Expanding the Playoff: Rooting for Chaos – 2015 Edition


It’s been 7 years since the inception of the College Football Playoff featuring the top 4 FBS teams in the country and to the delight of every fan of a non-Blue Blood program, it seems that this may finally be the year for an expansion vote to pass.

Growing up in New England, the Patriots have always been the football team to watch when it came to the pros, but the college game in the area has been lacking to say the least.

I first got interested in college football during the 2006-2007 season, I remember being sick and missing a couple weeks of school right around the start of the college football bowl season. Having no allegiance to any teams in-state, I watched bowl game after bowl game, enjoying the close games and even the blowouts, but it was the 2007 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl game that stole the show and gave me a team that I still follow to this day.

The Fiesta Bowl had everything you want in a football game: an underdog, a future NFL hall of famer in Adrian Peterson, trick plays and a storybook ending.

Down 7 with 18 seconds left to go in the game on a 4th and 18, Boise State successfully executed the hook and lateral to tie up the game and force overtime against the Oklahoma Sooners.

After the Sooners ripped off a touchdown by Adrian Peterson to start overtime, Boise State answered back with a touchdown of their own, but instead of kicking the extra point and forcing a second overtime, Boise State head coach Chris Peterson did the unthinkable and decided to go for 2.

With a Trips right formation, Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky dropped back to pass, pump faked a wide receiver screen pass, and handed off the ball with his back hand to running back Ian Johnson, who ran in for the score and one of the most exciting wins in college football history.

And to cap it all off Johnson got to a knee and proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend for everyone to see.

I finally found my team.

The Kellen Moore era started the next season, and it was a blast to watch as Boise State went 50-3 in his time as the starting quarterback, playing with NFL talent in players on the offense with Doug Martin, Titus Young and Austin Pettis. With Kellen Moore at quarterback, Chris Petersen at head coach, and the blue turf, I would’ve taken Boise State over any one in a division 1 match-up. In 2009, Boise State had an undefeated season, becoming the second team in history to go 14-0, however with the way the BCS was set up at the time, Boise State unfortunately missed the championship in lieu of Alabama and Texas, both undefeated powerhouses that belonged to tougher conferences.

When the College Football Playoff was introduced in 2014, I was ecstatic at the thought of finally being able to see Boise State on the big stage, able to prove they could play anyone. Although Moore had graduated and Petersen left for Washington, Boise State still had a ton of talent and a great new coach in Bryan Harsin, who served as offensive coordinator under Petersen. Over the course of the Harsin era, they had 4 seasons with 3 or fewer losses, and 2 seasons with only 2 losses. But despite their success, even with an additional 2 playoff seeds, it just wasn’t meant to be as the CFP heavily favored colleges belonging to the Power 5 college football conferences, which includes the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. In the Petersen and Harsin eras, Boise State has been a member of the Group of 5, which includes the AAC, Conference-USA, MAC, Sun Belt, and Mountain West.

The College Football Playoff has been a massive success for the popularity of football compared to its predecessor in the BCS, as there’s more football being played to decide who the better team is, compared to the on-paper arguments behind closed doors of who had more “quality-losses”, inevitably leading to snubs of very talented, deserving teams.

Recent talks have been leaning towards the idea of a 12 team playoff, which would be especially great for finally including Boise State and other Power 5 teams that have had a history of being snubbed. The latest proposal includes automatic bids to the Power 5 conference champions, as well as the highest ranked Group of 5 conference champion. The remaining 6 bids are awarded at-large to the top 6 teams remaining in the CFP rankings. The proposal also includes first round byes to the top 4 highest ranked conference champions, with the first round games being played on campus instead of a neutral site like it is in the current format.

Although nothing has officially passed and talks are paused until January, the idea of a 12 team playoff has inspired me to look into what an expanded playoff might’ve looked like in the previous CFP seasons, starting with the 2014-2015 season.

In the inaugural playoff, the #4 seed Ohio State Buckeyes beat the #2 seed Oregon Ducks 42-20 in the CFP Championship.

Looking at the final CFP rankings going into the playoff, there would be a fair amount of reshuffling of the seeds in a 12 team playoff.

The original 1-4 seeds would remain unchanged, as each of those teams is a Power 5 conference champion, which would trigger an automatic playoff bid. Baylor and TCU were co-champions for the 2014-2015 season since the Big 12 didn’t host a conference championship game through the 2011-2016 seasons due to a lack of membership. Baylor did however beat TCU earlier in the season in a 61-58 shootout, resulting in their higher CFP ranking, so they would have made it in as the final Power 5 automatic bid, and TCU would have made it in as the first at-large bid.

Since the last automatic bid is the highest ranked Group of 5 conference champion, Boise State would have been able to squeak in to the playoffs this time as the 5 seed, being the highest ranked team to play in the first round. Rounding out the rest of the remaining at-large bids are Mississippi State, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Arizona and Kansas State as the 7-12 seeds respectively.

Taking it a step further, I decided to simulate the 12 team playoff match-ups 1,000 times each (shout out Spike’s Deadliest Warrior for the inspiration) in the NCAA Game Sim to get an idea of how the expanded playoff might have played out.

In the first round the higher seeded team won each match-up, which makes sense given the inclusion of home field advantage, something not currently implemented in the 4 team playoff. Boise State vs Arizona actually happened in the non-CFP bowl games that year, with Boise State beating Arizona 38-30 in the Fiesta Bowl, so I decided to use that result instead of simulating the game. Similarly, TCU played Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl that season, beating them 42-3, so I used that result in place of the simulations.

For the second round, the higher seeded teams all won with the exception of Florida State. The Florida State – Boise State simulation was razor thin, FSU won 503 games to Boise State’s 497 games. Having said that, the average score was in favor of Boise State beating Jameis Winston’s Seminoles, 27.7 to 27.1. Had I decided to run 10,000 simulations there may have been a more definitive margin of victory for either team, but it’s very much a toss-up. For the sake of chaos I went off the average score, allowing Boise State to move on to the semifinals.

Since Oregon and Ohio State played in that year’s actual CFP National Championship, I used the result of that game for their semifinal match-up, with Ohio State advancing 42-20 over Oregon. The Alabama – Boise State match-up was decided by a touchdown over the 1,000 simulations I ran, resulting in the Sugar Bowl match-up of the actual CFP that year becoming the CFP National Championship in this 12 team playoff.

So in the end, Ohio State still would’ve won the first CFP National Championship, but we would’ve had a lot more fun along the way.