Four is Enough: Why the New College Football Playoff's Bracket is the Right Size

There's a little bit of faulty reasoning that comes into play when we're talking about the playoffs and the controversy that's likely to still be a part of the college football postseason even then -- and I'm not immune to it by any stretch of the imagination. It's the part where we point out that there are still likely to be disputes about who is No. 4 after the regular season.

That, of course, shouldn't be an issue -- and it's where a lot of these discussions and controversies go off the rails, whether the sport is college football or college basketball or MLB. The question is not whether the teams who aren't in the bracket are comparable to the No. 4 team in the field, but whether the teams who aren't in the bracket can credibly argue that they are comparable to the No. 1 team in the field.

In other words, the goal should not be to create a bracket large enough to include every team that might possibly win that bracket, but to create a bracket that is as small as possible while still including everyone with a credible case to be No. 1.

Why as small as possible? Because the larger you get, the less important the regular season gets by definition. And I still believe that it's worth it for college football to be the sport where the regular season matters most.

I think four perfectly fits that groove for college football, though I wouldn't be opposed to six. But eight is too large and lets in teams that can't credibly claim to be the best teams in the country -- let's just look at the last five years. (For clarity: The teams are ranked by BCS standings after the last regular season games, and any discussion of their opponents is based on those opponents' AP rankings after the last regular season games.)

2011

5 Oregon (11-2)
6 Arkansas (10-2)
7 Boise State (11-1)
8 Kansas State (10-2)

I wouldn't have a huge, huge problem with Oregon having gotten in last year -- despite the Ducks losing to LSU and Southern Cal, they also defeated a solid Washington and a great Stanford team (that shouldn't have been ranked ahead of Oregon at the end of the season, but I digress). The Southern Cal loss was a three-pointer and every other game was essentially an Oregon blowout. Arkansas is a bit more dicey. The Razorbacks lost to their two best opponents and played only one more team all year that was ranked after the regular season (South Carolina). The Hogs blew out the Gamecocks, but both the Tide and the Bayou Bengals blew out the Hogs.

Boise State, on the other hand, clearly shouldn't be in the playoff. They did beat Georgia at the beginning of the season. But the only other game against a ranked opponent was against TCU at Boise -- and the Broncos lost. Kansas State even has a slightly better argument -- they've got wins against the postseason No. 15 and a postseason ORV. But again, in their biggest games, the Wildcats got destroyed by Oklahoma and lost to Oklahoma State. If beating one ranked team is going to be the criteria for getting into the playoff, we're going to have to let a lot of teams in.

2010

5 Wisconsin (11-1)
6 Ohio State (11-1)
7 Oklahoma (11-2)
8 Arkansas (10-2)

Oklahoma is the first borderline team this year. The Sooners were blown out by No. 18 TAMU and also lost to No. 14 Missouri. On the other hand, they defeated No. 16 Oklahoma State, No. 17 Nebraska and No. 23 Florida State. Still, you can't say under this formula that every game would have been as important as it is today -- under the BCS, two losses all but eliminate you from contention; under a playoff, Oklahoma gets in. I think Arkansas has a better case this year than in 2011; they defeated No. 11 LSU, No. 18 TAMU, No. 19 South Carolina and No. 21 Mississippi State. The losses were to No. 15 Alabama and No. 1 Auburn. But again, it takes a lot of the sting out of losing a game when you know it might not end your chances at a title. And I'm not sure about how any of these teams stack up to Auburn's gauntlet in 2010.

2009

5 Florida (12-1)
6 Boise State (12-0)
7 Oregon (10-2)
8 Ohio State (10-2)

Boise State might have a case here -- but keep in mind that the Broncos, while undefeated, beat a grand total of one ranked team all year (Oregon, first week). Does that and a WAC Championship really stack up to what Alabama did in going undefeated through the SEC and defeating Virginia Tech to boot? As for Florida -- meh. They lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship, but did defeat No. 13 LSU. A list of Florida's other games against ranked teams:

Oregon did beat the No. 16, No. 21, No. 22 and No. 23 team that year -- but lost to Boise State and No. 19 Stanford. They might have a case. Ohio State? They lost to unranked Southern Cal (at home) and Purdue (road) teams that didn't even receive votes after the regular season finale. They did beat No. Iowa (by three), No. 11 Penn State and No. 24 Wisconsin.

2008

5 Southern Cal (11-1)
6 Utah (12-0)
7 Texas Tech (11-1)
8 Penn State (11-1)

Remember that great debate over which Big 12 South team was the best? WHO CARES? They all get in (Texas was No. 3) and so all those games between Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech mean absolutely nothing. Nor does the SEC Championship Game between Florida and Alabama -- though it wouldn't have meant anything under a four-team playoff. No system takes care of all problems.

I respect the heck out of what Utah did that year and defeating No. 11 TCU, No. 17 BYU and No. 24 Oregon State is nothing to sniff at. Again, I'm not here to quarrel with a six-team field as much as an eight-team field. Penn State beat the Nos. 10, 19 and 24 teams that season, but lost to an Iowa team that was still unranked (though unofficially No. 26). Oh, and for the "mid-majors of the world unite!" crowd, an undefeated Boise State misses the field. Here's the broader point: This is literally no one-loss team from an AQ conference that doesn't make it in 2008. So every game does not literally count, because there's a cushion provided for everybody that lost a game.

2007

5 Georgia (10-2)
6 Missouri (11-2)
7 Southern Cal (10-2)
8 Kansas (11-1)

There is almost no system that would have dealt well with the flaming wreckage that was the 2007 college football season, so I'm not going to spend too much time here. Essentially, 2007 might have been the kind of season where no one should have been awarded the national championship. The only undefeated team in the regular season was Hawaii, and representatives for the Warriors could not be contacted because women and children are still fleeing the scene of their Sugar Bowl defeat. (Let's all laugh at the AP voter who gave Hawaii a No. 1 vote on the last ballot of the regular season.)

But I would make this point: All of the topsy-turvy results that made that season perhaps the most memorable of my life would have been largely pointless. All of the teams who had pretty good years that season would have gotten into the playoff. The upsets of Ohio State and LSU didn't matter, sure, but with an eight-team playoff, neither would Missouri's loss in the Big 12 Championship Game or South Carolina's upset of Georgia or Stanford's upset of Southern Cal. All of those games would have been footnotes rather than the season-shaping events they were.

And that gets back to the key reason why a four-team bracket is better than one with eight when you get to the importance of the regular season. Under the eight-team bracket, we would have a single one-loss AQ team that would have missed the playoff (2010, No. 9 Michigan State) even if the selection committee didn't work as a circuit-breaker to make sure the Spartans were in.

But counting Michigan State, eight one-loss AQ teams would have missed a four-team bracket over the last five years. That means something. It means that even the teams at the highest level of the game can only ensure their shot at the championship by winning out. Once you lose a game, you no longer control your own fate, which is the very definition of making sure that every game matters.

Every game can still matter, and we can have a playoff that encourages that instead of discarding it. Four is the right size for a bracket that does that and gets all the worthy competitors in. Luckily, it looks like we're going to have that size playoff for several years.

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