The SUPER 72: A VIABLE NCAA DIV. 1 FOOTBALL PLAYOFF SYSTEM - Patrick McCarthy July
Almost everyone wants a playoff system for NCAA Division 1 football. Determining
a national champion using computers that incorporate biased voting results is a poor
approach. Oddly, the high-profile university (you’d think the brightest minds would
be there) NCAA Division 1 football selects their champion this way. Routinely, the
result leaves a bad taste in many people’s mouths.
In virtually every other team sport in the world, champions are crowned via playoffs
or similar elimination systems. Imagine Major League Baseball, the NFL, NHL, or
NBA voting in their champion rather than using a playoff system.
The challenge with NCAA football lies in its size (119 teams), its tradition, a sense
of entitlement among some groups, and financial gain for individual programs.
STEP 1: Reducing the number of teams
NCAA basketball uses a 64-team playoff format. Because university basketball can
play a lot more games than once-a-week football, it is a lot easier to for university
basketball to determine the deserving teams for the playoff. Because football teams
only play about 12 games each autumn, there is no simple way to filter out the cream
of the crop among the many teams and conferences. Some teams traditionally play
specific, often perennially weaker, teams. Some conferences are populated with traditionally
weaker programs. Voting makes the least sense because it lacks objectivity due to
individual bias. Sophisticated computer determination is ineffective due to the
limited seasonal play and limited inter conference matchups. Oddly enough, the NCAA
Div. 1 football incorporates both voting and computer assessment into its BCS ranking
system. To compound matters further, the BSC removes any remaining sense of objectivity
by giving some conferences preferential eligibility into bowl games.
Reducing the number of teams will allow more inter conference play. Removing weak
programs will also allow for easier inter conference comparison. Fewer teams could
also reduce the number of conferences which would only foster easier inter conference
To achieve this reduction, the following approach was taken:
1) assess program strength
The seasonal record for each current Division 1 team was assessed over the past 20
years. Two points was given to a win and one point was given for a tie. Since some
teams are newer and haven’t played the full 20 seasons in Division 1, the overall
seasonal points average was pro-rated. This approach is very simple and no “strength
of schedule” was applied. It was assumed that the length of period used should overcome
2) choose the ideal number of teams
The 119 teams needs to be reduced. The total number should be small enough to allow
for a relatively short playoff yet big enough to allow for the inclusion of most
competitive programs while allowing for an effective number of inter conference games.
A total of 72 teams were chosen. All teams must agree to be affiliated with their
conference. Any team choosing not to join will be replaced by the 73rd ranked team,
and so on. Using the program strength assessment above (excluding the 2010-11 season),
the top 72 teams were:
1 Florida FL SEC
2 Ohio State OH Big Ten
3 Nebraska NE Big 12
4 Boise State (1996) ID WAC
5 Florida State FL ACC
6 Miami (FL) FL ACC
7 Virginia Tech VA ACC
8 Texas TX Big 12
9 Tennessee TN SEC
10 Michigan MI Big Ten
11 Georgia GA SEC
12 Penn State PA Big Ten
13 USC CA Pacific-10
14 Oklahoma OK Big 12
15 Alabama AL SEC
16 Utah UT Mountain West
17 Auburn AL SEC
18 Wisconsin WI Big Ten
19 Kansas State KS Big 12
20 Brigham Young UT Mountain West
21 Oregon OR Pacific-10
22 West Virginia WV Big East
23 LSU LA SEC
24 Texas A&M TX Big 12
25 Notre Dame IN Independent
26 Marshall (1997) WV Conference USA
27 South Florida (2001) FL Big East
28 TCU TX Mountain West
29 Texas Tech TX Big 12
30 Toledo OH Mid-American
31 Boston College MA ACC
32 Clemson SC ACC
33 Air Force CO Mountain West
34 Frenso State CA WAC
35 Iowa IA Big Ten
36 Louisville KY Big East
37 Colorado CO Big 12
38 Georgia Tech GA ACC
39 Southern Miss MS Conference USA
40 Bowling Green OH Mid-American
41 Virginia VA ACC
42 UCLA CA Pacific-10
43 Troy (2002) AL Sun-Belt
44 North Carolina NC ACC
45 Colorado State CO Mountain West
46 Miami (OH) OH Mid-American
47 North Carolina State NC ACC
48 Syracuse NY Big East
49 Washington WA Pacific-10
50 Arkansas AR SEC
51 Mississippi MS SEC
52 Western Michigan MI Mid-American
53 East Carolina NC Conference USA
54 Cincinnati OH Big East
55 Nevada NV WAC
56 California CA Pacific-10
57 Connecticut (2000) CT Big East
58 Hawaii HI WAC
59 Arizona AZ Pacific-10
60 Michigan State MI Big Ten
61 Purdue IN Big Ten
62 Kansas KS Big 12
63 Missouri MO Big 12
64 UCF Uni. Central FLA 1996 FL Conference USA
65 Central Michigan Mid-American
66 Oregon State Pacific-10
67 Pittsburgh Big East
68 Washington State Pacific-10
69 Louisiana Tech WAC
70 Middle Tennessee (1999) Sun-Belt
71 Oklahoma State Big 12
72 South Carolina SEC
North Carolina State
UCF Uni. Central FLA
Boise State (1996)
3) Redesign the conferences
Removing 47 teams has a huge impact on the existing conference system. Some conferences
are nearly eliminated while others remain mostly intact. The realignment takes
into consideration existing conferences, traditional rivalries, and geographical
distribution. In addition, the total number of conferences was reduced to eight
to better fit into a traditional playoff format. This results in 9 teams per conference:
3) Regular season play
Each team will play every other team in their conference once, for a total of 8 games.
Each team will also play one team from four of the other conferences. Therefore,
the total regular season games per team will be 12.
The inter conference games will count towards each team’s overall record within
their own conference. The conference’s overall inter conference record will rank
the conference’s playoff representative throughout the playoffs.
4) Conference championship bowls
The top-ranked conference team will host the conference championship against the
conference’s second place team. These will the first eight bowl games. The name
of these bowl games will be up to the conference and their sponsors.
The bowl winner will be the conference champion and will represent the conference
in the following eight-team playoffs. The conference championships are essentially
the first round of a 16-team playoff system.
5) National Championship playoffs
The eight conference champions will meet in a traditional bracket playoff system.
The eight champions are ranked according to their conference’s regular season inter
conference play. These 4 games will be played in 4 major bowl venues as determined
by the league.
The four winners of the first round will move on to the next round. The same ranking
used in the first round will be used to determine the team match ups in this round.
These 2 games will be played in 2 major bowl venues as determined by the league.
The winners of these two games will meet in the national championship. The host
city and sponsor will be determined by the league.
The above system is designed to stand on its own. The following thoughts are intended
to explore ideas beyond what was presented above.
1) what about the other teams?
There are 47 left out of the loop. Some have had stronger programs in the past while
others have traditionally been higher-profile teams or have interest for nostalgic
reasons. Teams ranked below but close to the 72 team threshold are basically one
or two good seasons from breaking into the top 72.
The approach above was intended to be purely objective. However, growing or rebuilding
programs may need a venue to enter the top 72. There are a number of approaches
for this. One popular approach is to treat the “Super 72” as the “premier” or “championship”
league and the next tier league as a “division two”-type of league. The top performers
in the tier two league could be promoted into top league, replacing the lowest performing
This promotion could be done in a number of ways. For example, the winner of the
“division 2” league could play the lowest ranked “”premier” league sometime during
the league playoffs. The champion gets or keeps the “premier” league 72nd spot.
The whole NCAA Div. II system could be redesigned to incorporate the 47 displaced
teams and their existing programs. The 47 teams could also just exist alone. However,
that’s not the point of this article.
2) Why not a 16 team playoff?
The system above describes a 16 team playoff with the first round being the conference
championships. The system was designed to avoid a very long season, which is a concern
for many. However, some may argue that 16 teams could still make it. One approach
may be to add 8 wild card teams to the mix. This would be done by giving the 8 conference
champions entry into the “sweet 16” round with the remaining wildcards chosen from
remaining 64 teams. The wildcards would be chosen based upon overall performance
and with ties broken by the team’s and team’s conference’s inter league play. The
conference champions are ranked as are the wildcards. The top ranked team plays
the 16th ranked, and so on.
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