Penn State is 11-2 and Big Ten champions. Other than a three-point loss to in-state rival Pitt and an egg laid in Ann Arbor -- both in September -- the Nittany Lions have had a magical season. Yet James Franklin's team was left out of the College Football Playoff. Another Big Ten team, No. 3 Ohio State, which lost to No. 5 Penn State, is in.
"You can make arguments for and against for so many teams," he said Sunday on ESPN.
Franklin gets it. Even before the Big Ten Championship Game, Penn State knew it needed help with Clemson and/or Washington losing their conference title games. Both won.
But it shouldn't be this way. Winning a national championship is the ultimate goal of the college football team. So shouldn't a conference championship be a prerequisite in the current playoff format?
The simple answer is an eight-team playoff is needed. With four spots and five major conferences, the College Football Playoff's most notable flaw is that it is set up to exclude a team with a good case to be included. There are legitimate reasons for keeping the field at four teams, and most of them are related to New Year's Six bowl money. But if organized correctly, an eight-team playoff can make everyone happy and justice can be served.
What Teams Should Make It?
The Power Five Conference Champions
Consider the circumstances of 2014 Big 12 co-champion TCU and 2015 Pac-12 champ Stanford. Both teams were left out.
In 2014, No. 3 TCU throttled Iowa State, 55-3, at home in the final week of the season to get to 11-1. But on the same day, Florida State and Ohio State won their conference championship games -- the 13th on their respective schedules -- passed TCU in the committee's rankings. TCU drubbed No. 9 Ole Miss 42-3 in the Peach Bowl, but Ohio State went on to win the national title.
In 2015, Stanford was in a similar spot as Penn State this year with a conference title but two losses, which meant a trip to the Rose Bowl where the No. 6 Cardinal proceeded to truck No. 5 Iowa, 45-16.
The Big 12 will not be represented in the playoff for the second time in three seasons, even though its conference champ, No. 7 Oklahoma, hasn't lost since September.
All five conference champions deserve a shot. For reference, that would get Alabama (SEC), Clemson (ACC), Washington (Pac-12), Penn State (Big Ten) and Oklahoma (Big 12) into the Playoff this season.
Best Non-Power Five Team
How are we able to compare a mid-major who goes undefeated and beats up on lesser opponents with a power conference team who just skates by on one or two losses? Considering most major conference teams have little experience matching up with mid-major upstarts, the underdogs always have a chance. In 2006, Boise State, then 12-0 out of the WAC, shocked Big 12 champ Oklahoma with a 43-42 overtime win in the Fiesta Bowl. In 2008, Utah was still in the Mountain West and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl 31-17. Last season, out of the AAC, No. 14 Houston beat No. 9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
This year, that team is No. 15 Western Michigan. The Broncos, as the highest-ranked non-power five team, get a chance to row the boat in the Cotton Bowl Classic against No. 8 Wisconsin. But 13-0 Western Michigan, as the lone undefeated FBS team that does not play in Tuscaloosa, deserves at least a shot to run the table to a national title.
Two At-Large Teams
There is no perfect system and there is some subjectivity to this madness. Madness ... that's a relevant word. The NCAA basketball tournament, which features a 68-team field, includes 32 conference champions and then 36 at-large teams chosen based on a mix of statistics and the eye test.
There are 351 teams playing Division I basketball, which means that 19 percent make it to the NCAA tournament. Even adding two at-large teams in football in this scenario to push the field to eight would mean that just 6.25 percent of schools are in the playoff. (There are 128 FBS teams.)
Based on the College Football Playoff rankings system, the easiest way to make this work is give the final two spots to the highest two teams remaining. This season, that would mean Ohio State and Michigan make it into the playoff. Let's take a look at the past two seasons for further examples.
In 2015, the five conference champions were Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Stanford. The non-power five team would have been Houston. That would have left No. 5 Iowa and No. 7 Ohio State to squeeze their way into the playoff.
In 2014, Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor were conference champions. Boise State would have been the non-power five representative. (The Broncos beat No. 10 Arizona, 38-30, in the Fiesta Bowl). TCU and Mississippi State would have been rewarded as the at-large teams.
Under this format, over the past three years, four Big Ten teams, one SEC and one Big 12 team would have been rewarded for their regular seasons. Four of the six teams would have qualified with just one loss.
What About Seeding?
This can go back to the rankings. Western Michigan should not be ranked ahead of Ohio State just because it is an automatic qualifier. As the No. 1 seed, Alabama should get the easiest opening-round game. This keeps up ratings for ESPN's College Football Playoff rankings show. An eight-team playoff for 2016 would look like this:
3. Ohio State
5. Penn State
8. Western Michigan
Now, your first reaction should be, "Holy s***, could America handle the emotion of another Ohio State vs. Michigan game?
Alabama gets the mid-major representative, and Western Michigan really gets Bama like all those kids wanted in Kalamazoo. If the Broncos are for real, they might as well make noise right off the bat.
Clemson is rewarded for making its conference championship game and jumping Ohio State the final week to avoid Michigan. Penn State steers clear of Ohio State by winning that Big Ten title game and jumping Michigan to get Washington in Round 1.
Think about the March Madness comparison. A conference championship gets teams an automatic bid, but does not lift them to the top of the rankings. Penn State, Oklahoma and Western Michigan get in, but they still have to prove their worth.
What About The New Year's Six?
Bowl money is the biggest barrier to an eight-team playoff right now. Currently two of the New Year's Six bowls (Orange, Peach, Sugar, Cotton, Fiesta, Rose) operate as playoff semifinals on a rotating basis. Part of the initial creation of the College Football Playoff was a compromise as the Peach and Cotton Bowls were not part of the BCS.
Well, the good news is, an eight-team playoff system creates six major opportunities before the National Championship Game. That should satisfy everyone. Some bowl sponsors may be concerned moving the bowls away from New Year's Day, but as long as they hover around Christmas, holiday travel should be do-able for fans. The Rose Parade will resist, but honestly, it got a few extra decades of runway because a College Football Playoff should have been set up a long time ago.
Let's set up the 2016 quarterfinals like this (with higher seeds getting priority and the Peach and Fiesta Bowls still acting as the national semifinals):
-- Alabama vs. Western Michigan (Sugar)
-- Clemson vs. Oklahoma (Orange)
-- Ohio State vs. Michigan (Cotton in Jerry World. Could this game get any bigger?)
-- Washington vs. Penn State (Rose)
I considered proposing the first round of playoff games be played on-campus with non-playoff teams going to New Year's Six Bowl as consolation prizes, but that would water down the energy and attendance for those bowls.
Why Isn't This Happening?
Again, money is a significant barrier. New Year's Six bowls are currently promised the hoopla surrounding New Year's Day, an especially easy time to travel. Bowl sponsors need to be convinced they will see a revenue drop by moving to a quarterfinal playoff game a week earlier. Considering Christmas is another holiday, and these playoff games would provide the legitimacy of a path to the National Championship Game, the games should drive equal or more revenue.
The other side involves scheduling and academics. There is a valid argument that an eight-team playoff would overwork student-athletes. Consider this: In 2001, Miami won a national championship with 12 games -- 11 in the regular season and one bowl. This season, assuming the national championship is not Ohio State, the winning team will have played 15: 12 in the regular season, one for conference championship and two playoff games. A 16th game can be seen as excessive for health reasons and scholarship reasons (see: Northwestern University football unionization). On top of that, students need to go to class and take finals.
But the fact of the matter is practices are still going to happen. This does not add any time to the season. Year after year, we have seen teams reach the national championship game or semifinal out of rhythm after being out of competition for a month. This season, the teams in the College Football Playoff will not play another meaningful game until Dec. 31. This keeps the flow of competition going while keeping teams focused, not adding length to the season.
In terms of academics, as long as these games are played around Christmastime, players should have their ability to takes finals before taking off for break anyway (a winter break that would still include practices for the College Football Playoff or a bowl game).
In short, an eight-team playoff can happen, as long as the money logistics are shifted. And no, it will not be perfect, but as least it will be (more) fair than a four-team playoff.
Then we can talk about a 16-team playoff.