Examining The College Football Playoff With The FCS Playoffs Format

Examining The College Football Playoff With The FCS Playoffs Format

As the era of the four-team College Football Playoff concludes, take a look at how the FBS postseason would unfold with an FCS-inspired bracket style.

Dec 13, 2023 by Kyle Kensing
Examining The College Football Playoff With The FCS Playoffs Format

Four teams remain in the hunt for the national championship at both the Football Championship Subdivision and Football Bowl Subdivision levels. How each got to four teams could not be much more different. 

In the FCS, reaching the semifinal is a major milestone earned on the field. The same is true to for the FBS — to an extent. 

The College Football Playoff debuted nearly 10 years ago with the promise of crowning an undisputed national champion in the FBS. That hasn't exactly worked out as planned. 

The last edition of the four-team Playoff puts a cap on the short-lived system with its most controversial result yet. The omission of undefeated Atlantic Coast Conference champion Florida State underscores the half-measure that was adopting a four-team field. 

Contrast the turmoil inherent with the current College Football Playoff to the history of the FCS Playoffs. Despite undergoing changes over the years, the FCS tournament has crowned a champion without the controversy marking some of the Playoff's in the latter's 10 years. 

For a primer on how the FCS Playoffs formatting and seeding works, click here. 

Here's a look at this season's College Football Playoff if it used the FCS format. 

FCS Playoffs Format 

Automatic bids

Since expanded to its current, 24-team format, the FCS Playoffs feature the champion of every conference except the Southwestern Athletic and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conferences, which send their winners to the annual Celebration Bowl; and Ivy League, which opts out of the postseason altogether. 

The Big South and Ohio Valley formed a scheduling alliance and send one representative. The ASUN and Western Athletic Conferences combined to form the United Athletic Conference specifically for football. 

Altogether, FCS has 10 automatic bids — the same amount the FBS would have if it used the FCS Playoffs format. That makes for an easy, one-to-one comparison. 

  • SMU, American Athletic 
  • Florida State, Atlantic Coast 
  • Texas, Big 12 
  • Michigan, Big Ten 
  • Liberty, Conference USA 
  • Miami University, Mid-American 
  • Boise State, Mountain West 
  • Washington, Pac-12 
  • Alabama, Southeastern 
  • Troy, Sun Belt 

At-Large selections

To avoid subjective debate about who is or isn't deserving, let's apply the College Football Playoff committee rankings to determine the 14 at-large berths. Doing so produces the following entrants into the Playoff: 

ACC: Louisville, North Carolina State 

Big 12: Oklahoma 

Big Ten: Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa 

Independent: Notre Dame 

Pac-12: Oregon, Arizona, Oregon State

SEC: Georgia, Missouri, Ole Miss, LSU 

National seeds

Applying the same rankings determines the top-eight national seeds, which receive 1st Round byes. 

  1. Michigan* 
  2. Washington*  
  3. Texas* 
  4. Alabama* 
  5. Florida State* 
  6. Georgia 
  7. Ohio State
  8. Oregon

1st Round matchups 

FCS Playoffs bracketing sets up 1st Round matchups based on region as much as applicable. The committee also avoids regular-season rematches through the first two rounds, which requires some adjustments to the hypothetical FBS bracket. 

For example, North Carolina State saw both Notre Dame and Louisville in the regular season. That adjusts the Wolfpack's matchup. Adhering to regional pairings is mostly smooth sailing without sacrificing positioning in the Playoff poll, though Oregon State does have to make a lengthy trip as effectively the last at-large bid into the field. 

Miami U.* at Missouri 

Miami claimed its second MAC championship in five seasons with its defeat of Toledo. The RedHawks draw what is ostensible the lowest seed, traveling to face the College Football Playoff committee's ninth-ranked Missouri Tigers. 

Missouri enjoyed a breakout 10-2 regular season, with its only losses coming against two-time defending champion Georgia and LSU — both of which qualify for the FCS Playoffs-style field. The Tigers reached the 10-win mark with plenty of close calls along the way, including a month-long stretch in which it beat MTSU, 23-19; Kansas State, 30-27; and Memphis, 34-27. 

That's all to say Miami U. could be a potential Cinderella story. The winner of this matchup moves onto Autzen Stadium in the 2nd Round to face Oregon. 

Liberty* at Penn State

Undefeated CUSA champion Liberty heads to Happy Valley for its 1st Round Playoff matchup. Flames coach Jamey Chadwell is uniquely familiar with the tournament format, having coached both Gulf South Conference member North Greenville to the NCAA Div. II Playoffs quarterfinal in 2011 when NGU was an independent; and twice leading Charleston Southern to the FCS Playoffs. 

Because Penn State faced Ohio State in the regular season, the winner is bracketed to meet No. 6 Georgia in the 2nd Round. 

Troy* at Ole Miss 

Sun Belt Conference champion Troy put together consecutive double-digit-win seasons for the second time this decade, having won 10-plus three times from 2016 through 2018. 

The Trojans' success in FBS continues an impressive legacy that includes a pair of Div. II national championships. The first, claimed in 1984 under the direction of Chan Gailey, culminated in a semifinal win over Towson and a championship-game defeat of longtime powerhouse North Dakota State

Ole Miss welcomes Troy to The Grove for the 1st Round encounter. The winner heads to Columbus for a 2nd Round meeting with Ohio State. 

SMU* at Oklahoma

Once upon a time, this would have been a meeting of powers representing the Southwest and Big 8 Conferences. In 2023, it's a prelude to a future ACC vs. SEC pairing. 

With its defeat of Tulane in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, SMU makes its biggest strides in the 36 years since the NCAA hit it with unprecedented sanctions. The opportunity to score a win at Oklahoma in a meeting of regional counterparts would make for an especially electric atmosphere in Norman, with the opportunity to head to Florida State in the 2nd Round at stake. 

NC State at LSU 

Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels leading LSU into the first-ever matchup between the Tigers and North Carolina State offers some intrigue. NC State's defense finished the season holding opponents to 15.4 points per game over a five-game winning streak. 

The winner in Baton Rogue head to Austin for a meeting with Texas, as LSU faced both fourth-seeded Alabama and fifth-seeded Florida State in the regular season. 

Boise State* at Arizona

In a rematch of the 2014 season's Fiesta Bowl, Mountain West Conference champion Boise State heads to the Grand Canyon State for a showdown with Arizona. Circumstances setting up this meeting are remarkable similar to nine years ago, with the Broncos recovering from an uncharacteristic stumble in the regular season to win the conference under a new head coach (in this case, Spencer Danielson, who just recently had the "interim" tag lifted). 

Arizona, meanwhile, is under a third-year head coach in Jedd Fisch as it was in 2014 under Rich Rodriguez. The surprising Wildcats went 9-3 and finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak after freshman Noah Fifita took over at quarterback. 

The winner sees Florida State as a result of the potential rematches otherwise on what would be this side of the bracket. 

Iowa at Louisville

A pair of 10-win teams and two of the top 21-ranked defenses in FBS, an Iowa-Louisville showdown in the 1st Round of a 24-team, FCS Playoffs-style postseason offers plenty of intrigue. What's more, this would be a first-time matchup between the programs. 

The winner heads to Seattle to face No. 2 seed Washington in the 2nd Round. 

Oregon State at Notre Dame 

The greatest season in modern times for Oregon State culminated with the Beavers pounding Notre Dame in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl. 

A hypothetical Playoff rematch sends Oregon State to South Bend — not exactly a regional matchup, but the most realistic circumstances for the Beavers' postseason positioning. 

Awaiting the winner is No. 1 seed Michigan.