Nebraska Football Coach Scott Frost
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

An Expanded CFP Could Seriously Alter Coaching Expectations

June 15, 2021

Currently, the College Football Playoff dominates national discussion around the sport, particularly late in the year. The question that now matters most: “Who will make the four-team CFP?” An expanded playoff field and a lower barrier for entry would presumably only expand that coverage more. 

As the sport’s leaders and broadcast partners grapple with how to talk about the title race without forgetting the other 100 or so programs that still won’t be in the championship discussion, the new playoff format and how we discuss it could have an unintended consequence on the life expectancy of current head coaches. 

In case you missed it, it was reported last week that a 12-team playoff format is in the offing. Recommended by a four-member working group, the format that will replace the current four-team set-up will be presented to the CFP management committee this week for endorsement, which would send it to the CFP Board of Managers in late June. It is expected to be adopted.

The format change would come no sooner than 2023 and possibly take as long as 2026 to arrive, once the current TV deal with ESPN for the four-team CFP has expired. 

This new CFP would feature six automatic bids, awarded to conference champions ranked highest in the final CFP ranking. Group of Five schools would be guaranteed at least one slot, and with the terminology being “highest-ranking champions” and not “Power Five champions plus one,” they could theoretically get multiple bids. Had this format been in effect this past college football season, both Cincinnati (AAC) and Coastal Carolina (Sun Belt) would have made the dance.

The four highest-ranked conference champs would earn first-round byes as the top four seeds. The six remaining spots would be awarded to the next highest-ranked teams as at-large bids.

Since the news broke, the numbers have come out about how exclusive the current format is and how open this specific 12-team bracket might be. Nearly 79% of playoff bids since the CFP’s inception have gone to five schools. Over that same time period, applying this 12-team model, 39 different programs would have been able to claim at least one berth. 

Let’s talk specifically about Nebraska. 

Entering into year four, Scott Frost has a 12-20 record. The expectation this season for him is to rise above .500 and be, at the very least, in the thick of the Big Ten West. He certainly isn’t in a win-or-go-home mode, but Frost has had a lengthier runway than most of his peers from the beginning.

As it relates to the Playoff, Nebraska is nowhere near the discussion, nor does anyone expect them to be.

The average record of the teams selected for each playoff has been 11.8-0.6. No two-loss team has ever made it. Nebraska seems a ways away from that field.

Under a 12-team model, the average team making the field would have 1.5 losses. Applied to each playoff since 2014, we would have seen 26 teams get a bid with two losses and 15 more get in with three losses (so 49% of the participants would have had multiple losses in their season). Would that 2016 Husker team have still felt like it had a pathway to the postseason even after the throttling it took at the hands of Ohio State? Might that year have ended differently as a result? (Probably not.)

Instead of a perfect season that includes running through Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, sometimes Northwestern, occasionally Michigan, and maybe Penn State depending on who is across the field in the Big Ten title game, Nebraska could stumble a couple times. If it wins the right games and takes the West, it’s a game away from the CFP.

What does that shift in dynamics do to the way a coach is evaluated?

Whereas before that one extra loss might be the difference between a NY6 bowl and the Outback Bowl, now, it might mean the difference between a playoff bid and a bowl game without much punch. 

If you’re Kirby Smart, this new set-up would be great. Instead of a Peach Bowl against Cincinnati where half your team sits out and your fans don’t care, now you’re almost assured a playoff spot. 

But if you’re in that middle class of teams/coaches, an 8-4 season that was once deemed a success is now a near miss. 

Would that read as a failure? 

At least five NFL coaches have been fired in each of the last four offseasons. Turnover in the NFL is significantly higher than in the Power Five ranks at the college level despite a coaching pool half the size. 

No more than seven coaches have been fired from Power Five programs in each of the last four seasons and no more than 10.8% of the pool. In 2020, 22% of NFL teams fired their coach. In 2019 and 2017, it was 16%. In 2018, it was 25%. 

NBA clubs fire coaches like Terry Stotts, who has made the postseason eight straight years. NFL franchises are not bashful about cutting loose coaches early in their tenures if they feel the talent on the roster exceeds the performance on the field.

The trend in college has been moving in that direction as well. The average tenure is about four years. Last year, Banner Society looked at 229 FBS coaching changes from 2005 to 2014 and found that 18% of coaches were fired after four years, another 9% were fired after three, and 8% were canned within their first two years on the job. So over a third of coaching candidates over a decade were given four years to turn things around. 

And that was before the Playoff, with even less access to a national title. 

Look at the 2017 class of coaches Scott Frost was hired with. Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee has already been fired. Chad Morris at Arkansas has already been fired. Willie Taggert at Florida State has already been fired. Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State has already been fired. 

This offseason, Gus Malzahn was let go by Auburn after eight years, a 68-35 record, two NY6 bowl games and a national championship appearance. Now, Malzahn’s record in the postseason was unsightly but he didn’t have a losing season on his ledger with the Tigers. 

If this 12-team model would have been in place rather than the four-team playoff, Auburn would have made it only once. With the SEC earning 19 of the 84 bids given out over that timeframe, would one appearance have been deemed a success or a failure? Would Malzahn have lasted as long? 

What if a program at the Power Five level feels it has the resources that should merit regular competition for one of those 12 playoff spots. Does a coach only get two years now? Some recent NFL coaches have gotten less.

Perhaps nothing happens. Perhaps impatience continues a trend of coaches getting less and less slack to turn around middling programs irrespective of what the CFP does. But as we’ve seen with professional sports expanding their postseasons, good-not-great teams sometimes aren’t good enough anymore. 

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