Of the two big playoff formats in college sports, which is really better, the NCAA Tournament or the College Football Playoff?
Of course playoffs are awesome. Everyone cares, everyone tries, and the intensity level is cranked up.
When it comes to the playoffs in the college world, basketball owns March, while college football is trying to get people to love its playoff while still keeping the bowl system and the magic of New Year’s Day. It has its place, and it’s growing, but can it hold a candle to the greatness of basketball’s big thing?
Of course the NCAA Tournament is bigger, but is it really that much better? Breaking it all down …
NCAA Tournament: It’s perfectly shoehorned into the sports calendar. Baseball doesn’t start yet, there’s no football, the NFL Draft and The Masters are coming up, and the NBA and NHL are just winding down.
College Football Playoff: Great for the semifinals, totally awful for the College Football Playoff National Championship. It’s college football’s world from Christmas to New Year’s Day, and then it’s all about the NFL playoffs.
Winner: NCAA Tournament. Two words: MARCH Madness – the sport dominates most of a month. However, if college football could figure out how to do the whole playoff format within a ten day span from just before Christmas to around January 3rd, it would dominate the …
NCAA Tournament: Billions and billions of workday dollars are lost thanks to unproductive employees on the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament. Over 70 million brackets will be filled out, and half of them by people who have no clue who Zion Williamson is.
College Football Playoff: Uhhhhh, it’s sort of a thing, but it doesn’t exactly grip the nation’s focus. Again, this goes back to the timing. People care about the games, but outside of New Year’s Day, the NFL owns that time of year.
Winner: NCAA Tournament. Yeah, it’s a slam-dunk because of how long the thing goes, but once brackets are busted after the first weekend, the casual observers will drift off. The College Football Playoff as a national event just can’t compare yet, but …
NCAA Tournament: For three weeks, the games are on everywhere you go, in every restaurant, in every bar, and on every form of device. Thanks to the bulk and the length of the tournament, the thing generates roughly a billion ad dollars every year.
College Football Playoff: There are just three games in the tournament, but for that concentrated run, the ratings are fantastic. Nothing comes within 100 miles of the NFL, but the Alabama-Georgia CFP National Championship was the highest-rated non-NFL sporting event of 2018.
Winner: NCAA Tournament. It’s spread out, but the sheer volume of games brings in the bigger overall audience and more eyeballs. However, when it really matters …
No, Really. TV RATINGS
NCAA Tournament: The Final Four ratings are terrific. They crush when the last three games are on CBS, and they’ve massive cable numbers when on Turner.
When Kentucky was on its unbeaten run in 2015, the 22.6 million semifinal views were big, and then Duke-Wisconsin national championship number was a killer with a 16 share and 28.2 million viewers.
However, the numbers for the national title are falling through the floor. The national championship regularly hit the 30 million mark back in the 1980s and 1990s, but there weren’t as many channels and options for viewers. Villanova-Michigan in last year’s national championship? Around 16.5 million people watched it.
College Football Playoff: Ka-Boom. The College Football Playoff semifinal games do stronger numbers than the college basketball national championships.
The Clemson-Notre Dame Cotton Bowl semifinal got almost 17 million viewers, and the Alabama-Oklahoma Orange Bowl hit the 19 million mark. The Clemson-Alabama national championship was a relative clunker for the CFP, and it still did a 15.3 rating with 26 million viewers.
Winner: College Football Playoff. The Final Four is huge in brand name and recognition, but it can’t come close to touching college football’s finishing kick. No college basketball game cracked the top 50 most watched sporting events of 2018, and the Villanova-Michigan national title game was only 13th among sporting events that didn’t include the NFL or the Olympics.
NCAA Tournament: Throw everyone in and let it all sort itself out. If you can’t get into a field of 68, whatever. If you can’t win your conference tournament, you don’t deserve to play for the national championship.
College Football Playoff: Pick the best four teams based on data, eye-test, expert opinion, and then let everyone get mad about that fifth team that’s left out.
Winner: NCAA Tournament. You can win your way in and at least get to take your cuts. As we speak, at least 60 teams are already effectively eliminated from the 2019-2020 College Football Playoff.
NCAA Tournament: The Cinderella upsets, the constant flow of games that come down to the wire, the pressure of every game carrying its own storyline and flow – it’s gripping theater with magical moment after magical moment. Now, with all the games available to watch – compared to not all that long ago – you can go from game-to-game to get in on what’s happening.
College Football Playoff: The bowl game lead up to the big event doesn’t count here, but don’t blow off just how much that builds up to the final games. The problem is the time needed between the semifinals and the national title – it’s hard to keep the interest during ten-or-so days between the games.
Winner: NCAA Tournament. The self-contained Final Four weekend owns those three days, and the entire three-week format keeps the buzz-level high.
Compared to Regular Season
NCAA Tournament: There’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to watch a regular season college basketball game.
College Football Playoff: The cliché fits: every week matters in an entire regular season that feels like a playoff. If that diminishes the greatness of the CFP as an even, fine. College basketball has three weeks. College football has four months.
Winner: NCAA Tournament. No, really, you don’t need to watch a regular season college basketball game. Ever.
Representative of Regular Season
NCAA Tournament: Ask 2018 Virginia.
College Football Playoff: There’s no such thing as a fluky College Football Playoff national champion. There might be some controversy, but you have to really, really earn your way into this final four.
Winner: College Football Playoff. You can finish seventh in your conference, get hot for four games in March, and you’re in the college basketball Final Four. If you can bounce a ball and chew gum at the same time, you’re in the tournament. You have to be amazing all regular season to get into the College Football Playoff. This leads to …
Build-Up & Speculation
NCAA Tournament: With 68 spots, it’s not all that much fun to try to figure out which mediocre On The Bubble teams might sneak in until the last weekend of the season.
College Football Playoff: You can lose. You can’t lose twice. The pressure and the hype each and every week during the college football season for the playoff is unparalleled in any sport.
Winner: College Football Playoff. If the thing worked better it should be less dramatic, but figuring out the top four is always going to be a wild exercise. The NCAA Tournament bracket projections are about jockeying for position.
NCAA Tournament: It goes back to 1939, but the NIT was just as big a deal – if not bigger – up until the 1950s. The NCAA dropped the hammer and demanded that the good teams play in its tournament, but it still wasn’t close to being the event it is now.
College Football Playoff: College Football Playoff is just five years old. The national championships have been strong, but as a big thing in the national consciousness, it’s not there yet compared to the other playoffs.
Winner: NCAA Tournament. The College Football Playoff needs another ten years – at least – to even be in the discussion with the history of the NCAA Tournament. However …
No, Really. HISTORY
NCAA Tournament: The NCAAs mattered, and the national championships did huge numbers, but it took the Bird vs. Magic 1979 national championship to pivot to this. Michigan State-Indiana State – sort of a dud of a game, by the way – and a string of amazing national title games in the early 1980s launched the tournament into March Madness.
College Football Playoff: To be fair, if you include the bowls and the BCS, college football is right there. However, bowl games didn’t matter in the national title chase until 1970. If you were to take post-regular season college basketball vs. post-season college football over the last 50 years or so …
Winner: NCAA Tournament. College football has had some wonderful moments in pre-CFP era, but the way of determining a national champion went from non-existent, to weird, to a bit clunky. The College Football Playoff is all that counts now in this discussion.
NCAA Tournament: Duke. Kentucky. 1992. Mic drop. The only other reasonable answer to the Greatest Game Ever question is 1980 USA-USSR hockey.
College Football Playoff: If you include the bowl games, college football can hang, but there have only been 15 games in the College Football Playoff era. There were some gems, but the body of work isn’t there.
Winner: NCAA Tournament. Overall, the CFP games have been a wee bit lacking, mainly because …
NCAA Tournament: Everyone has their favorites, and some of the Final Four games have been among the best in the sport’s history, but more often than not, the semifinals are a bit of a letdown. Even so, there are more than enough to choose from.
College Football Playoff: The Georgia-Oklahoma 2018 Rose Bowl was as good as it gets, and the Ohio State win over Alabama in the 2015 Sugar was terrific, but for the most part, the CFP semifinals have been wildly disappointing duds.
Winner: NCAA Tournament. Eight of the ten College Football Playoff semifinal games have been blowouts.
NCAA Tournament: There aren’t as many all-timers as you might think. Out of the 79 NCAA Championships, only 25 were decided by five points or fewer. (To be fair, 2008 Kansas-Memphis was decided by seven points in that overtime thriller.) Of course there have been many, many brilliant moments and classics, but there are way, way too many clunkers in the bunch.
College Football Playoff: On a percentage basis, the College Football Playoff National Championship destroys the NCAA Tournament. So far, we’ve had three of the greatest games in the history of college football, one entertaining blowout (Ohio State over Oregon), and one total disaster (last season’s Clemson win over Alabama).
Winner: College Football Playoff. Go ahead and argue this, but Alabama-Clemson Part 1, Alabama-Clemson Part 2, and Alabama-Georgia can hang with any three NCAA Championships you want to pick,
Okay, Enough. The Better Playoff Is …
The NCAA Tournament.
Of course it is considering how it owns the sports world for three solid weeks. However, the College Football Playoff is just three tweaks away from making a run at March Madness in terms of overall intensity and greatness.
1. Expand the field to eight teams.
2. Five Power Five champions, top-ranked Group of Five champion, two wild card teams.
3. Start in mid-December with the first round, semifinals around Christmas, National Champion on January 2nd, or as soon as possible after the traditional New Year’s Day bowls.
That, and with a little more time and more of a history, the CFP can get there. But for now, it’s the end of March, and here we go. It’s NCAA Tournament time.