Group of Five conferences, play 11 regular season games and have a conference championship game on Thanksgiving weekend. The champions of those conferences all make the playoff. For 2017 purposes, that’s UCF, Florida Atlantic, Toledo, Boise State, Troy.
* That produces 15 automatic qualifiers for the playoff — 10 divisional champions from the Power Five and five conference champions from the Group of Five.
* The last bid goes to a single at-large team, the highest-ranked non-champion according to a selection committee that actually does far less selecting and far more seeding in this format. This year that would have been Alabama.
Seeds and matchups for what would have been the 2017 playoff, with the opening round on campuses Dec 1-2:
Troy (16) at Clemson (1)
FAU (15) at Oklahoma (2)
Toledo (14) at Georgia (3)
Boise State (13) at Alabama (4)
TCU (12) at Ohio State (5)
Stanford (11) at Wisconsin (6)
UCF (10) at Auburn (7)
Miami (9) at USC (8)
Ideally, fall semester finals for playoff teams would be taken between Dec. 4-13.
On Dec. 14-15-16, play the quarterfinals. Ideally still on campus.
Between the quarterfinal round and New Year’s Day, play 30 traditional bowl games matching up teams that didn’t make the playoff. That preserves the bowl structure and bowl experience coaches and administrators rhapsodize about.
On Jan. 1, play the semifinals as currently formatted, in major bowl venues.
And on Jan. 8, play the championship game as currently formatted.
Is that not genius? Or at least a pretty cool concept?
It’s almost all decided on the field. The only subjectivity would be selecting the single at-large team, which is 75 percent less subjectivity than the current system — and that selection would rarely be a team seeded as high as Alabama at No. 4.
It is uniform: A minimum of two teams from every power conference.
It is inclusive: No more Power Five pouting about being left out. No more Group of Five manufacturing their own national title because they have no shot at a real one. And the Cinderella concept, such an integral part of March Madness, would be introduced to a sport that has historically been bereft of charming underdogs.
It is fairly efficient for a 16-team field: With the elimination of odious Power Five conference championship games and the 12th game for Group of Five leagues, it can all be accomplished in the same calendar as the current playoff. With a reasonable window for finals to be taken.
The added physical toll would be isolated: Eight teams would play 14 games, four would play 15 and two would play 16. This season, 15 teams will play 14 games, and Georgia will play a 15th. (Three others this year would have played a 14th game if not for hurricane cancellations.)
Conferences would have to deal with the lack of a single champion and adjust to crowning two divisional champions. That would be a sticking point.
Divisional imbalance would become even more of an issue. Wisconsin’s cake walk in the Big Ten West compared to the sausage grinder in the East would not be well received, with playoff bids going to the division winners. Leagues would have to be open to altering their current structure.
By the same token, cross-division scheduling would become even more important and controversial.
Incentive to schedule tough non-conference games could be diminished. Strength of schedule would only matter for the one at-large bid, and for seeding purposes.
Not every school’s academic calendar would neatly fit the finals window. And presidents take the theoretical academic infringement of an expanded playoff very seriously.
Although only a few teams would have to play more games, it’s still more games and more physical wear and tear. Coaches and players themselves already are not thrilled about 15 games for the two finalists.
Perhaps most significantly: It would require the Power Five cutting the Group of Five in on the action. They have little interest in leveling the playing field that way.
But all told, the Patton Plan is an intriguing concept. If UCF and the Big Ten want to start a revolution, don’t half-ass it. Let’s go big, go to 16 and go national.