If you need another reason to expand the College Football Playoff — and you shouldn’t — look at the University of Utah, Exhibit A in the case against the system used to determine a national champion.
The Utes are No. 8 in the CFP rankings; they are one of only two teams in the top 12 with three losses, and there’s a good reason for that. The Utes might be the hottest team in the country other than Michigan and Georgia.
The Utes steamrolled No. 4 USC 47-24 in the Pac-12 championship game, producing perhaps their most impressive performance since the 2009 Sugar Bowl. USC is an all-star team that was bolstered by the arrival of 20 transfers in the offseason, including the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. The team lost only two games all season — both to Utah.
Just as they did last year, the Utes have gotten better and better as the season progressed as they tweaked their lineup and their game plans accordingly. In the NFL, that is the perfect script to make a playoff run, but that’s not necessarily the case in the college game. The Utes won’t be playing for a national championship. There simply aren’t enough playoff spots to accommodate them.
In the NFL, there are 32 teams and 14 qualify for the playoffs; in the NBA there are 30 teams and 16 playoff spots. In Major League Baseball, there are 30 teams and 12 playoff spots. In the NHL, there are 32 teams and 16 playoff spots. In Division I FCS football, there are 130 teams and 24 playoff spots.
In Division I FBS football, there are 131 schools — and four playoff spots.
Ever since the creation of the CFP in 2014, there has been an outcry to increase the playoff field. For years, CFP officials acted as if this were impossible, as if they were being asked to create cold fusion. They have finally agreed. They announced that beginning in 2024, the CFP will expand to 12 teams. The six highest-ranked conference champions and the next six highest ranked teams will qualify for the playoffs. This makes the playoff much more accessible.
Consider what this would have meant to the Utes if this plan had been adopted at the turn of the century.
In 2004, the Utes finished the season unbeaten. They were led by quarterback Alex Smith, who would be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft a few months later. The No. 5 Utes played No. 19 Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl, which was considered a so-called BCS bowl at the time. They won easily 35-7. Who knows what might have happened if there had been a playoff system at the time. The Utes were a dominant team. The final rankings: No. 1 USC (13-0), No. 2 Auburn (13-0), No. 3 Oklahoma (12-1), No. 4 Utah (12-0).
In 2008, Utah was unbeaten again at the end of the regular season and ranked No. 6. They played unbeaten No. 4-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. From start to finish, the Utes dominated the game, winning 31-17. In the final rankings, the 13-0 Utes were ranked No. 2. Florida, 13-1, was ranked No. 1. What if there had been a playoff system in place that would have enabled Utah to advance to a showdown with Florida?
In 2019, the Utes finished the regular season with an 11-1 regular-season mark and a No. 5 CFP ranking. They fell to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game and were blown out by Texas in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, but still would have been in play for a possible playoff berth after their Pac-12 title game defeat.
In 2021, the Utes finished the regular season with a 10-3 record and a No. 11 CFP ranking. They won their last six games, including two over Oregon by a combined score of 76-17. Oregon was ranked No. 3 for the first game and No. 10 for the second game, which was the Pac-12 championship.
If there had been a 12-team playoff, the Utes would’ve been included in the field. If the top four teams had received first-round byes, No. 11 Utah would’ve met No. 6 Ohio State in the first round. Coincidentally, the Utes met Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and lost a 48-45 thriller while playing their backup quarterback the last 10 minutes of the game. They wound up 12th in the final rankings.
In 2022, the Utes have once again won the Pac-12 championship. Utah would be headed to the College Football Playoff if it had already been expanded to 12 teams. The No. 8 Utes would play No. 9 Kansas State in the first round. Instead, Utah will play No. 11 Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
That’s five times in 18 years the Utes deserved an opportunity to play for the national championship and were denied because of the system in place at the time. Those are opportunities they will never be able to reclaim.
Clarification: In the original version of this column, it noted seasons where the Utes could have qualified for a 12-team College Football Playoff berth. But it didn’t include 2019, a season in which Utah also could have qualified.