Contributors, Football, Sean Manning, Sports, WVU Sports

COLUMN: How WVU historically would shake out in a 12-team playoff


Many jumped for joy in 2014 when it was announced Florida State was going to be the last national champion in the BCS era — a computer-generated system that allowed just two teams to vie for the biggest prize in college football.

Finally, a playoff was going to decide which team won it all, something many fans, programs and conferences wanted for years.

Four teams were selected by a committee and competed in a simple 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 format, before culminating in the national championship game.

It sounded like a step in the right direction, but it was soon realized the human element, plus the rich getting richer, made the current College Football Playoff a detriment to the regular season, and made bowl season almost meaningless.

Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma received 71% of the invites over the course of the last seven seasons, and one of those four teams have won the national title six times — the lone exception was LSU in 2019. No, automatic qualifiers didn’t help, as the same teams with continuous preseason hype didn’t allow for any chance at a Cinderella story, especially for Group of 5 programs.

Now, a 12-team format is on the table, and will likely be established sometime between 2023 and 2026 (for the sake of college football, let’s hope sooner rather than later). The natural step after the four-team format was to increase that total, but many didn’t know where the CFP Management  Committee would land between six, eight, 12 or 16.

Going from four to 12 is the sweet spot, especially under the current proposal — the six highest-ranked conference champions, regardless of Power 5 or Group of 5, make the playoff. The remaining field will consist of six at-large bids.

This makes conference championships far more meaningful than under the four-team model, while also making the college football regular season — the best in American sports — impactful with six at-large qualifiers fighting it out.

The best conference champions, voted on by the CFP Committee, would be awarded first-round byes, so even the guaranteed top schools like your Alabamas, Clemsons, Ohio States and Oklahomas have something to play for late.

It could also force independent schools like Notre Dame and BYU to join a conference, since only conference champions can be awarded byes.

So where does this leave a school like WVU? It can only help the Mountaineers, which haven’t exactly come close to the CFP since it started in 2014. The lone exception was 2018, reaching as high as No. 9 in the CFP rankings before losing the last two games of the regular season to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, to completely fall out of contention.

It would still take a strong regular season for a program like WVU to make the 12-team playoff. More than two losses would likely eliminate the Mountaineers and similar programs, while the blue bloods could probably lose three and still get in.

Over the course of its long history, the WVU football program, as many know, is the winningest to never win a national title. In the same vein, even with 12 teams making the playoff, there are only a handful of times the Mountaineers would have made it retroactively in their 130-year history.

The most recent may be obvious, going back to the Pat White era in 2007 and 2005. The 2007 squad finished the regular season 10-2, and likely would have played for the BCS Championship if not for a “not-to-be-mentioned” loss to Pitt in early December. WVU dropped to No. 9 in the BCS rankings, which would have safely put them in the field of 12 as the Big East champion.

In 2005, the Mountaineers went 10-1 and won the Big East, finishing the regular season at No. 11.

Again, the next two chances may be at the top of your head — 1993 and 1988. The ’93 Mountaineers won the Big East and finished the regular season undefeated at 11-0, and were No. 3 in the AP Poll, which was far more meaningful in the pre-BCS era.

In 1988, WVU did play for the national title against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl following an 11-0 campaign, so clearly would have made a 12-team playoff.

The 1982 Mountaineers upset Oklahoma on the road to start the year and finished the regular season at 9-2, with one loss coming to eventual national champion Pitt and Dan Marino. WVU was ranked No. 10 in the AP poll and would have squeezed into the field of 12.

The last two opportunities were under Art “Pappy” Lewis in the early 1950s, where the Mountaineers won the Southern Conference in 1954 and 1953. In ’54, they went 8-1 in the regular season and would have made it at No. 12 in the AP poll, and the year prior, also went 8-1 and were No. 10 in the AP poll.

Total, WVU would have made the field of 12 seven times out of 129 years of football, but the overall meaningful impact it would have across the nation is worth the change.

The regular season will mean more, conference championships will mean more, and the underdog will have a shot it has no chance at right now.

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