What if the College Football Playoff had a ‘March Madness’ feel to it?

NOTE: The views expressed in this EDITORIAL do not necessarily reflect the views of Detroit Sports Nation or a majority of its writers and should not be misconstrued as such. The views contained within are the views of the author and the author alone.


The 2017-18 College Football Playoff semifinal pairings were released on Sunday and, as is to be expected, many college football fans, including yours truly, are calling for an expanded playoff field.

While the majority of college football fans still very much enjoy the bowl season and the playoff system, it still presents a lot of gray areas. For instance, at least one major conference is going to be left out, which produces both competitive and financial ramifications on the leagues. And while it’s a good system to determine a champion, it waters down the other bowl games even more than they already were.

[Check out our foolproof plan for an 8-team CFP]

This is what ultimately sets the college football postseason apart from the basketball counterpart in March. In football (for the majority of spectators), only three games really matter — the two national semifinal games, and the national championship. In March Madness, almost if not every game matters start to finish.

So, what if there was a true ‘March Madness’ approach and feel to the college football postseason? We are going to compare the current men’s college basketball format and how the tournament field is created, with what a college football version could look like if it were to match the basketball layout, with a 24-team playoff:

(NOTE: For this exercise, dates provided will reflect 2017 calendar year.)

MEN’S COLLEGE BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT PROPOSED COLLEGE FOOTBALL ‘TOURNAMENT’
351 Division I college basketball programs vying for 68 spots 129* Division I FBS programs vying for 24 spots
32 conference champions; 36 at-large bids 10 conference champions; 14 at-large bids
10-person committee re-seeding and assigning teams in bracket 12-person committee re-seeding and assigning teams in bracket
Event runs 5 weeks** (02/27/17-04/03/17) Event runs 5 weeks (12/09/17-01/06/18)
Tournament games played on neutral sites Playoff games played on neutral sites

*Coastal Carolina is in year two of FBS transition; not bowl-eligible
**Includes conference tournaments

Bracket busters? More like Bowl bashers. “March Madness”? More like December… Dilemma? Disorder? Okay, we can figure out a name later.

So how would a 24-team bracket look? Perhaps something like this:

So let’s break this down a bit more. Again, dates listed reflect 2017 calendar:

  • 24-team field (essentially a carbon-copy of the current FCS playoff format)
  • Top 8 overall seeds receive a bye into the second weekend
  • 10 automatic bids – winners of FBS conference championship games
  • 14 at-large bids
  • 23 games spanning five weeks
    • Round 1: Eight games (two on Dec. 8, six on  Dec. 9)
    • Round 2: Eight games (two on Dec. 15, six on Dec. 16)
    • Quarterfinals: Four games (two on Dec. 22, two on Dec. 23)
    • Semifinals: Two games (Both on Dec. 30)
    • Nat’l Championship: January 6

Tournament sites to be based on prestige. For the sake of consistency, our semifinals and championship game sites will copy the upcoming CFP format:

  • 1ST ROUND (Dec. 8 and 9)
    • Alamo Bowl (San Antonio, TX)
    • Music City Bowl (Nashville, TN)
    • Belk Bowl (Charlotte, NC)
    • Russell Athletic Bowl (Miami, FL)
    • New Orleans Bowl (Cedar Rapids, IA… just kidding)
    • Foster Farms Bowl (San Francisco, CA)
    • Texas Bowl (Houston, TX)
    • Poinsettia Bowl (San Diego, CA)
  • 2ND ROUND (Dec. 15 and 16)
    • Sun Bowl (EL Paso, TX)
    • TaxSlayer Bowl (Gainesville, FL)
    • Citrus Bowl (Orlando, FL)
    • Liberty Bowl (Memphis, TN)
    • Independence Bowl (Shreveport, LA)
    • Holiday Bowl (San Diego, CA)
    • Outback Bowl (Tampa, FL)
    • Cactus Bowl (Phoenix, AZ)
  • QUARTERFINALS (Dec. 22 and 23)
    • Fiesta Bowl (Glendale, AZ)
    • Peach Bowl (Atlanta, GA)
    • Cotton Bowl (Arlington, TX)
    • Orange Bowl (Miami, FL)
  • SEMIFINALS (Dec. 30)
    • Rose Bowl (Pasadena, CA)
    • Sugar Bowl (New Orleans, LA)
  • NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP (Jan. 4)
    • Peach Bowl (Atlanta, GA)

See? We even avoided any major holidays that can conflict with consuming football as a fan for our experiment. Of course, there is another logical option of having the first two rounds being played on the campuses of the higher-seeded teams in each matchup, which I would be in favor of as well. This is just a simple exercise, after all.

So let’s use the final regular season standings and rankings from this season and see how the field could have been laid out. Remember, you have ten conference champions earning automatic bids, along with 14 remaining at-large teams (which will reflect final regular season polls).

  • Automatic bids: Central Florida (AAC), Clemson (ACC), Ohio State (Big Ten), Oklahoma (Big 12), Florida Atlantic (Conf-USA), Toledo (MAC), Boise State (Mountain West), USC (Pac-12), Georgia (SEC), Troy (Sun Belt; better overall record than Appalachian State and did not play H2H)
  • At-large bids (in order of final CFP rankings): Alabama, Wisconsin, Auburn, Penn State, Miami-FL, Washington, Stanford, Notre Dame, TCU, Michigan State, LSU, Washington State, Oklahoma State, Memphis

Seeding these 24 teams according is a subjective challenge in itself, but that is what a committee is for. Hopefully, you have a general idea of what we’re doing here.

So what exactly does this do for college football? Well, it instills an element that the college basketball tournament features, an element that helps make the annual event exciting and fan-friendly: a “David vs. Goliath” matchup. Now granted, a smaller field means less ‘David’ teams to create chaos, but without question one of the things that makes March Madness a true sporting spectacle are the Cinderella stories.

Take any team that’s typically seeded 12 or lower in the hoops tournament, typically from a one-bid league, and they play a perennial tournament-goer from a Power 5 school. Any such matchup early in the year is in all likelihood a blowout win by the perceived “better” team. But when that calendar flips to March, the script flips dramatically and suddenly those “little guys” come from nowhere to help create the madness, because they take what they learn from those blowouts to help cruise through their league and get to the NCAAs.

Translate that to football now. Let’s take one of those perceived “smaller” conference champion, Toledo for example. They lost on the road against a top-15 Miami in Week 4 before steamrolling their way through conference play in the MAC, on their way to a conference title and an 11-win season.

But it left me wondering, “What if Toledo had a second chance against Miami, or just any Power 5 program, with all that built up momentum and confidence?” All it takes is one game, right?

And here’s an added bonus. You can still play all the other bowl games! Yes, for any team not participating in the 24-team tournament but are still bowl-eligible at season’s end, they can fill out the rest of the bowl games, which can be played throughout the week leading up to each round of the playoff. They’re essentially appetizers for the main course that takes place on tournament Saturdays.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has already joined the forefront for playoff expansion in the future. College football has become America’s sport it seems, we can’t get enough of it. So let’s revamp the postseason and do it right. And if that means trimming a game or two in the regular season, because people are worried about these guys playing too many games, even though the FCS does that already and nobody bats an eyelash at that, then so be it.

Is this a realistic proposition for college football, though? Sadly, probably not. Any decisions to expand the playoff field would be incremental before just taking a huge leap from four to 24 teams. But if it meant having to reduce the regular season down a game or two, then I’m all for it.