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Joe Burrow Did Something Pretty Cool in the College Football Playoff
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An Expanded College Football Playoff is a Huge Win for the Sport

June 13, 2021

We’re possibly (likely?) getting an expanded College Football Playoff. That was the news of the past week as, on Thursday, many of the plugged-in national college football writers reported that a 12-team playoff format is in the offing. Cooked up by a four-member working group that has been looking at expansion options for two years, the 12-team format will be presented to the CFP management committee this upcoming week for endorsement, which would send it to the CFP Board of Managers in late June.

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. 

It would feature six automatic bids, awarded to conference champions ranked highest in the final CFP ranking. With six, Group of Five schools are guaranteed at least one slot, and with the terminology being “highest-ranking champions” and not “Power Five champions plus one,” possibly more. The four highest-ranked conference champs would earn first-round byes as the top four seeds. The six remaining spots would go to the next highest-ranked teams. 

Some thoughts…

A monumental win, and a major step forward

Eight would not have squashed the cult topic that is playoff expansion.

Twelve with all the Power Five champions gaining automatic entry into the field would have presented problems still. Using last season’s final standings, Oregon would have taken Coastal Carolina’s spot despite playing half as many games and losing twice as many. This would have presented problems.

To expand the playoffs is to acknowledge and attempt to rectify one of the sport’s bigger unspoken truths: it hasn’t ever actually been interested in a true playoff system, only placating the power brokers and crowning the team with the biggest proverbial muscles.

Since the first four-team CFP, nearly 78.5% of the bids have gone to five schools—Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame. In four of the last five seasons, no team has made the final four that was outside the top seven in the first CFP rankings. 

To go with 12 in the way the format is currently written signals that everyone is on board, finally, with opening up.

If a 12-team field had been in effect for the last decade, 44 different programs could say they’ve earned a playoff bid. Since the first playoff in 2014, only 11 programs have been able to say that.

“(The new format) creates energy in October and November,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby on a teleconference call with media this week. “The practical effect of this will be that with four to five weeks to go in the season, there will be 25 or 30 teams that have a legitimate claim and practical opportunity to participate.”

Alabama and Clemson and Ohio State will still operate at the top of the food chain, and the SEC will probably still be the strongest conference in the land, but it might lessen the gap between the top and the middle.  

The Bamas and Georgias of the world will still get a good percentage of the top recruits, but a lot of recruiting just has to do with geography. Those schools get the best players because the best players grow up close to those schools.

The differentiator has been the Playoff. “Come here and you can compete for a national title.” Only six programs have consistently been able to use that recruiting card. Alabama doesn’t have the best academic institution in the country, and it doesn’t have facilities head and shoulders clear of the competition.

It regularly puts players into the NFL, but North Dakota State just had a quarterback taken in the top five of the NFL Draft. Pro careers don’t exclusively run through the richest programs, and in that regard it’s more about coaching staffs than institutions anyway. 

Over the last seven years of the CFP’s existence, 30% of FBS programs would have been able to tell their recruits “we’ve been to a Playoff” if we were using this model instead. There’s no way that wouldn’t have at least a small impact on the concentration of top talent. Football players are nuanced, complex, and concerned about a lot more than NFL paychecks. Is that a big deal? Sure, but they aren’t given enough credit for the decisions they make that take other factors into account. 

More teams with access to a pathway to the title means more elements of a school can carry recruiting weight beyond just winning.

Cynics will say nothing will change, but this model could address both of college football’s biggest issues. 

More intrigue from the start of the regular season through to the end

The regular season to some has become boring. Those resistant to expansion feared doing so would dilute the meaning of a team’s first 12 games. College football has always had the most consequential regular season of any sport. One loss—at any time—might derail your season. This was true with the BCS when a field goal that should have been ruled good was ruled wide and Oklahoma State saw its national titles hopes dashed in Ames, Iowa. And it has been true in the CFP era where the selection committee has waffled on schedule strength. 

Funny enough, the CFP expanding its field is done now in an attempt to reinvigorate the regular season.

Division games suddenly mean so much more. Win your division, get to the conference championship game, and you’re one win away. If you enter that game at a respectable 9-3, you might even be just one good showing away. Nebraska’s late-season stretch run through Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern gets even more important. 

An early-season loss might not carry as much weight as it once did, but what if the impact of that is more marquee out-of-conference games? What if Alabama—whose coach has said Power Five should only play Power Five—scheduled more frequent games against other top teams early in the year, unafraid of what a trip-up toward the starting line would do to its finish line? Better for the product, right? 

Late-season opt-outs have been a become a hot button issue of late, but this might address that too. 

When Florida played Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl last season, it did so without some of its top weapons. Players like Kyle Pitts were getting ready for the NFL because a Cotton Bowl trophy under the current set-up is not reason enough for a player who is about to go make a lot of money in the league to risk a freak injury.

Under this 12-team model, that Florida team is hosting a Playoff game in December. Those players that sat out the Cotton Bowl are playing in a Playoff game. Another plus.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this would be a model that would lead to the best period football period team period winning a national championship less often, which would be a good thing.

College football is the only sport without the randomness of a late-season surge built into its title equation. The Cavs beat the Golden State Warriors. The Tampa Bay Bucs beat the Kansas City Chiefs. The Giants beat the Patriots. A 16-seed beat Virginia. Jimmy V and NC State beat Phi Slama Jama. The “best” team doesn’t always have to win. That’s the allure of sports.

A 12-team field introduces randomness into the equation in a way it has never been. 

According to Bill Connelly’s SP+ projections, the No. 1 seed in this 12-team format only has a 71% chance of reaching the semifinals. That’s a 29% chance it doesn’t. A lot bigger than you expected, right? 

Contentious sites for the quarters

The largest pain point since the recommendation’s reveal has centered around the sites for the quarterfinal games. 

Seeds five through eight will get to host a first-round playoff game on their campus. Consider that home game revenue juiced. 

But the first four seeds won’t get to host a game. Quarterfinal games will be played at bowl sites. “Certainly, the history and the commitment to bowls have … given them an opportunity to continue to be relevant in the system,” said Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. The CFP is scratching the backs of the big bowls. 

This doesn’t bother me as much as it seems to bother others. 

College football is an unabashed business, and it has been for a long time. Bowl games sticking around should not have come as a shock.

Would a playoff game in Tuscaloosa be cool? Absolutely. Is a meaningful and impactful game at the Rose Bowl also cool? Absolutely. I’ve been to a Sugar Bowl and it was one of the best professional experiences of my life. Attending the Rose Bowl is on my bucket list. When did big bowl games not become cool? 

Proponents for a quarterfinal playoff game at home rather than at a neutral site who aren’t arguing about the pageantry of the home environment are championing the attending fan. 

Asking them to pay to travel for a quarterfinal game and then a semifinal game and then a championship game puts too much strain on the pocketbook, some have argued. 

The average cost of a ticket on secondary marketplaces for the 2018 National Championship was $4,000. The average cost for the 2017 game was $2,900. The average cost for the 2020 game between LSU and Clemson was $2,200. The average fan isn’t going to these games as is. The people attending multiple of these games will likely be able to afford to add another one to the list. 

And if the argument is that it’s somehow unfair to Alabama that a lower-seeded team gets to host a home playoff game while they have to play at a neutral site after their first-round bye, the counter would be that Alabama has a significantly higher chance of playing for a national championship than the lower-seeded team. Is that not a trade-off Nick Saban would accept? 

Adding those extra games

My only thought on this is we should wait and see what the players themselves think before deciding whether this is a step too far. 

Under the recommended format, a team could now play a max of 17 games in a season. I would ask, though, how likely it is for a team playing in the first round to make it all the way to the title game. The occasions in which a team runs the gauntlet might be few and far between. Using Connelly’s projections again, these are the following odds of each seed reaching just the semifinal game: 5-seed, 33%; 6-seed, 31%; 7-seed, 29%; 8-seed, 13%; 9-seed, 17%; 10-seed, 9%; 11-seed, 13%; 12-seed, 8%.

Pay the players their piece of the pie first, then let’s get through a couple of these things and see how they feel, then we can go from there. 

If they want fewer games on the schedule, then let’s use this opportunity to bring uniformity to regular-season scheduling. Eight conference games across every league, two non-conference games, and now you’re back to 15 games for a conference title team that runs the gauntlet. 

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