As the first official College Football Playoff ranking is revealed on Tuesday (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App), so begins the annual hand-wringing over which team — and conference — will be left out. With only four teams in the current system, which is entering its sixth season of a 12-year contract, at least one Power 5 conference champion will be excluded, continuing to fuel the discussions about expansion.
Thirty Power 5 coaches think the College Football Playoff should expand, with the most support coming from the Big Ten and Big 12, according to an ESPN.com survey this past offseason of 62 of the 65 head coaches. The survey included Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, while three other coaches — LSU’s Ed Orgeron, Alabama’s Nick Saban and UCLA’s Chip Kelly — declined interviews through school spokespeople.
The coaches don’t have the power to change the system — that’s in the hands of the university presidents, 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. The coaches, though, are the ones tasked with winning the CFP. Here’s where they stand on the current system, conference championship games, the selection committee and scheduling:
Should the field expand to eight (or more) teams?
With nine of its 14 coaches in favor of expansion, the Big Ten had the most overwhelming support, possibly reflective of the fact its conference champion has been left out of the top four in each of the past three seasons.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn: I’m a former high school football coach, and I think eight teams, I think you’ll see that in the future. I don’t know how quick.
Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State: There should be eight. If you win your conference, there’s five of us, you win that, you’re in. Then the Central Floridas of the world, the Boises of the world, who are 12-0, or whoever is the highest-ranked team, they should be in. As it sits right now, there’s not ever a school at that level that’s going to get in the playoff. Not gonna happen. You had Central Florida go 12-0 twice. And they didn’t get in, so that proves it’s not gonna happen. If Central Florida were to get in, you take them and you play them against the No. 4 team. You don’t put them against the No. 1 team. Let’s just say if they come in as the 8 they play the 4. That way it will be a more exciting and competitive game for the country to watch on TV.
Scott Frost, Nebraska: Yes, it should expand. Any sport [where] a championship can be decided by a committee in a room, it’s subjective and is not the right sport to me. Gymnastics would frustrate the crap outta me. People love the Cinderella, they love Loyola of Chicago in the basketball tournament or Butler.
It should come as no surprise the most opposition to expansion came from the SEC, where nine coaches continued to praise the system in which their league has been included in every season of its existence. “I think it works,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “It’s better than it was during the BCS. Being at four, it allows us to get to a real champion.”
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: No. I don’t know what we’ve gained by expanding it other than the obvious, financial [reasons]. It’s almost become an industry, this whole playoff deal. I don’t know how the game of football is any better right now. I’m not sure we’ve gotten a truer champion. What I don’t like about the playoff system is that there’s kind of a pull that if you’re not in that final four, what you’re doing really doesn’t matter that much. It takes away from a lot of really good experiences that are going on in college football. I think we’re creating a mentality that, to me, takes away from what the game is all about.
Dabo Swinney, Clemson: Everybody focuses on the playoff games and the national championship. The way we have it right now, every game we have, especially once we were positioned, every game was a playoff game. Every game. Duke was a playoff game. South Carolina was a playoff game. Pitt was a playoff game. We have layers of playoffs. The more you expand, the less the season matters, especially if a team so-called already in the playoff, well now you’re going to have people not playing guys, just like you have in all these other sports. All of a sudden games don’t matter because everybody is just playing for the playoff and they’re in. What we have is the best of both worlds.
Dino Babers, Syracuse: If it expands, I think it gives a huge advantage to the traditional powers. If you want a Cinderella team to win it one of these times, you can’t have a Cinderella team going against traditional powers more than two weeks in a row. If it’s three weeks, or four weeks of contests, it’s going to be so physical, there’s going to be so much carnage going on, that a team that doesn’t have a lot of depth will never win it.
The Jim Harbaugh playoff plan
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has clearly put some thought into expanding the playoff.
“I came up with my own structure,” he said this past spring. “I can take a picture of it and send it to you.”
And so the Harbaugh Plan emerged: 15 games, 11 teams, starting with each Power 5 conference champion, determined within a 12-game regular season by conference record and tiebreakers, similar to how the NFL chooses its division winners. He then suggests using the BCS system to rank teams 6-11 to determine the rest of the field.
The No. 1 seed would be the highest-ranking BCS Power 5 champion. The No. 1 and 2 seeds get a bye. There’s also room for a top-ranked, non-Power 5 team like Notre Dame, and a worthy Group of 5 champion. On the first Saturday of December, instead of playing conference championship games, the playoff begins.
Here’s how the field would have shaped up, based on the 2018 season, on his phone-photographed bracket:
“To play each other, to have tiebreakers, within those 12 games, you should be able to determine who your conference champion is,” he said. “If you don’t have the conference championship games, then you can expand your playoff to at least eight.”
To have won it all last year under the Harbaugh Plan, Clemson would have played a total of 15 games, ending with the national championship on Jan. 7.
“You’d still have the same bowl structure that you have now, and teams that lost on Dec. 1, it’s like they would’ve been in a championship game and then they play in a bowl game,” he said. “Nobody would play 16 games.”
Do coaches believe the process is transparent?
Washington State coach Mike Leach, whose team finished No. 13 at 10-2 last season, is skeptical.
Mike Leach, Washington State: No. No. The purest evidence that you can’t trust them to get it right is the fact we weren’t in the top eight last year. In the end you look at the votes, and it pretty well reflected where the members of the committee were from.
Mack Brown, North Carolina: I trust them more than the computers because they’ve got eyes. I’ve always said the computer wasn’t at the game. They don’t see who’s hurt, they don’t see the emotion. The committee’s got an impossible job of pleasing everybody but I think they’ve done the best possible job to this point.
Gary Patterson, TCU: I don’t think anybody trusts them. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but the people you have on it, I don’t trust anybody to recruit for me. If I just followed all of the recruiting services I’d be fired by now.
Pat Narduzzi, Pitt: I think they’ve done a good job the last few years of getting the right teams in there. All you have to do is get the one right team. There’s one best team; there’s three other teams that are going to take a shot and swing at ’em.
The Big Ten had the highest percentage (57%) of coaches who said they didn’t understand the ranking system.
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: No. I do not. I thought I knew and I don’t believe I know now.
Matt Campbell, Iowa State: You certainly understand it a lot better than the coaches poll or the media poll. At least there’s somebody explaining the why to it.
James Franklin, Penn State: No, nobody does. Each year it looks like there are different variables that are going to factor in because there are different people sitting in the room. That’s going to happen. One person is going to have a bias toward one thing. It’s natural. Somebody will have a bias towards another, and some people are going to feel like this is a more important metric.
Herm Edwards, Arizona State: I don’t know why people would even want to be on that. It’s always going to get second-guessed. They gather information, and they try to figure out the scheduling. That’s hard. They can never be right. They won’t ever satisfy all of the fan bases, but they get that. They do the best they can.
Should you have to win your league to be eligible?
This question was based on the current system, in which the value of a conference championship has been called into question after both Alabama and Ohio State have landed in the top four without winning their leagues. “The only league that really matters if they have a championship game is the SEC, and it’s because of money,” said TCU coach Gary Patterson. “Everybody else it doesn’t make any difference.”
Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia: No I don’t, because the current Power 5 conferences in any given year are playing at different levels. Sometimes a conference champion isn’t as good as a second-place team in another league.
Lovie Smith, Illinois: Yes I do. I thought that when Penn State won it and didn’t go. I think as a general rule, if you’re the champion of one of the major conferences, yes you should go. Why do we have conferences anyway if you’re not going to let the champion go there?
Tom Herman, Texas: Our conference, you can go 12-0 and your starting quarterback rolls his ankle in the conference title game and you stub your toe and you don’t recover from it, and you’re not rewarded with anything. Being your conference championship game winner should factor in, but I don’t think it should be a requirement nor should the winner be an automatic bid in this form of playoff system.
Should all Power 5 schools have to play the same type of schedule?
There is even more backing across the country for uniform scheduling than for expanding the playoff, with the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 providing the strongest support (29/36).
Manny Diaz, Miami: Someone’s got to become the mighty commissioner and force everyone to do the same thing. Everyone has the ability to do what’s best for them right now.
Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee: I worry a little bit about getting rid of the old rivalries. It’s already now in the SEC, you’re not guaranteed as a student-athlete, if you come to Tennessee you’re not guaranteed to play at Texas A&M in a four-year period. By not being able to do that, it possibly eliminates some of the experience, or somebody coming to play at Neyland Stadium. But I do think from a conference standpoint I think we have a great system in what we use to determine a champion, and I think it’s fair.
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech: I’d hate for us to go too far down that road because I do think what makes college football special is hosting teams from either your region or other parts of the country on your campus or traveling to another campus. That’s a unique experience. It’s very hard to make uniform rules for a group of people that are completely non-uniform. Our leagues are not the same, our regions are not the same.
Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma: Yes. Absolutely. I’d love to see us get to a point where every league, their conference championship game is 1 vs. 2. I think that’s healthier for the sport. To me if you’re going to do divisions, everybody needs to do divisions. If you’re not going to do divisions, everyone needs to do 1 vs. 2. That’s what creates the best conference championship games and the most valuable [résumé] the committee can evaluate on somewhat of an even playing field.
And what about Notre Dame?
Steve Addazio, Boston College: Notre Dame? I think they need to get in a conference. That’s not college football’s problem. That’s Notre Dame’s problem. I coached there, I have no ill feelings, I think it’s a wonderful, fabulous place. But they choose to remain independent because of the revenue stream. I get that. But it can’t work all ways. So then does the conference championship matter, or does it not matter? Which one is it?
Pat Narduzzi, Pitt: Why does Notre Dame get into the playoff if they didn’t play in a championship game? They’ve got one foot in the door in the ACC. How come they didn’t have to go beat Clemson like we had to at a certain point?
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame: If you’re going to be independent, that means you’re going to go around the country and play the best teams. You’re not going to be independent to play the teams that don’t matter. That’s our challenge and that’s why we’ve accepted that. [Athletic director] Jack [Swarbrick] and I have already had that discussion. We would, in fact, play a 13th game so we could eliminate that narrative that, ‘Let’s keep all things equal.’ We would schedule a team met the test across the board in our schedules. We would back that statement up.
How many games is too many?
We asked coaches whether their players could handle 16 games. This was one of the most difficult questions for them to answer. Some compared it to the NFL; others said they would have to change the way they practice, and other routines, to make it happen.
Mario Cristobal, Oregon: I think so. I figure there has to be some reprieve on either the front end or the back end. I’ll never forget this, this hit me like a ton of bricks: We win the national championship [when Cristobal was an assistant] at Alabama, we get on the plane, and we’re on our way back, it’s a happy moment, and as soon as we get off the plane, the academic coordinator hands out class schedules for that next day. Congratulations, you have to be up at 6 in the morning. They understand their responsibilities, they get it, but at some point they need to catch their breath. I think it would have to be a true analysis of the entire calendar and where is the relief, where is the reprieve when you put together something like that?
Chris Klieman, Kansas State: No. I really don’t. I think that’s extremely hard. If you could get to 14, that would be doable. Even 15… 14, I think, would be the most that kids could probably handle.
Geoff Collins, Georgia Tech: I think so. I think we would have to adjust. We’re a big user of the data analytics and the wearable technologies. I think we would make educated decisions on how to manage their chronic workload like we do now. It would just be taken up another level, monitoring that and making sure we’re taking care of our players’ health.