The expanded CFB Playoff means more title game blowouts, not less
Conventional wisdom has coalesced around the idea that an expanded playoff will mean more competitive title games. That claim is not supported by the evidence.
As you may be aware, the Georgia Bulldogs administered a record-setting beatdown of TCU in the national title game last week. After the game — and since it was effectively over in the second quarter, during the game — fans who tuned in hoping to see a competitive contest received a measure of reassurance from the CFB cognoscenti: worry not, dear viewer, for the expanded college football playoff (arriving in 2024) will lead to fewer title game blowouts.
A representative sample comes from Andy Staples, writing in The Athletic:
In the system created by college football’s commissioners back in 2012, the blowout on Monday was nearly inevitable. Championship weekend left the selection committee with no real choice. The good news is that a system is coming that should give college football a much better chance to create competitive championship games.
Will there still be blowouts once the 12-team College Football Playoff begins in the 2024 season? Of course. The NFL — a league with strict controls built in to promote parity — held a 12-team tournament that it has since expanded to 14. That didn’t stop the Broncos from starting Super Bowl XLVIII with a snap over Peyton Manning’s head and devolving from there in a 43-8 loss to the Seahawks. Blowouts happen.
But they are less likely to happen when the two teams playing for the championship have run a gauntlet designed to weed out the teams may have benefitted from one circumstance or another to reach that point.
I’m not so sure this right!
Yes, the odds of any one team making it from the first round to the last will diminish, and obviously the odds are even longer for teams that aren’t as good. If TCU had to play one or two more playoff games, it’s likely that someone would have tripped them up before they made it to the final. But a critical point that’s being glossed over is that expanding the playoff field also means letting worse teams into the playoff. And in a single-elimination tournament, it would not be that unusual for a fairly average team to pull a first-round upset only to get clobbered at some later stage. This hypothetical underdog wouldn’t even have to make a deep run to impact the title game, since their progression would mean an easier route to the final for, say, the No. 8 seed, who had a decent year but doesn’t have any business making it to the semifinal.
The NFL often gets held up as a prime example of how a longer postseason rewards the best teams. But in the NFL there is — as a result of the redistributive forces Staples mentions — far less difference in quality among teams one through 14. An upset in the Wild Card round is not going to throw the Super Bowl entirely out of whack, as TCU’s upset of Michigan did to the CFB Playoff final.
Of course, if you make the playoff much bigger (think NCAA Tournament), you will indeed end up with a scenario where a Cinderella makes a run in the first half of the tournament only to see the final and semi-finals dominated by the bluebloods. But an expanded football playoff would still be comparatively small, so one or two games where a team advances despite having just, say, 30 percent odds (an upset, to be sure, but far from an incredibly unlikely occurrence) could have effects on the competition that aren’t as easily smoothed over.
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One of my hottest takes is that the BCS was actually good
Outside of the year undefeated Auburn got left out, the BCS pretty much always identified the two best teams. In the run-up to the final rankings, there was always months of media speculation about possible catastrophic scenarios with four or five undefeated teams. But guess what: once the entire season had a chance to play out, the choice was almost always extremely easy.
There’s a saying in the legal profession, I’m told, that goes like this: hard cases make bad law. In other words, it’s not always wise to change the rules in response to one outlier event that tests the limits of the existing set of rules. Rules that were working just fine, except in the instance this one outlier.
And I think that’s basically how we ended up with the playoff and, now, the expanded playoff. We had a couple of hard cases and decided to jump in with both feet to a playoff that has completely destabilized the bowl system, at a time when the transfer portal and NIL are making their own drastic changes to the sport.
Title games were closer under the BCS
I don’t necessarily think the competitiveness of the title game is a useful metric for determining whether or not the championship system is a success. But if that is a thing we supposedly care about, then maybe we should look at the margins of victory in the BCS title games compared to the College Football Playoff title games. What those statistics reveal is that the BCS title games were closer no matter how you slice the data.
Since the first CFB Playoff in 2014, the average margin of victory has gone up by a touchdown, and the median margin of victory is up by four and a half points. Even if you exclude the TCU-Georgia game from the CFB Playoff’s data (with a sample this small, I wouldn’t recommend it — but if you did), the BCS title games are still more competitive.
Maybe you have reasons for wanting a bigger playoff, but if what you’re seeking is more competitive title games, I’m not sure what reason you have to believe that’s what we’ll be getting.
What was great about the BCS system (and mostly the current 4-team playoff) is that almost every regular-season game is an elimination game for the top teams. It gives me a reason to tune into regular season games by those top teams. But with 12 teams in, the top teams would need catastrophic results to miss the playoffs, so why bother paying attention to their regular season?
I never just tune in randomly to watch Duke basketball. But maybe I would if something were actually on the line for them, especially in a way that then had downstream implications for the whole sport.
I just keep coming back to how four is the right number. It keeps the regular season as extremely important while making sure we avoid the very worst scenarios we had in the BCS. We've seen years where there were more than two teams that deserved a shot at the national title, but we've basically never seen (and will never see) one where five do.
This probably doesn't end up in a scenario where teams completely punt regular season games, but it moves us closer towards such a scenario, and man, if I wanted to watch the NFL, I would.