Conference championship weekend and the College Football Playoff do not mix.
We have pointed out this problem since the CFP began in 2014. Five years later, we are no closer to addressing the three biggest issues with this weekend.
There are far more upsets than blowouts. There are one-sided stakes outside of the SEC, and we still have five Power 5 conferences trying to jam into four spots.
That leads to the usual talking points. We say conference championships don’t matter. We experiment with our own personalized six-, eight-, 12- and 16-team Playoff models, and everybody thinks they have the best plan. We fight for the preservation of the regular season.
The regular season will always matter in college football.
The conference championships? They will continue to be a farce if three issues aren’t resolved.
Problem: Lack of drama
There have been 22 Power 5 conference championship games since the College Football Playoff era, and the statistics show a lack of real drama.
The higher-ranked team is 18-4 in those games.
The average margin of victory is 19.2 points per game, and 12 of those 22 games were decided by 14 points or more.
These games lack spice. Clemson is a 24.5-point favorite against Virginia in this week’s ACC championship game. Ohio State is an 18-point favorite in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin.
Possible solution: Eliminate divisions
The Big 12 got this right when it added a conference championship game. Oklahoma used it to get into the Playoff each of the last two seasons, and the Sooners might vault in again with the help of a battle of one-loss teams against Baylor this weekend.
That said, this isn’t a perfect solution. Virginia really is the second-best team in the ACC. Ohio State already beat Wisconsin and Penn State.
That speaks to another problem.
Problem: One-sided stakes outside SEC
The conference championships have produced few games where you could say with 100 percent certainty that the winner of that game was in the Playoff.
In fact, there have been just three:
No. 5 Michigan State 16, No. 4 Iowa 13
No. 6 Georgia 28, No 2 Auburn 7
No. 1 Alabama 35, No. 4 Georgia 28
The only other game that was close was No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 7 Miami in the 2017 ACC championship, and the Hurricanes were not a guarantee to get in with a victory.
The fact that the SEC produced two of those three games and has the biggest game of the weekend with No. 1 LSU and No. 4 Georgia is another hold-up for the eight-team playoff. The SEC has no incentive to go to eight knowing it is almost guaranteed one playoff team every year, and the Bulldogs and Tigers likely both will get in if Georgia pulls the upset Saturday.
Possible solution: Protect one-loss champions
Just think about those three games listed above. They were the best conference championship games possible. Michigan State’s L.J. Scott’s TD run and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts’ comeback were defining moments that could make the argument for the conference championship game.
They work against it. Those games felt like true playoff quarterfinals. The other one that did — a matchup between No. 7 Penn State and No. 6 Wisconsin in the 2016 Big Ten championship game — produced a 38-31 thriller the Nittany Lions won. Penn State watched one-loss Ohio State go to the Playoff instead.
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Problem: Five champions, four spots
After all the arguing, the CFP still is trying to please five Power 5 conferences and the Group of 5 with four playoff spots. UCF proved that a Group of 5 team will never get into the four-team Playoff.
This weekend could expose another problem. Ohio State, LSU and Clemson could all take care of business and give the Playoff three undefeated teams. What will the committee do with a one-loss Utah against one-loss Oklahoma or Baylor if it comes to that? You are leaving a one-loss conference champion out of the Playoff.
How many one-loss Power 5 champions have been left out to this point? That list includes TCU and Baylor (2014) and Ohio State (2018). The more that happens, the more this process will be strained.
Possible solution: Perfect the eight-team model
It does not have to happen overnight, and you need the SEC to buy in to make it work. The details are obvious otherwise. Put the quarterfinal games on campus. Wait until all five Power 5 conferences play nine — or even 10 — conference games. That would beef up and protect the regular season.
Figure out the proper format for the conference championship games, with or without divisions. Have a consistent model across the 10 conferences that produces a far more dramatic conference championship weekend. If you want to ditch conference championship weekend and seed out the best teams, then that's fine, too.
Six is not enough and 16 is too many. Most models have the right idea with eight teams despite the variation. Include all five conferences, the Group of 5 and two at-large bids to give fans the best of the Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff — which to be clear has been a huge success to this point. We’ll spend more time arguing about No. 8 and No. 9, but that’s OK. At least a few two-loss teams might sneak in.
The solutions come easy when you recognize the problems.
It's time to make the conference championship and Playoff fit again.