Alabama-Clemson BCS title game would’ve fit 2018 just fine

College Football Internet spent much of its time before the 2018 Playoff doing what it usually does: arguing about Playoff expansion. Specifically, haggling over how big to make it and which conferences to give autobids and all that stuff.

However, after Clemson handed Notre Dame its latest of many humiliating losses in a big bowl, and especially once Alabama opened up a big lead over Oklahoma, College Football Internet swung to a different consensus: maybe the two-team BCS wasn’t so bad after all? Why’d we need to waste time worrying about who ranked No. 4, when they’d just have to face that No. 1 anyway?

I don’t think College Football Internet actually wants to go back to that hated system, of course. But it is a little funny for us to have spent decades pleading for a system that gives more teams chances to compete for the title, only to get such a system … and have the same two teams playing for the title over and over.

On the one hand, it’s absolutely true that a two-team Playoff would’ve fit the 2018 season well.

Sure, Notre Dame was undefeated and a completely fair Playoff inclusion, even in hindsight. One-loss Oklahoma deserved its spot over two-loss Georgia. And any tournament that doesn’t have room for an undefeated Group of 5 champ is a flawed tournament.

But we knew almost all year long that Bama and Clemson towered over everyone else. You can base that on …

  • Vegas, which had both Bama and Clemson as double-digit CFP favorites from Selection Sunday through Playoff Saturday.
  • This S&P+ rankings headline from almost two months ago: “Alabama and Clemson are lapping the field at this point.”
  • The CFP rankings, in which the two went wire-to-wire.
  • The AP rankings, in which the two nearly did the same, if not for a brief Clemson slump-like thing amid a midseason QB battle.
  • The national consensus for almost an entire year before this season’s Playoff. (“Clemson vs. Alabama Round 4 comin’,” we posted on January 16, 2018.)
  • The reverse-engineered BCS standings themselves:

On the other, that doesn’t mean two is the correct number of teams that should always get to play for titles.

You can base that on a detailed walk through history, reviewing every year of the BCS for potential Playoff teams, or you can just go by advanced stats for the last 50 years:

(Or you can just think about how many teams in other sports and at other levels of NCAA football have actual paths to titles, but CFB is no friend of normality.)

The best possible Playoff would be one that expands or contracts to fit the actual season at hand.

The Goldilocks bracket!

  • We’ve had championships that were too small for the number of valid contenders. 2017’s Playoff might as well have just included everybody, the BCS left out undefeated teams all the time, and almost every pre-BCS year had one dispute or another.
  • We’ve had championships that were too big, filling themselves out with one-loss teams just for formality. You could even argue every Playoff so far didn’t really need its third or fourth seed, if you wanted to. And yes, I’m still mad about 2011 not just ending with us declaring LSU’s season over, ring in hand, before bowl season began.
  • We’ve also had championships that happened to be just the right size, with 2005’s BCS title game the most obviously perfect example.

But what if we had a format that only let in however many teams deserved it, rather than however many we’d guessed years earlier might usually be deserving?

There’s the obvious question of who’d decide such a thing. Maybe we limit it to teams who check certain boxes — conference champs, rankings threshold, number of losses, computer formula, schedule strength, or whatever — but that’s not exactly the point here.

The point is: short of an impossible solution like that, the Playoff will rarely happen to be exactly the right size for whichever season it’s trying to solve.

And that goes for any theoretical bigger Playoff as well.

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