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A College Football Playoff: 4-Teams Or 8-Teams

As soon as the SEC landed two teams in last month’s BCS Championship Game, changes were coming.  People can talk about declining BCS television ratings and attendance — those numbers rise and fall by the year, by the way — but in reality, the status quo would be quo’ing right along if not for SEC versus SEC in the title game.  Tired of SEC domination, other conference commissioners, presidents, ADs and coaches wanted to insure that they could at least get a shot at the national crown.

As a result, we began to hear talk of changes.  Major changes, not tweaks.

A seeded plus-one system got some play.  After all, Mike Slive and the ACC’s John Swofford had pushed such a plan half-a-decade ago.  Then the Big Ten leaked word that it would like to see the “semifinal” games played at on-campus sites.  Even NCAA prez Mark Emmert said he liked the idea of a football version of the Final Four.

But then the presidents at Georgia and Arizona State mentioned the possibility of an eight-team playoff model.  Speculation swirled that the Pac-12′s Larry Scott might have a humdinger of an eight-team plan to present to the other BCS commissioners.  And all the while Mike Slive has been suspiciously silent.

So what are we to have when the current BCS cycle ends?  A four-team playoff or an eight-team playoff?

An eight-team field would provide more meaningful games for a football-starved society.  Seven games would result in more cash and a four-team, three-game plan.  That’s more television ads and sponsorships, more tickets to sell.  Fans and coaches would be happy because more squads would have an opportunity to win the title belt.

But adding three games — for the two finalists — doesn’t seem to jive with the longheld position of so many NCAA presidents: “We just can’t do that to these student-athletes.”  (Nevermind that they’ve done it to other student-athletes in every other level of every other sport.)

A four-team plan would probably allow the regular season to maintain its importance.  And let’s face it, do the number 5, 6, 7 or 8 teams in America ever have much claim to the national crown?  Four-teams makes the most sense in this writer’s view.  But this writer also wrote that part about an eight-team playoff being worth more cash… so the guess here is that eventually, an eight-team plan is coming.  If not immediately, then down the road.

What would an eight-team playoff look like then?  We’ve gone back over the past five seasons to get the answer.  Using the final BCS standings lists from 2011 through 2007, we’ve seeded an eight-team bracket in each case.  You can compare the actual BCS Championship Game to what a four-team playoff would have looked like to what an eight-team playoff would have looked like.  We’ve listed the #9 team in each season just to see which squad would be left squawking.  And we’ve listed — for you lovers of a 16-team idea — how many three- and ever four-loss teams would have been invited into that size field.  (Sixteen won’t happen or a long, long time, folks.)

But for the sake of research, here’s the BCS as it was and as it might have been:



2011 Season

Real BCS Title Game:  1 LSU (13-0) vs 2 Alabama (11-1)


Four-Team Playoff:

1 LSU (13-0) vs 4 Stanford (11-1)

2 Alabama (11-1) vs 3 Oklahoma State (11-1)


Eight-Team Playoff:

1 LSU (13-0) vs 8 Kansas State (13-0)

4 Stanford (11-1) vs 5 Oregon (11-2)

3 Oklahoma State (11-1) vs 6 Arkansas (10-2)

2 Alabama (11-1) vs 7 Boise State (11-1)


* #9 team left out: South Carolina (10-2)

* 16-Team Playoff would have included four three-loss teams



2010 Season

Real BCS Title Game:  1 Auburn (13-0) vs 2 Oregon (12-0)


Four-Team Playoff:

1 Auburn (13-0) vs 4 Stanford (11-1)

2 Oregon (12-0) vs 3 TCU (12-0)


Eight-Team Playoff:

1 Auburn (13-0) vs 8 Arkansas (10-2)

4 Stanford (11-1) vs 5 Wisconsin (11-1)

3 TCU (12-0) vs 6 Ohio State (11-1)

2 Oregon (12-0) vs Oklahoma (11-2)


* #9 team left out: Michigan State (11-1)

* 16-Team Playoff would have included one three-loss team



2009 Season

Real BCS Title Game:  1 Alabama (13-0) vs 2 Texas (13-0)


Four-Team Playoff:

1 Alabama (13-0) vs 4 TCU (12-0)

2 Texas (13-0) vs 3 Cincinnati (12-0)


Eight-Team Playoff:

1 Alabama (13-0) vs 8 Ohio State (10-2)

4 TCU (12-0) vs 5 Florida (12-1)

3 Cincinnati (12-0) vs 6 Boise State (13-0)

2 Texas (13-0) vs 7 Oregon (10-2)


* #9 team left out: Georgia Tech (11-2)

* 16-Team Playoff would have included four three-loss teams



2008 Season

Real BCS Title Game:  1 Oklahoma (12-1) vs 2 Florida (12-1)


Four-Team Playoff:

1 Oklahoma (12-1) vs 4 Alabama (12-1)

2 Florida (12-1) vs 3 Texas (11-1)


Eight-Team Playoff:

1 Oklahoma (12-1) vs 8 Penn State (11-1)

4 Alabama (12-1) vs 5 Southern Cal (11-1)

3 Texas (11-1) vs 6 Utah (12-0)

2 Florida (12-1) vs 7 Texas Tech (11-1)


* #9 team left out: Boise State (12-0)

* 16-Team Playoff would have included three three-loss teams



2007 Season

Real BCS Title Game:  1 Ohio State (11-1) vs 2 LSU (11-2)


Four-Team Playoff:

1 Ohio State (11-1) vs 4 Oklahoma (11-2)

2 LSU (11-2) vs 3 Virginia Tech (11-2)


Eight-Team Playoff:

1 Ohio State (11-1) vs 8 Kansas (11-1)

4 Oklahoma (11-2) vs 5 Georgia (10-2)

3 Virginia Tech (11-2) vs 6 Missouri (11-2)

2 LSU (11-2) vs 7 Southern Cal (10-2)


* #9 team left out:  West Virginia (10-2)

* 16-Team Playoff would have included four three-loss teams and one four-loss team



Though I’ve long thought an eight-team playoff would be the sport’s final stopping point, this set of eyes likes the look of those four-team playoff fields better.  Throw the semifinals on New Year’s Day afternoon and night and play the title game a week later.  Bid out the games to one or two sites.  Done and done.

Such a plan is most likely what we’ll see as the next step in the evolution of college football.  Schools need money — so eight will be the final destination — but it still appears to be too big of a leap for historically anti-playoff presidents and commissioners to go from zero to eight in one cycle.’s best guess at this moment: Expect a seeded four-team playoff to start up in 2014, followed by an eight-team playoff some point down the road.



4 would be enough. Lets not ruin the only regular season that matters in any sport. The idea is to schedule at least one tough out of conference game and then go undefeated. Only if you are undefeated and have faced a legitimate schedule do you deserve the right to play for a national championship. Its rare to have more than 3 teams meet that criteria. In the examples of the past few years the eight team bracket would include some teams that in my opinion don't deserve that right.

Tom W
Tom W

One way to gain some additional revenue in the 4-team scenario, would be to allow more than one 4-team 'tournament'. You would have the 4-team championship tournament, but could have various other 4-team tournaments. Leave it up to the marketing folks to create some buzz around the other tournaments.

Tom W
Tom W

This could be a way to provide quality home games on school's schedules to make up for the increasing presence of patsies. Play the first game of the tournaments at the #1 and #2 seeded schools home stadiums. The winners meet at a 'bowl' game somewhere. Would make for some interesting maneuvering as teams might choose a lower ranked tournament to get a home game, or give up a home game to participate in a more prestigious tournament with a shot at a more lucrative bowl game.


Eight team playoff, but incorporate the bowls, make New Year's day great again, and give every playoff team and their fans a bowl experience.

Five conference winners would get automatic bids: The SEC, PAC 12, BIG 12, BIG 10 and ACC

The next highest-ranked conference winner would also get in. (Big East, CUSA, etc- whoever ranked highest )

The two highest-ranked teams that didn't win their conference would make the playoff as wildcards.

Teams are seeded 1-8, but wildcards cannot play at home.

The PAC 12 + BIG 10 winners play in Rose Bowl no matter what their seeds, so that takes care of the Rose Bowl/PAC/BIG issue.

The SEC, BIG 12 and ACC host the Sugar, Cotton and Orange Bowls, respectively.

Those teams would play the other (non-power) conference winner and the two wildcards according to seeds, except that two teams from same conference can't play in first round.

That would spice things up and settle a lot of arguments.

This year's first round would have consisted of:

Rose- Oregon vs Wisconsin

Sugar- LSU vs Boise

Cotton- OK State vs Stanford

Orange- Clemson vs Alabama

Who doesn't want to spend New Years watching those games as part of the road to the national championship ?

The second round would be two weeks later on campus to reduce travel issues and reward the two highest ranked conference winners who survived the first round.

Limit practice to only the week before the game to alleviate academic concerns- plus, we're only talking about four teams at this point.

The Championship game would be played two weeks later- the weekend before the Superbowl. The spotlight for the entire weekend would be on the Championship game.

Again, limit practice to the week before the game to reduce academic concerns.

The Championship game would be on a five year rotation amongst the Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange and Fiesta.

A different bowl would host each year, with the Fiesta being played on New Year's Day to replace whatever bowl is hosting the title game that year.

(For example, in years where the Rose Bowl hosts the title game, the PAC 12 and BIG 10 winners would play in the Fiesta on New Year's.)

It seems like everyone would get what they want.

The major bowls stay relevant.

The SEC would get two teams in during most years, and would sometimes have a shot at placing three teams into the playoff.

The PAC 12/ BIG 10/ Rose Bowl tie stays intact.

The PAC, BIG, B12 and ACC would all be guaranteed a slot, and the BIG 10 might even get to host a home game in the second round sometimes.

Only a few teams would be playing past New Year's, and practice could be limited to blunt academic concerns.

The money and ratings would be through the roof.

The regular season would remain important. You must win your conference to be assured a slot, and with only two wildcards, interest would stay high for the entire year.

Traditionalist get to keep the bowl atmosphere.

The fans who want a playoff finally get one. A real one.

Everybody wins.



I like most of your ideas, but not the guaranteed matchup in the Rose Bowl. The Big 10 and Pac 12 should have to rotate who they play, including the less marketable teams that make the tourny. Why should the other major conferences and bowls always have to take the less marketable teams which effects their brand and television ratings? Everyone has to give some to make this all work. Plus, allowing certain teams to forgo their respective seeding will create controversy. Imagine the Pac 12 and Big 10 playing eachother seeded #1 and #2 or #7 and #8?


@USCTraveler Except for the fact that no one cares about the fiesta bowl, your idea is brilliant. Give the major conferences their ideal bowl destination and then duke it out from there.

no one really loses here, and the fans win big time.


Question to John: Do you think that *IF* there were an 8 team playoff, on the condition of getting rid of conference championship games, that the SEC would buy into it?

It would overall only add 1 game to 2 teams (15 games max).... with this the SEC will almost always have 2 teams in the tourney every year. My biggest fear is a #7 being knocked out of the top8 because of the CCG.

John at MrSEC
John at MrSEC moderator


I don't think that would be a part of the deal. The leagues -- especially the SEC -- make SO much money off of the title games that I don't think they'd let 'em go.

I think more likely you'd see a BCS-style formula (with input from a human panel) pick 8 teams regardless of conference titles. Alabama this year is a pretty good example of why league champs shouldn't be the only squads to make the field. There need to be "wild cards." And not all conferences deserve a guaranteed slot, either.

Just me take. Thanks for reading,


safety guy
safety guy

8 team playoff is the way to go. we have to protect the conference champs in the 5 major leagues. take the winners of the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big 10, Pac 12 then the highest 3 teams in the BCS not among the 5 conference winners. Seed the teams 1 - 8. Seeds 1 - 4 get home field for first game. Next week play the 2 semifinal games at same site in either Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, San Antonio, Indy, ( stadium must be Field Turf). Then play final game at a neutral site.

Advantages of this - protects major conference champions. Under 4 team scenario using BCS, Stanford gets a bid over Pac Champion Oregon, who would have been penalized for playing LSU. By emphasizing conference champions, it will encourage teams to play better games to prepare for conference season. It also will prevent an undefeated team from missing out on the title. While not likely, there is always the possibility of all conference champs and Notre Dame going undefeated. This scenario protects major conferences and if a non major conference champ has a great undefeated season, then they will likely be in the 3 other teams.

Having the semifinal at one site creates a buzz around the semifinals plus helps the crowd by drawing from 4 teams. Has to be played on Field Turf, grass will not stand up for 2 games in one day at that level.

Disadvantage - time to play games. Schools want to protect regular season games and also not play during finals week. Teams that lose round 1 games really dont get a bowl experience for their fans after having a great season, particularly the ones that lose on the road..

But this scenario is the most fair proposal for all parties. Protects the regular season and provides a playoff to determine a legitimate champion. As far as the bowls, play them - just without the 8 playoff teams. The reality is that, under the current format, only the BCS Championship game means anything anyway. The others are just glorified exhibition games. Now that we will be calling the Bowl Games exhibition games, maybe the ticket prices and will be affordable and more people would attend.


@safety guy I like it safety guy, in essence you can call the rest of the bowl games the NIT of football. Win or lose, it means nothing. It would add value to the conference championships and take away much of the disagreement over which poll is most accurate.


@tallaman87@safety guy No difference than today. None of the current bowl games, even #3 OSU vs #4 Stanford mean anything.


  1. [...] By John Pennington: Mr. SEC As soon as the SEC landed two teams in last month’s BCS Championship Game, changes were coming. People can talk about declining BCS television ratings and attendance — those numbers rise and fall by the year, by the way — but in reality, the status quo would be quo’ing right along if not for SEC versus SEC in the title game. Tired of SEC domination, other conference commissioners, presidents, ADs and coaches wanted to insure that they could at least get a shot at the national crown. As a result, we began to hear talk of changes. Major changes, not tweaks. An eight-team field would provide more meaningful games for a football-starved society. A four-team plan would probably allow the regular season to maintain its importance. [More] [...]

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