What if the College Football Playoff was more like the Champions League?
By using the format of the world's biggest competition, the CFP could be a much more open and exciting way to crown a national champion.
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The wheels started turning in my head thanks to a tweet during the NCAA Tournament from legendary retired sportswriter Benjamin Wolk.
Then the idea picked up speed with a reply from Chris Vannini, The Athletic’s resident Group of Five and coaching search king.
For those who don’t know, the FA Cup is the oldest national soccer tournament in the world. Since 1871, every team in England — from the Premier League titans down to the Sunday league amateurs — battles it out in a staggered knockout tournament. In college football terms, it would be like if NAIA and Division III teams started playing against each other, with waves of Division II, FCS and FBS teams coming in later. Last team standing is the national champion.
That’s a fun and rather massive idea that could incorporate the promotion and relegation systems that college football writers, most prominently ESPN’s Bill Connelly, have been discussing for years.
To me, college football and European soccer have always felt like siblings. They’re both fiercely regional sports. Supporters are ultra-passionate and have ties to a team that run deeper than traditional fandom. Massive upsets and Cinderella runs are huge parts of what separate these two “leagues” from salary-capped franchise systems such as the NFL or NBA.
But the process of crowning champions couldn’t be any more different. European soccer awards league titles based on round-robin schedules. Domestic and continental competitions are set up to give powerhouses an advantage but allow for virtually anyone — if they win enough — to get a shot.
College football, on the other hand, currently gets a committee of administrators who aren’t big on transparency to pick four teams out of nearly 130 and seed them for two semifinal games and a championship. Two teams have been in six of the seven playoffs. Two more have been in four of them. Only one other team has played in more than one playoff.
The biggest team prize in European soccer and, by extension, the entire sports-watching world, is the UEFA Champions League. Countries determine their own champions and top teams and then send them to an in-season competition that features qualifying rounds, group stage play and a non-seeded knockout tournament.
College football writers and fans have come up with expanded playoff ideas, including a basketball-style 64- or 68-team tournament. Some have even included the promotion and relegation ladders into an FA Cup-style format.
Here’s my proposal for turning the college football system as we know it into a European soccer-style setup that combines the race for league titles and a more exciting way to determine the overall champion.
It’s a system that won’t rely on committees or polls at all. (You can get rid of both!) It’s a system that won’t eliminate teams from contention after just one or two losses. It’s a system that will give the BYUs, Cincinnatis and UCFs of the world a real shot at winning a championship.
Most of all, it’s a system that should be a lot more fun to watch than the current Alabama + Clemson + Ohio State + Sometimes Oklahoma Invitational.
Like any proposals, it’s not perfect. A couple of important aspects of regular-season college football, such as big non-conference games and the ecosystem-sustaining paycheck contests, will be no more. Some current power-conference teams are left out of the top tier because of geography and, well, being bad at football.
But my ultimate goal with this experiment is to marry the European soccer setup with the college football calendar. If something feels weird or out of place, it’s probably because I’m trying to make it as close to what they do overseas. And, as always, there is plenty of room for improvement.
With all that out of the way, here’s a full breakdown of what the College Football Champions League would look like, using the results of the 2020 season as an example.
Instead of Power Five and Group of Five designations, FBS football would be split into two tiers — each featuring six 10-team conferences.
The UEFA Champions League is based off the previous season’s results, but that’s tougher to pull off in college football. Rosters change constantly, and competing for a title based off what happened a year earlier would be too radical for football.
Instead, we’re going to take the domestic league system and make it the basis for a college football regular season. The SEC, Big Ten and the ACC will now be like England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga.
In world soccer, champions are crowned at the end of each season, after everyone in the league plays each other in a double round-robin. In this format, we’ll go with a single round-robin for 10-team conferences. This will serve as the regular season. There will be no divisions or championship games. Everybody plays everybody. Whoever has the best record at the end is the champion.
In creating these six top-tier conferences, I wanted to base them on geography as much as possible and protect the biggest rivalries in the sport.
Using the current Power 5 conference framework, renaming the Big 12 to the old Southwest Conference and adding a new Western Conference — a nod to the original name of the Big Ten — here’s the new league setup:
SEC: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Miami, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee
ACC: Clemson, Duke, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina, NC State, South Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest
Big Ten: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, West Virginia, Wisconsin
SWC: Arkansas, Baylor, LSU, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M, TCU, Texas Tech
Pac-10: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State
Western: BYU, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska, Utah
The SEC was easy, taking up all the Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi power-conference programs, adding Tennessee and kicking Vanderbilt to the second tier. The ACC sticks to the Carolinas and Virginia, while adding Kentucky to maintain the Louisville rivalry. The Big Ten leans toward the eastern division of its current setup but snatches up Wisconsin and regional power Notre Dame while reinstating the Backyard Brawl rivalry between Pitt and WVU.
The Big 12’s transformation into the Southwest Conference keeps the Texas and Oklahoma schools while bringing back Arkansas and stealing LSU. (The vibes of this conference alone would be spectacular.) The Pac-10 is its pre-expansion form, while the Western Conference is a combination of the Big Ten West, the northern part of the Big 12, and the new-school Pac-12 combo of Utah and Colorado. What’s better than keeping Kansas? MAKING THE HOLY WAR INTO AN ANNUAL CONFERENCE GAME.
Joining Kansas and Vanderbilt are Boston College, Maryland, Rutgers and Syracuse — all relegated for region-based reasons. (Maryland was the toughest cut, but it’s hard to argue the Terps over any of the ACC and Big Ten picks.)
And here is the Tier 2 setup, which adds the new Gulf Coast Conference to the current Group of Five framework:
American: Air Force, Army, Boston College, Buffalo, Liberty, Maryland, Navy, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple
C-USA: Appalachian State, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, ECU, Marshall, MTSU, Memphis, Old Dominion, Vanderbilt, Western Kentucky
Gulf Coast: Arkansas State, Houston, Louisiana, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Rice, SMU, Tulane, Tulsa, UTSA
MAC: Ball State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Miami (OH), Northern Illinois, Ohio, Toledo, Western Michigan
Mountain West: Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, Hawai’i, Kansas, Nevada, San Diego State, San Jose State, Utah State, Wyoming
Sun Belt: FAU, FIU, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, South Alabama, Southern Miss, Troy, UAB, UCF, USF
The American is the new hybrid conference for the more northeastern holdovers, a couple of independents and Air Force. (Gotta preserve the three-way academy rivalry, and they’re used to flying a lot.) Conference USA is the home of the Tennessee, Carolina and Virginia schools, plus WKU.
The new Gulf Coast league combines the western side of the American, Conference USA and Sun Belt. The MAC gets a massive shot in the arm with regional force Cincinnati. The Mountain West just drops off some underperforming members and adds Kansas. The Sun Belt gets all of Florida, Georgia and Alabama while also adding Southern Miss to make the numbers work.
All 12 of these conferences play a nine-game regular season to determine league winners and final standings. Then the new-look playoff gets rolling.
The group stage of the CFBCL will feature a four-pot draw and four-team round robins to determine who advances to the knockout stage.
In the Champions League, 32 teams get into the group stage. We’ll carry that over into this format, too. Here’s who all qualify:
The Tier 1 conference champions (6)
The Tier 2 conference champions (6)
The Tier 1 conference second-, third- and fourth-place finishers (18)
The defending Champions League winner (1)
The defending America League* winner (1)
*we’ll get to this shortly
In soccer’s Champions League, the top four teams from the biggest leagues in the world all qualify automatically to the group stage. (It’s why the race for the top four is sometimes even more exciting than the title races themselves.) Smaller leagues get to send one or two teams, but they often have to fight through an extra qualification path. That’s not necessary here, since the new regular season serves as the qualification process.
Additionally, the defending national champion gets an automatic bid into the next season’s Champions League, no matter where they finished in their conference. The same goes for the America League, my knockoff idea that copies the consolation-esque Europa League that runs parallel to the Champions League in UEFA. (If someone has a better name idea, please give it to me.) It gives teams who just miss out on qualifying something important to play for in the postseason.
The America League qualification process is not as neatly done as the Champions League. Each Tier 1 conference sends its next three teams in the league standings (18), while each Tier 2 conference sends two more (12). The final two spots go to the highest-rated Tier 2 teams remaining. If teams wanted to opt-out of the America League and, say, get a jump on the coaching carousel, they could do so.
A possible tweak to this format would be a form UEFA’s club and league coefficients, which are ratings of how well teams and countries do against each other in continental play. The better the league, the more spots you could get. The worse the league, the more spots you could lose.
For example, if the Western Conference underperforms for multiple seasons and Conference USA is playing above its weight, the Western could go down to three automatic qualifiers and the C-USA could go up to two. Maybe the SEC gets five qualifiers one day. Maybe the Pac-12 ends up playing close to Tier 2 ball.
Using 2020 records and final SP+ ratings from Connelly, here are the projected league standings and who would have qualified to the 2020 Champions League. CL qualifiers are bolded, while AL qualifiers are in italics.
As defending national champion, LSU’s 2020 regular season is a true mulligan, as it can waltz into the Champions League with the title in tow.
Auburn gets into this Champions League as my placeholder for the defending America League champion. Now, some might accuse me of tipping the scales and playing to my audience here. (I get that.)
But in the 2019 SP+, Auburn was the highest-rated team — at No. 9 overall — that wouldn’t have qualified for a hypothetical 2019 Champions League through its conference standing. Because of that, I have the Tigers running the table in the America League and qualifying here. (Gotta keep the readers interested.)
The 32 qualified teams go into four pots, with each group containing a team from each pot. The six Tier 1 champions, the defending Champions League winner and the defending America League winner are all in Pot 1. Pots 2 through 4 feature everyone else, and they’re ranked by where they are in SP+.
The group stage will be a single round-robin, because a double round-robin would be too many games. Teams in Pot 1 will play all three group games at home, Pot 2 will play two home games, Pot 3 will play one home game and Pot 4 will have to play all three games on the road. This will be similar to the postseason setup in the NFL — the best teams get home-field advantage in the playoffs, while the last ones in have to be road warriors.
And in order to prevent all the Tier 2 champions from having to play just on the road due to SP+ ratings, I’ve instituted a rule where those six teams have to be split evenly between Pots 2, 3 and 4. Let’s not completely stack the deck against the smaller conference teams.
Now, it’s time for the Champions League draw. We’ve traded the frustration and endless arguing of polls and committee picks for the definitive yet unbridled chaos of determining matchups based on someone pulling balls out of a bowl.
Nothing outside of the college football sports world is more college football, I think, than the draw. Imagine the drama for this event, where fans beg their TVs to not show them getting drawn into the “group of death” or celebrating the avoidance of Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State in this stage.
The rules for the draw are that teams from the same conference cannot be drawn against each other. I used a random sequence generator to come up with the groups.
As you can see, the magic of the league draw can generate some deadly groups, fortunate breaks and a whole lot of narrative. (For example, LSU just had to draw both former conference rival Florida and in-state foe Louisiana, right? And then here comes #9WINDIANA for extreme anarchy.) Also, Auburn fans’ usual existential dread would increase tenfold watching a draw that gave them both North Carolina and Notre Dame.
To play out how these groups would go, I used the SimMatchup tool at WhatIfSports, which allowed me to simulate true home and road games instead of just neutral-site matchups. The top two teams from each group move onto the 16-team knockout stage.
Here are the results:
Group A: Oklahoma wins, Cincinnati finishes 2nd (a pure chalk group)
Group B: North Carolina wins, Notre Dame finishes 2nd (the first-ever Auburn-Notre Dame game was a 23-20 thriller in JHS that sent the Irish to the final 16)
Group C: Georgia wins, BYU finishes 2nd (Texas still has BYU nightmares)
Group D: Wisconsin wins, Texas A&M finishes 2nd (Chaos! USC throws up a massive 0-3 clunker after winning the Pac-10, ouch)
Group E: Ohio State wins, Miami finishes 2nd (Miami knocks off Iowa on the road to clinch a spot)
Group F: Florida wins, Indiana finishes 2nd (Florida sweeps, three-way tie is broken on point differential thanks to Indiana’s double-digit win over Louisiana —as LSU edged Indiana narrowly but lost close to the Ragin’ Cajuns)
Group G: Clemson wins, Coastal Carolina finishes 2nd (Coastal really proved it belonged in Pot 2 after all)
Group H: Alabama wins, Iowa State finishes 2nd (another chalk group)
I won’t write out the full simulation of the America League for space purposes, but here are what the groups look like over there. (Spoiler alert: Ole Miss wins it all. Imagine Lane Kiffin getting to ride that wave for a full offseason.)
The knockout stage is a 16-team single-elimination tournament — with draws for each round.
Instead of a seeded tournament like most American sports are used to having, this one is purely a draw all the way until there are two teams left — just like it’s done in the UEFA Champions League.
At this point, we’ll use the existing bowl structure to flesh out the matchups. The New Year’s Six bowls rotate through the two semifinals and the four quarterfinals. The national championship game gets a separate location apart from the bowl structure, just like it does in the current CFP structure. Eight more notable bowl games will make up the Round of 16 sites.
For the Round of 16, the eight group winners are paired up with the eight group runners-up. Teams that just played each other in the group and teams in the same conference cannot play each other in this round, but those rules go out the window in the quarterfinals and beyond.
Using another random sequence generator and WhatIfSports, here are what the Round of 16 results would have looked like in 2020:
Citrus Bowl: North Carolina defeats Coastal Carolina
Gator Bowl: Alabama defeats Notre Dame
Outback Bowl: Florida defeats Indiana
Holiday Bowl: Miami (FL) upsets Wisconsin
Music City Bowl: Clemson defeats Texas A&M
Alamo Bowl: Ohio State defeats BYU
Sun Bowl: Cincinnati upsets Georgia
Las Vegas Bowl: Oklahoma defeats Iowa State
In this simulation, Cincinnati is able to pull off the win over Georgia it just missed in real life. Miami’s win over Wisconsin means that two group runners-up move on in the competition.
Now, to the quarterfinals, which put all the teams in the same pot for the draw:
Fiesta Bowl: North Carolina defeats Oklahoma
Cotton Bowl: Cincinnati defeats Miami (FL)
Peach Bowl: Clemson defeats Florida
Rose Bowl: Alabama defeats Ohio State
Business really picked up here. The open draw meant that Alabama and Ohio State could meet as early as the quarterfinals instead of the 2020 national title game. (This is like when two powerhouse clubs such as Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have to face each other in the quarterfinals of the UEFACL.)
North Carolina knocked off Oklahoma in a 52-50 simulated shootout, putting the Tar Heels in the final four. Cincinnati got a favorable draw with the SEC’s fourth-best team in Miami and took advantage, giving the smaller conferences their first-ever team in the playoff semifinals. Meanwhile, Clemson edged Florida in an instant classic.
Here are the semifinal results:
Sugar Bowl: Clemson defeats Cincinnati
Orange Bowl: Alabama defeats North Carolina
The end result of this simulation is another Alabama vs. Clemson national title game, yes, but the path to get there was a lot more entertaining than the one under the current playoff structure. Miami ran all the way to the quarterfinals, while Cincinnati proved it belonged in the championship conversation. Coastal Carolina rubbed shoulders with the power players of the sport.
Alabama ended up winning this simulation’s national title game, 41-31. But the Crimson Tide had one of the most dominant teams in the modern era in 2020. Just imagine what could happen if there was just a little more balance on the rosters. If Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State aren’t virtually guaranteed a semifinal spot each season, they might not be able to stockpile talent just as easily as they’re doing right now. Some parity could go a long way.
Perhaps my favorite part of this plan is that only the four teams that play for the Champions League title and the America League title play 16 games. That’s just one more than the current format, and it’s similar to how much FCS championship game teams play already.
Teams who go out in the group stage still get full 12-game seasons. It’s a completely revamped postseason that doesn’t put even more mileage on unpaid players’ bodies. The inclusion of the America League will ensure that almost every team that had a halfway decent season will get to play more than just nine games.
By looking across the Atlantic for some guidance, college football could have a more open and exciting way to determine a champion.
The regular season would still have immense value without having two losses become a death sentence. Postseason spots would be determined solely by what happens on the field instead of what happens in the heads and hearts of pollsters or committee members.
College football might be too old-fashioned for a system like this to ever happen. But, hey, the offseason is for dreaming big.
Up next on The Auburn Observer: Subscribers will get a new premium podcast episode Wednesday morning. That will be followed by a breakdown of new Auburn basketball transfer Zep Jasper on Thursday and the return of the Aubserver Mailbag on Friday.
You can email your questions for the mailbag to the1andonlyJF@gmail.com or tweet them to @JFergusonAU on Twitter.
This was incredibly well written. Being from the other side of the Atlantic, I sometimes wish we had a European soccer structure resembling a mix of College Football and NFL.
Reading this just now was the best part of my week. Just thought you should know.