Playoff Idea: The World Cup of College Football

[Ed: Promoted from FanPosts]

It’s no secret that I like to look to non-American sports for ideas about how to fix issues here. Taking a whole different idea about how to run sports and blending it with uniquely American ideas (like college sports for instance) tends to lead to the best-of-both worlds, so far as you make sure to respect both ideas.

The best example is the College Basketball Champions League, an idea that was fleshed out by fetch9 over on Rock Chalk Talk. Between it and an FA Cup-style NCAA tournament, it would take many of the great things about college basketball and stretch it over the season with more significant conference games and two season-long tournaments culminating in two huge championship games.

A College Football Champions League is an intriguing idea, but it runs into a few problems. It would be impossible to play full conference seasons and a full Champions League schedule without expanding the football season and putting more wear and tear on student-athletes. Qualifying for the Champions League could be based on the previous season, but this would be problematic given the turnover in football, a problem solved by freshmen impact in basketball.

College football though looks less like European soccer leagues. Bigger rosters mean regional recruiting is more important. While they occur every week, college football games feel like one-off events. And they often bring together whole states or regions in a way that college basketball does not seem to do.

In short, college football is a lot more like international soccer than professional club soccer. So instead of the Champions League, an internationally-inspired college football playoff would look more like the World Cup. This would be the format for a World Cup of College Football. And the best part? It includes no more games than the current college football season and requires just one change to NCAA bylaws.


The most radical change from the current structure of the college football season would be that the CFB World Cup would replace the non-conference season. That means three things. First, it means that the season kicks off with important conference games rather than a mixture of big intersectional match-ups and easy wins for big schools against weaker programs. Second, it means that a national ranking would be relatively meaningless since there would be even less information to rank a school like Boise State against a school like Alabama. Finally, it means independents like Notre Dame and BYU would need to find conference homes.

The CFB World Cup would include 16 automatic bids. Each of the 11 conferences would receive one. Five conference would receive a second bid. How those bids are awarded would be an intense debate. One idea would be to negotiate them as part of a contract, which is basically how FIFA awards World Cup spots. Another would be interconference playoffs, similar to the final round of World Cup qualifying. But since this is a yearly competition, awarding the second bid based on success in the last few years of the competition (likely 3–5 years) makes the most sense.

Although the Mountain West and WAC have a higher winning percentage in the BCS to date, we’ll start by giving all the second bids to BCS automatic qualifying conferences, with the Big East being the odd man out by virtue of the ACC’s better conference ranking at the moment according to Jeff Sagarin. If the 2011 college football season ended today, the following teams would qualify:

  • Clemson
  • Virginia Tech
  • Oklahoma State
  • Oklahoma
  • Cincinnati
  • Michigan State
  • Penn State
  • Houston
  • Northern Illinois
  • Boise State
  • Stanford
  • Arizona State
  • LSU
  • Georgia
  • Arkansas State
  • Nevada

For leagues with two bids and divisions (SEC, Big Ten, Pac 12), the leaders of each division were selected. The bids are awarded to the conference though, who can pick the format to award them to the teams, so that could change. We can also assume nine game conference schedules: either 10 team leagues playing a full round robin or 12–16 team leagues playing eight regular season games and a conference championship game.

For teams that are eliminated, they would have a few weeks at the end of the season to set up intriguing nonconference games. Nonconference rivalries could be contracted to occur every year both teams are out. Changing how auto bids are given out to include the results of these nonconference games could also make them meaningful, not to mention the need to qualify for a bowl game, which could continue alongside the World Cup.

Seeding and Groups

The 16 qualifiers would be seeded into four pots based on the conference’s record in the competition across the last few years (likely 3–5 years again). The critical issue is placing the five additional teams into pots, since their placement will likely determine the strength of the groups. On a side note, with 12 conferences and four additional bids, this would be easy: they would just get their own pot.

To solve the problem of the fifth team, the second teams from the top four conferences will be placed into one pot while the second team from the fifth conferences will be put into the third pot of conference champions. So for 2011, the pots look like this based on conference affiliation, with Jeff Sagarin’s conference ratings standing in for competitive history:

Pot 1 Pot 2 Pot 3 Pot 4
Big 12 Champ ACC Champ Big 12 Runner Up WAC Champ
SEC Champ Big East Champ SEC Runner Up MAC Champ
Big Ten Champ C-USA Champ Big Ten Runner Up Sun Belt Champ
Pac 12 Champ Mountain West Champ Pac 12 Runner Up ACC Runner-Up

Here are the same pots using the teams currently in position to qualify:

Pot 1 Pot 2 Pot 3 Pot 4
Oklahoma State Clemson Oklahoma Nevada
LSU Cincinnati Georgia Northern Illinois
Michigan State Houston Penn State Arkansas State
Stanford Boise State Arizona State Virginia Tech

The groups would then be drawn out of the four pots at random with the one limit being that two teams from the same conference cannot be drawn into the same group. Using a random number generator and a bit of fudging, here are the groups:

Group A Group B Group C Group D
Oklahoma State Stanford Michigan State LSU
Cincinnati Clemson Boise State Houston
Penn State Oklahoma Georgia Arizona State
Northern Illinois Nevada Arkansas State

Virginia Tech


Scheduling and Format

Each team would play all the others in its group. The group winners would each move on to the semifinals, with both knockout rounds being played at neutral sites, which could be existing bowl games. Group stage games would be played at home, but how to select who plays whom where? The teams themselves would pick.

Teams from Pot 1 and Pot 2 would each get two home games, while teams from Pot 3 and Pot 4 getting only one home game. Pot 1 teams (listed on the top lines of the group) would select their two home games first, followed by Pot 2 teams. Pot 3 and Pot 4 would be left with whatever game is left. Note that if the Pot 1 team selects a home game against the Pot 2 team, no choices are left.

So in Group A, for instance, Oklahoma State might want to ensure it has home field against Penn State and avoid a trap at NIU. That leaves Cincinnati with a home game against Oklahoma State and their pick of NIU or Penn State. If Cincinnati wants to get Penn State at home, a schedule might look like this.

Round 1
Oklahoma State at Cinncinati
NIU at Penn State
Round 2
Penn State at Oklahoma State
Cincinnati at NIU
Round 3
NIU at Oklahoma State
Penn State at Cincinnati

If we assume the schedule starts and ends at the same time, weeks 1–11 would be the conference season, which allows for one bye week and conference championship games played this week (week of November 7 in 2011). This Sunday, 11/13/2011, would be the draw. Coaches would gather for a media event on Tuesday or Wednesday to select their home games. There would be no games this coming weekend, with weeks 13, 14, and 15 comprising the group stage.

After a week break for finals, the semifinals would take place near Christmas, with the final being played on New Year’s Day (or New Year’s Eve if January 1 falls on Sunday). The one NCAA bylaw change that is required is to allow teams to play a second game after the end of the current regular season. This might be palatable, because the regular season is reduced to 12 games instead of a max of 13.

Extra Points

Payouts would likely be one for each team that qualifies, plus an additional payout for each team that advances to the knockout round. The format assumes you cannot play more than 14 games total in a season, but if you added a 15th game two teams from each group could advance to a quarterfinal round and the season could still end within the current time frame (beginning of the second week of January).

There will still be massive financial and recruiting advantages to being one of the power conferences, but those advantages would need to be maintained through competitive success. The regular season remains extremely meaningful. Finishing second in a conference costs you at least a home game if not a spot in the tournament altogether.

This format also allows all the questions to be answered. In a 16-team playoff, the bracket could open up for a team with a favorable draw. In an 8 or fewer team playoff, you might leave out a team with a legitimate shot at winning. Here mid-major teams will likely have to go through two power conference teams and may have both of those games on the road. And in years where the field is weak overall, a seeded group stage would reflect that with three easy games for the top teams followed by fireworks in the knockout rounds. In deeper years, a group stage allows the cream to float to the top better than a single elimination bracket.

Possible Motto? The World Cup of College Football: Anything but "NFL style".

A FanPost gives the opinion of the fan who writes it and that fan only. That doesn't give the opinion more or less weight than any other opinion on this blog, but the post does not necessarily reflect the view of TSK's writers.