Playoff Debate: Resting Starters


There are an infinite number of possible playoff formats involving different numbers of participants, with or without automatic berths, with or without byes, with neutral sites only or homefield advantage through one or more rounds, with a fixed or flexible bracket, and with different rules for determining placement and advancement. Yet, a common argument from those opposed to expanding College Football’s playoff system is the assertion that a larger playoff will almost certainly lead to teams resting their starters at season’s end once their place in the playoffs has been clinched. These same people point to examples in the NFL where multiple teams bench starters for their final game each year when the outcome offers nothing to gain or lose. Imagine an Iron Bowl where either Alabama or Auburn sits their starting quarterback because a loss does not matter. Even if you are among those in favor of expansion, I am certain you will agree that such scenarios are undesirable.

The good news is that the number of playoff participants alone does not determine the frequency with which teams are able to rest their starters. The significance between fourth and fifth place, for example, depends on the overall competition format. If the format is an 8-team playoff with all games played at neutral sites, a team that has clinched fifth place as its worst case scenario may choose to rest its starters if a win only gains a fourth place finish. Even a top three finish may not provide enough of an incentive beyond a presumably easier first round opponent with a neutral site only format. However, if the 8-team playoff includes homefield advantage through one or more rounds, that same team is likely to give maximum effort to win its final game. Even in the NFL where byes and homefield advantage are at stake and a flexible bracket is used, the league’s two conference, eight four-team division format allows more teams to clinch their best case scenario earlier than if the NFL operated as a single 32-team division and the top 12 teams advanced to the playoffs. Several years ago, motivated by this same issue, I determined that only nine NFL teams over the previous 23 seasons at that time had nothing to gain or lose based on the outcome of their final game under the 32-team division/12-team playoff format. In just one of those 23 seasons, six teams had clinched their best case scenario before their final game under the NFL’s actual format. Of course, I do not expect the NFL to drop its conference/division format. The point here is that simply having a 12-team playoff is not to blame for teams resting starters and the same logic applies to College Football.

Suppose College Football adopted a playoff format that included the top 16 teams in the Power Points Standings. Further suppose that this format included homefield advantage through the first three rounds with the title game held at a neutral site. How important would each playoff team’s final game have been regarding homefield advantage and/or qualifying for the playoffs? The chart below lists how each team, first place through 16th place, would have fared if the result of their final regular season game were flipped and all other results remain unchanged in each of the past seven seasons. Under the playoff format described above, 92 of 112 teams gained/lost at least one guaranteed home game and/or missed the playoffs. Again, that is without changing the results of any other games. Of course, these same teams could be impacted by the outcomes of other season ending games. Among the 20 teams that gained/lost no home games and playoff berths based on changing their final game only, 17 teams finished one place removed from gaining or losing a home game and/or playoff berth in the actual and/or alternative standings. A team that finishes fifth with a win and eighth with a loss is only guaranteed one home game in both scenarios. However, a changed outcome in a game involving two other teams could mean the difference between fourth place with a win and ninth place with a loss. That difference is worth two guaranteed home games. Of course, it should be easy to see that the stakes of season finales are greatly reduced if the 16-team format includes neutral site games only.

In the chart below, a “W” indicates that the team’s last game was changed to a win and an “L” indicates that their last game was changed to a loss. The number indicates their place in the final standings based on the changed outcome. Results in red are those instances when a team did not gain/lose at least one guaranteed home game and/or a playoff berth. The same chart can be used to determine how a team’s final game would have impacted their circumstances under different formats involving 16 or fewer teams. For example, under the current four team/neutral site games only format, 11 of 28 top four teams, including all seven first place teams, still finish in the top four with a season ending loss if all other games remain unchanged.

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