College football is actually considering joining the 21st century? The powers that always be are ready to mandate that the best team in the land can win the national title regardless of the name on the jersey? They’re also ready to allow a champ that maybe had the bad fortune of playing its toughest opponent on the road?
Yes, all of the above. With some built-in incentives for the big boys, but yes.
Let’s start locally. If you are a fan of the Penn State Nittany Lions or the Temple Owls, you should absolutely love this idea. With it, you could at least dream of getting in the championship tournament. Second place to Ohio State or even getting the wrong end of a division tie with the Buckeyes no longer has to mean no playoff for the Nits. A dream season could move on to a bigger dream for the Owls.
The idea that such a playoff waters down the regular season actually is quite backward. There would be so many more meaningful games, it would be crazy.
Temple in 2016, for instance, would have been a just-miss. Western Michigan’s undefeated season would have kept Temple out after the Owls won the American Athletic Conference.
That same 2016 season, Penn State and USC put together a classic Rose Bowl. Wouldn’t that game have been even more special if it had been part of a playoff? (Remember, the Christian Laettner play didn’t have to come in the national title game for Duke-Kentucky in 1992 to be an all-timer in hoops.)
We’ll get to some pitfalls. But start with the 5-12 round. Perfect. That would likely provide a way better group of games than if the playoff was simply 1-8. Alabama and Clemson and to some great degree Ohio State have risen so far above the rest that the quarterfinals on neutral fields might be kind of a dud round. A 5-12 grouping, on campus sites, is simply better competition to get the playoff kicked off.
The top four seeds still earn a bye. (Notre Dame would be ineligible for that bye, by the way, since it won’t be a conference champ. Notre Dame’s athletic director is OK with that and is, in fact, on the committee working on this.) And if it turns out No. 5 beats No. 4 or No. 6 beats No. 3, it proves the merit of having more teams involved.
Right now, if you’re a five-star prospect and want to play for a national title, your options are limited. This would expand the possibilities, which might eventually serve as a parity enhancer. (See: hoops.)
Yes, more games is an issue, and must be dealt with. The obvious answer is to do away with conference title games, since the playoff proposal is to take the six highest-ranked conference champions. Why risk losing a spot by having your top-ranked team lose in your title game? (The answer, of course, is the usual one, that leagues make guaranteed cash off those games. Even a trade for more playoff cash might not sit well if there’s a possibility of hoarding both sets of cash.)
The subject of enhanced revenue from more games brings us to the obvious. What’s in it for the players? This is no theoretical exercise. This simply must be addressed. Even playing one more game than usual is a big ask when millions could be made and the “student-athletes” still just have that same scholarship money.
One answer, it seems to me, is that allowing players to profit from their names, images and likenesses will be a part of the landscape by the time this playoff gets off the ground. Maybe week-of-game autograph shows can be part of the deal. Trevor Lawrence could have charged huge this season? Perfect. The game MVP automatically gets a poster deal? The powers had better be creative, beyond allowing bigger guarantees within already-crazy coaching salaries.
I don’t think I’m being too naive to suggest this format might actually allow a little breathing room for coaches at the powerhouses, allowing them getting more playing time for their younger guys. Right now, even Dabo Swinney has to justify his 10-year, $93 million-plus deal by winning them all for Clemson. But what if, say, a redshirt sophomore linebacker who has already proved he’s a future stud could get some more snaps? Wouldn’t that be a better deal all the way around? Maybe I am being naive, except the English Premier League could be a model. The big clubs use their rosters creatively, depending on the competition.
I’d also suggest teams cut the regular season back to 11 games, as it was for decades. (Which Nittany Lions fan or player wouldn’t trade in the Ball State at Penn State game on Sept. 11 for a better playoff shot?) You don’t cut out meaningful games to keep the unmeaningful ones, unless you just care about the guaranteed payday.
Yes, the Southeastern Conference would love this. It deserves it. Texas A&M had a case to be in last season’s four-team playoff. A second-game trip to Tuscaloosa knocked the Aggies out of it. The rest of the supposedly meaningful regular season turned out to be meaningless, even though A&M never lost again. Florida and Georgia also would have gotten in last season under this format. Is that really so bad?
This 12-team proposal also could make for some bigger nonconference games. Powerhouse A wouldn’t doom its season with a loss to Powerhouse B, and might lock up a playoff spot with a win. That’s a better equation than the current risk-averse, can’t-lose-to-anyone formula.
Last season, this 12-team scenario would have gotten both Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina into the playoff. As a believer that the first weekend of March Madness is so often the best weekend of the sports year, this is perfect.
Bottom line, if you’re not a ‘Bama or Buckeyes or Clemson fan, college football has lost so much of its mojo lately. We all wait around for the inevitable every year. (Semifinals on New Year’s Eve? Sorry, have plans already.) Maybe we still get to the same place in the end, or maybe more possibilities become self-fulfilling. Maybe Gonzaga, which dropped its football program in 1941, could even decide it wants back in.