Yes, a 12-team College Football Playoff has its flaws. Yes, there will be years when the outcome is frustrating. Yes, there will probably be a season in which Alabama goes 10-2, finishes third in the SEC, and yet gets into the playoff and wins three games to take home the title. It will be annoying. However, we can’t live in complete fear of Nick Saban and the SEC. They have scared a lot of college football fans into thinking a 12-team playoff is bad for the sport.
Let’s be clear: The 12-team playoff isn’t great. It isn’t the best way for college football to crown a national champion or conduct its postseason. We’re not trying to say this is an ideal plan. We’re trying to make the argument that the 12-team playoff is not uniquely or severely damaging to college football. Many people think it is, or will be.
No. The Bowl Championship Series — the BCS — was the darkest era in modern college football history. That was the worst time for the sport in the past 50 years. The 12-team playoff isn’t nearly as bad — imperfect, sure, but a lot better than the BCS.
TCU GOT A CHANCE
Dec 31, 2022; Glendale, Arizona, USA; TCU Horned Frogs running back Emari Demercado (3) dives in for a touchdown during their 51-45 win over the Michigan Wolverines in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Rondone-Arizona Republic
Ncaa Fiesta Bowl Game
Syndication Arizona Republic
Under the BCS, TCU doesn’t get to play for the national title. It would have been Michigan-Georgia in a one-shot situation. Isn’t it great TCU got a chance to prove itself?
MICHIGAN HAD TO PROVE ITSELF, TOO
Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines during action against the TCU Horned Frogs second half action of the Fiesta Bowl Saturday, December 31, 2022.
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Syndication Detroit Free Press
A Michigan team which did not challenge itself in nonconference games, and which played in a relatively weak Big Ten, needed to beat a good TCU team to earn its way into the national championship game.
Under the BCS, Michigan would not have had to play a semifinal. The Wolverines would have made the title game without a challenging schedule. Playing TCU was a test we all deserved to see. Had Michigan won, it would have earned its place in the national title game instead of being handed it by a BCS system which insisted that only two teams should play for the championship each season.
Jan 10, 2011; Glendale, AZ, USA; Oregon Ducks mascot Donald Duck against the Auburn Tigers during the 2011 BCS National Championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Tigers defeated the Ducks 22-19. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
In the 2010 season, Oregon played Auburn in the national title game. TCU went unbeaten but was not given a chance to play for the title. This is exactly how — and why — the four-team playoff is better than the BCS. The 12-team playoff will give us even more “prove-it” matchups in which non-traditional powers such as TCU get their shot. That’s undeniably good for the sport. More schools, more communities, more fan bases remain interested in the product at this time of year.
BIG TEN DOUBLE DEFEAT
Michigan Wolverines on the bench after 51-45 loss to the TCU Horned Frogs in the Fiesta Bowl Saturday, December 31, 2022.
The BCS would have had you think that the winner of the 11-0 Michigan versus 11-0 Ohio State game automatically deserved to play for the national championship. The playoff forced both teams to go through the semifinal round and prove they belonged in the title game. Neither team won.
Playoff football is more of a real proving ground than the BCS era ever was.
Dec 3, 2022; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Tulane Green Wave quarterback Michael Pratt (7) celebrates a touchdown with Tulane Green Wave wide receiver Lawrence Keys III (6) against the UCF Knights during the second half at Yulman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Tulane might not have won a playoff semifinal against Michigan or Georgia, but in a 12-team playoff, a team in Tulane’s position gets a chance to prove itself. This is, again, part of the larger reality that a 12-team playoff will grow interest in the sport. It won’t just be the Ohio States, Michigans, Alabamas, and Georgias of the world. The little guy will get his moment on national TV. Again, tell me how this is bad for the product. More people being interested in the sport is undeniably great.
SABAN AND THE SEC
Dec 31, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Dillon Lee (25) intercepts a pass in front of head coach Nick Saban during the fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans in the 2015 CFP semifinal at the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Alabama won 38-0. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Saban and Alabama were so dominant for so long that when a season like this — the Crimson Tide losing twice and looking ordinary — comes along, people are still afraid Bama would win the playoff.
Yes, it’s true that Bama would have gotten in, but here’s the other side of the coin: Bama would have had to win three games to win the national title beginning in the 2024 season. That makes life harder for Alabama and Saban compared to the BCS, when it just had to win one game to win the national title. In 2023, Bama will have to win two games.
This is undeniably much better than the BCS. The 12-team playoff will be even more of an improvement.
ONE BASIC FACT ABOUT SABAN AND ALABAMA
Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood (70) celebrates with the CFP National Championship trophy after beating the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Alabama has set the gold standard in the sport over the past 15 years — no one doubts or questions that — but in the past five seasons (2018-2022), how many times has Bama won the national championship?
The four-team playoff, compared to the BCS, didn’t make it easier for Alabama to win national titles.
Oct 22, 2022; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson quarterback Hunter Helms (18) celebrates as head coach Dabo Swinney talks with quarterback Cade Klubnik (2) as time expired during the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina on Saturday, October 22, 2022. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports
Remember the Clemson dynasty under Dabo Swinney? The Tigers have missed the playoff the last two seasons. They have won only one national title the past six seasons, 2017 through 2022. The idea that we should fear one or two programs winning every 12-team playoff is just not convincing.
Dec 31, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart gives a fist pump following the Peach Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff semifinal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Georgia beat Ohio State 42-41. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch
Georgia might repeat as national champion, but we saw against Ohio State that the Bulldogs are not the dominant team of 2021. This was not a foregone conclusion. There was actual parity in college football in 2022.
Dec 31, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Georgia Bulldogs players celebrate as Ohio State Buckeyes place kicker Noah Ruggles (95) misses a 50 yard field goal in the final seconds of the second half of the Peach Bowl in the College Football Playoff semifinal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch
Two semifinals decided by a total of seven points. These games both went down to the wire. More of these games is a good thing for college football! We don’t have to fear Nick Saban and the SEC winning everything every year. Georgia trailed Ohio State by 14 points in the fourth quarter. The SEC isn’t miles above and beyond everyone else. USC and other programs can compete in this context.
POSTSCRIPT: THE BEST WAY TO SOLVE ALL OF THIS IS NOT THE 12-TEAM PLAYOFF, BUT 12 IS BETTER THAN THE BCS
Here’s a thread on how college football could do something better than a 12-team playoff. A 12-team playoff is better than the BCS, which we should be able to realize, but there’s another path college football should have chosen and might perhaps embrace at a distant point in the future:
EXAMPLE NO. 1
EXAMPLE NO. 2
THE ADDED REFORMS