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Most improved award: How an expanded CFP rewards progress, not perfection

And means that the best teams playing the best football play for championships. 

2015 College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T Set Number: X159161 TK1

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started their 2020 season with a 34-23 loss on the road to the New Orleans Saints. Tom Brady threw two picks and was sacked three times. Leonard Fournette, had five carries for five yards. Brady had more rushing yards (nine) in the game. Rob Gronkowski caught just two passes. On the other side, Drew Brees was near perfect against the Bucs’ defense.

It was easy to write the Bucs off early. Another early season loss to Chicago and the eventual sweep from New Orleans seemed to seal the deal. The Bucs could not win the division, and were certainly not the favorite even 12 games in, after more losses to the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs.

But of course, that’s not the end of the story. The Bucs got hot at exactly the right time, like we see so often with eventual Super Bowl champions. Tom Brady and Co. turned it on after their bye week to win four-straight to close out the season and head to the playoffs as the five-seed in the NFC. Going on the road for the length of the playoffs, the Bucs beat Washington, two-seeded New Orleans, top-seeded Green Bay and Kansas City to win the Super Bowl.

The NFL has the obvious luxury of a lengthy and extensive playoff system — something which is slowly coming to fruition for college football in the FBS. It’s easy to make the comparison of what would have happened if teams like Tampa Bay, who had experienced early losses and been knocked out of position to win their division, were in the college ranks, because they wouldn’t have had a prayer of winning a championship under the FBS’ previous championship formats — because they never would have gotten in.

We all know that a playoff system is more effective in identifying the best team than a one-off game (sorry not sorry, BCS). In 2014, the first year under the College Football Playoff format, Ohio State would never have had a prayer of making the championship game, which would have been a huge miss since Ohio State was clearly the best team in the nation in 2014.

We can make this statement because the Buckeyes beat two of the other contenders for best team in the nation handily in the CFP. However, things were not so clear in the days ahead of the Playoff (hence why such a format is necessary), and, frankly, Ohio State was lucky to get in. TCU and Baylor had competitive resumes.

The more glaring factor working against the Buckeyes was their early loss to Virginia Tech. Folks in the Big 12 will endlessly point to the Buckeyes’ loss in week two as a testament to how shaky Ohio State’s team was. Those folks would be right — if the Playoff selection was determined by what happened in the first two weeks of the season alone. They are obviously wrong when considering that the selection is based on the totality of the season.

Nevermind that, when the Buckeyes lost to Virginia Tech, JT Barrett was less than a month in as Ohio State’s starting quarterback following injury to Braxton Miller. Nevermind that he was himself coming off a year of recovery after an ACL tear. Sure, these are excuses, but they are valid and relatively consistent across teams. Every team should get better as the season continues and players get more reps together. As a result, the Playoff field at the end of the year should feature teams that are playing their best football.

The benefit of the Playoff is that it allows teams to get better without punishing them for not being perfect. We’ve seen teams that start hot out of the gates and then lose momentum throughout the season. Heck, to go back to the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers started off 11-0 in 2020. They lost four of their last five before getting absolutely decimated by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the playoffs.

Whether due to compiling injuries or simply other teams figuring out the scheme, it’s hard to be the best team in any league from a season’s start through the championship game. In fact, because it is so rare for that to occur, there’s some benefit to recency bias when it comes to Playoff selection. Obviously the Ohio State team that beat Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship is not the same one that lost to Virginia Tech in week two. No, the Ohio State of the postseason was a much better squad than the one that took the field early on.

This is absolutely not saying that we should ignore what happens early on in a season. Had Ohio State not been competitive against Virginia Tech; had they not played Virginia Tech and instead fallen to an FCS opponent; had the Buckeyes shown cracks that they did not fix throughout the rest of the season, there would have been reason to keep them out of the Playoff.

Had the CFP, especially an expanded one, been around years earlier, it would have allowed for more teams who come on strong at the end of the season to participate which, arguably, would have led to a lot of changes in who actually wins championships. As a result, the college football landscape might look a little different.

For one thing, there would certainly be more parity in the college football landscape. More Playoff spots mean more teams to fill them which means more opportunity to dethrone the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. Sure, those teams, plus Oklahoma and Notre Dame, would still be firmly in the conversation every year, and would still get the best recruits, but the growing gap we’ve seen between teams at the top and teams at the bottom would probably not be growing and might in fact be a lot smaller.

Like the NFL playoff format, we might see more than one team from a conference (division) make the postseason, which would allow for more than just the conference champion to be involved.

It would also mean that, looking back, teams like the 2004 Auburn Tigers and 2003 USC Trojans, arguably the best teams in the nation who still didn’t make the BCS title game, would have had a chance to play for a championship.

As an aside, beyond giving a shot to teams that lost early (who are often already blue chip programs), we’d probably also see a host of new national champs, or at least teams with reasonable shots who would win a Playoff game or two: Boise State, Utah, UCF (in the expansion scenario).

We can harken back to the absolute beauty of the NCAA Basketball Tournaments. Teams benefit from scheduling challenging out-of-conference games early, even if they lose, because one loss does not make or break a team’s shot at the post-season. Expanding the Playoff is good for college football because it means we’ll find the best team.