By JOHN FINERAN
By all in I mean ALL IN – I think ALL 128 schools in the Football Bowls Subdivision should have a chance to play IN a playoff for the national championship.
After all, there are 351 schools playing Division I basketball, and while the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders have a remote chance of receiving a berth in the NCAA field of 68, keep in mind that a long, long, long time ago the City College of New York Beavers won both the National Invitation Tournament and NCAA tournament in the 1949-50 season.
Technically, the 128 FBS schools – 124 in 10 conferences and four independents, including the Magilla Gorilla in the room, Notre Dame, currently underachieving at 4-6 this season – are eligible to compete for the national title.
However, because of their fan bases, alliances and billions of dollars in television revenue, the schools in five FBS conferences – Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Pacific-12 and Southeastern – and Notre Dame have a decided advantage in securing the four spots available for the College Football Playoff that determines a national champion.
These 65 schools are the Daddy Warbucks of FBS, and grouped together are known as the Power Five. I think Gang of Five would be more appropriate, because Daddy Warbucks and Magilla Gorilla pretty much get their way in NCAA circles and especially over the other 63 FBS schools – independents Brigham Young, Army and Massachusetts and the members of five leagues (American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt) which are known collectively as the Group of Five.
You need only to check out the weekly College Football Playoff rankings.
THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP TROPHY
The initial ranking on Nov. 1 had Alabama (SEC) No. 1 followed by Clemson (ACC), Michigan (Big Ten) and Texas A&M (SEC) in spots 2-4. Twenty-three of the Top 25 teams hail from Gang of Five conferences. Mid-American member Western Michigan was ranked No. 23 and Mountain West member Boise State No. 24.
The top three teams from Week 1 – Alabama, Clemson and Michigan – remained that way in the Week 2 rankings released Nov. 8. With Texas A&M lost to Mississippi State and fell to No. 8 with Washington (Pac-12) moving up to No. 4. Again, the Gang of Five conferences had 23 of the 25 spots, with Western Michigan moving to No. 21 and Boise State to No. 22.
Only Alabama survived Bloody Saturday, posting a 51-3 victory over Mississippi State. For the first time in 31 years, the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 teams all lost on the same weekend, suffering their first setbacks of 2016 – No. 2 Clemson lost 43-42 at home to unranked Pittsburgh; No. 3 Michigan lost 14-13 on the road at unranked Iowa; and No. 4 Washington lost 26-13 at home to No. 20 USC.
Changes were expected but the bleeding was brought under control by the time the third rankings were released Tuesday. Alabama remained No. 1, followed by Ohio State (Big Ten), which moved up from fifth. Michigan stayed third and Clemson slipped from second to fourth. Meanwhile, the Gang of Five once again had 23 of the top 25 teams, with Boise State moving to No. 20, one spot ahead of Western Michigan, now the only unbeaten team along with Alabama.
Even if it stays unbeaten by winning its final two conference games at the Mid-American Championship Game onDec. 2, the chances of Western Michigan moving into the top four are slim or none, with none highly favored. The ACC, Big Ten, Pacific-12 and SEC all have conference championships on Dec. 3, and even though the Big 12 doesn’t, there are just two many Gang of Five teams for Western Michigan’s resume to be compared against.
The present playoff system does provide a carrot to the Group of Five schools – a berth in the Cotton Bowl – if a member doesn’t earn one of the four playoff berths. That berth goes to either Boise State or Western Michigan depending on which is ranked higher on Dec. 6.
But who wants to eat carrots when you can have prime rib? An ALL-IN FBS playoff allows that very simply. It puts emphasis on the regular season, just as the current system does. But it provides 10 schools, champions of their conferences, to automatically qualify for the playoff. Then add six at-large teams determined by computer rankings for a 16-team playoff that culminates with the national championship game on the first Monday in January, just as it currently does.
To have a true, ALL-IN FBS playoff, however, some changes need to be made. Currently all FBS schools play 12 regular-season games, and some schools play 13 if they qualify for their conference championship.
Under the current format, the two teams that qualify for the national championship game play twice, for a maximum of 15 games. In an ALL-IN playoff, the finalists could play 17, which is too many.
To make an ALL-IN playoff possible, it would necessitate each school dropping a regular-season game and those regular-season and conference championship games – 12 games – would be played in a 14-week span from the last Saturday in August to the last Saturday in November. Then after two weeks off for exams, the 16-team playoff begins the third week of December.
Just for fun, let’s use the current season to determine the teams for a 16-team playoff.
Here are the conference champions: South Florida (American), Clemson (ACC), Oklahoma (Big 12), Wisconsin (Big Ten), Louisiana Tech (Conference USA), Western Michigan (Mid-American), Boise State (Mountain West), Washington (Pacific-12), Alabama (SEC) and Troy (Sun Belt).
Now here are the six at-large teams, keeping in mind that no conference can have more than three representatives (conference champion and two at-large teams): Ohio State (Big Ten), Michigan (Big Ten), Louisville (ACC), USC (Pacific-12), Louisiana State (SEC) and Auburn (SEC).
Now seed them by computer and here are the eight first-round, on-campus matchups for Saturday, Dec. 17 by time slots and television:
(14) South Florida at (3) Louisville, 11 a.m. (ESPN)
(12) Louisiana State at (5) Michigan, 11 a.m. (ABC)
(13) Boise State at (4) Clemson, 2:30 p.m. (ABC)
(10) Western Michigan at (7) Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
(15) Troy at (2) Ohio State, 6 p.m. (ABC)
(9) USC at (8) Oklahoma, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
(16) Louisiana Tech at (1) Alabama, 9:30 p.m. (ABC)
(11) Auburn at (6) Washington, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Following the first round, existing bowls are used for the second-, semifinal- and championship-round games. We’ll use the Cotton, Peach, Sugar, Fiesta, Rose, Orange and Outback bowls this year. With the home teams holding service in the first round, here would be the second-round matchups:
Friday, Dec. 23
Cotton: (5) Michigan vs. (4) Clemson, 3:30 a.m. (ABC)
Fiesta: (7) Wisconsin vs. (2) Ohio State, 8 p.m. (ABC)
Saturday, Dec. 24
Peach: (6) Washington vs. (3) Louisville, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Sugar: (8) Oklahoma vs. (1) Alabama, 8 p.m. (ABC)
Again, the higher seeds win, setting up these Saturday, Dec. 31 semifinals:
Rose: (3) Louisville vs. (2) Ohio State, 4:30 p.m.
Orange: (4) Clemson vs. (1) Alabama, 8:30 p.m.
And the higher seeds win again, meaning (2) Ohio State and (1) Alabama play in the Outback Bowl on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017 to determine the national champion.
Of course, that could be the championship matchup this year in the current format. So why change?
Because this is America, and everyone should be ALL IN.
(John Fineran has covered sporting events for more than 40 years for newspapers in Michigan, Indiana, Florida and his native New Jersey. He’s covered national championship teams while working in Michigan, Indiana and Florida. And while Rutgers is the only FBS school in New Jersey – and currently last in the Big Ten’s East Division – Fineran reminds everyone that the first national champion in football was the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton, which beat Rutgers, 21-6, in the first recognized football game played on Nov. 6, 1869 in New Brunswick, N.J.)