Today, the majority of the conferences across college football will hold their championship games, which will be the final step as the NCAA shakes out its 4-team field for its national championship playoff. Despite the fact that there are still games to be played, the arguments and griping over potential snubs started quite a while ago. Aside from the arguments over which teams should be in the playoff, there has been a lot of discussion over how big the playoff bracket should be. As you can probably tell from the title of this post, I am firmly in the “8-team playoff” camp.
The biggest argument for the 4-team playoff seems to be that it’s fine that teams and their fan bases should feel disappointment because it is SUPPOSED to be hard to get into the tournament to begin with. I get that. You don’t want just anybody to get in and you want to avoid devaluing college football’s regular season. Again, I understand. However, I fail to see how an 8-team playoff takes anything away from the regular season. The ESPN article that led to me making my case for playoff expansion makes a few points that I just flat out disagree with. I’m cherry-picking quotes here, but the piece states, “There was more on the line during Week 12, and there will be even more on the line next weekend in the conference title games”. Will there be? I’m not so sure, because regardless of who wins tonight’s Penn State-Wisconsin game, I think the Big 10 Champion is going to get jobbed out of the playoff, which will include a Big 10 team in Ohio State that couldn’t even win its own division. That may sound like I’m being harsh on the Buckeyes, but in reality, they deserve to be there. So does the Big 10 champion, and the ACC champion, and the SEC champion, and so forth.
I have another knock on the argument for the current system making the conference title games feel more important. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Florida somehow beats Alabama in this afternoon’s SEC Championship game. Is there ANY chance that the NCAA bumps its golden child Alabama out of the playoff? Absolutely not, the worst that may happen is that the Crimson Tide falls from the 1-seed to the 3-seed in the tournament. And you know what? They shouldn’t bump Alabama out of the tournament; they are year-in, year-out one of the best programs in America. Why wouldn’t you want them in the playoff? At the same time, would a Florida win get them into the tournament? I’ll tell you right now, that answer is “no”, so why does this game really matter under the current playoff format? Here’s a hint…it doesn’t.
College football went into a bit of upheaval over the past few seasons as teams jumped conferences (or at least tried to), all in an effort to get a seat in a Power 5 (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) conference. The thinking was if they could get into one of those conferences and win the championship game, they could be in the running for a national championship. The current 4-team playoff undermines that. Even in a year where all four teams in the playoff are conference champions, one of the Power 5 conference champions is getting left out of the playoff. Now you have a scenario where, at most, 3 conference champions will make the playoff. Sorry, but that’s just stupid.
The saying when universities were trying to jump conferences was that they were doing so because “college football drives the bus” when it comes to revenue. Maybe so, but perhaps it’s time for the powers that be in college football to get off their high horse and take a cue from their brethren in the world of college basketball. The time has come for auto-bids for conference champions and at-large bids for other worthy contenders. You can’t do that without expanding to an 8-team playoff.
So in my scenario, you have the Power 5 conference champions getting auto-bids, and you still have three at-large bids open. What this means is that you still get to have all of the arguments and controversy that makes for fun discussion when talking about those last three spots. Let’s look at this year, for example. Ohio State will get one of those at-large bids. We can make an argument for Michigan getting an at-large bid. I keep hearing USC get called the best 3-loss team in America. Do they deserve to get in? What about a team from one of the Group of 5 conferences (American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference, Sun Belt Conference) that do not have as much prestige as the Power 5? Western Michigan is now 13-0 after winning the MAC Championship last night and has a potential first round pick in WR Corey Davis, who is now the NCAA’s all-time leader in receiving yards among FBS programs. What if we made them an 8-seed going up against the number 1 seed Alabama? Wouldn’t it be fun to see Davis go up against Alabama’s secondary, which is full of future NFL players?
The fun arguments can even extend beyond who gets into the playoff. What about seeding? Right now, Ohio State is the 2-seed if you were to go by the rankings. What if Clemson, the current 3-seed, has an over-the-top performance in the ACC Championship game and jumps the Buckeyes in the polls? As it stands now, they’ll play each other either way. In an 8-team playoff, though, this could force Ohio State into a less favorable matchup.
What about the concept of bid thieves? Let’s say that Florida does beat Alabama later today. That means that Florida gets in by “stealing” an auto-bid, so Alabama ends up getting one of the at-large bids. Who does that bump out of the playoff picture? That helps to ensure interest across the country all the way through the conference championship games. Under the 8-team system, Michigan fans will watch that SEC Championship game with interest and pull for Alabama, because they know that if Alabama loses, they may bump Michigan out of the picture.
America is a football-crazy nation. Are we really going to sit here and pretend that adding more playoff games isn’t going to contribute to the NCAA’s coffers? Yes, a few of those semi-final games have had poor ratings in the past, but that’s because you put those games on New Year’s Eve, when folks are busy heading out to parties, getting sloshed, and blacking out before the ball drops. Start the first round at the same time as you have some of these bowl games nobody cares about, like the Belk Bowl or the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl. This will give the playoff participants a week or two off, but not too much time off that rust can set in.
The NCAA made a strong first step in settling the national championship picture on the field when it moved to a 4-team playoff. Now it’s time to move to a field that would truly be representative of all that major college football has to offer without diminishing the regular season product. When it comes to providing a true opportunity without watering down the field too much, eight truly would be great.