Hot Reads: Eight's Great for CFP Expansion
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Eight’s Great for CFP Expansion, But Six Might Be Better

December 13, 2018

It finally felt like we reached college football's offseason on Wednesday, or at least the dead period between the regular season and the start of bowl season, because we spent most of the day talking playoff expansion.

The reason? A story from The Athletic's Nicole Auerbach in which such college football power brokers as Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said it's fine to think about expanding the field to eight teams.

"It's an appropriate thing to begin thinking about," Bowlsby said in the story.

"Everyone has the same feeling," Alvarez said, "expansion is inevitable."

It does feel inevitable but because this is big-time college football, it won't happen without a fight. The SEC, which invented the conference championship game, really wants to hold on to a lucrative weekend in Atlanta. (If you decide you want to go to next year's SEC championship game, no matter which teams are playing, good luck. You'll have to enter a ticket lottery as most of those tickets, minus the allotments reserved for the teams that make it, are already sold year in and year out. I wouldn't want to give that up if I were the SEC commissioner either.) The bowls –– at least the big, historic ones –– are a powerful lobby group (essentially) that has to be kept happy. University presidents have to hold the line on the academic-calendar concern, which they will right up until the moment that most don't and then it won't be a concern until the next round of expansion is up for discussion. Notre Dame's independence remains an annoying quirk to be figured out, too.

There are a lot of different and competing interests.

But expansion will happen. The FCS playoff (then Division I-AA) started as a four-team tournament in 1978. It expanded to eight teams in 1981, 12 teams in 1982, 16 teams in 1986, 20 teams in 2008 and 24 teams in 2013, where it stands now. That includes every conference champion that wants to be involved –– the Ivy League, MEAC and SWAC opt out –– and 14 at-large teams selected by a committee, which tries to factor in geography when seeding teams. But you still end up with instances like this year in which Maine had to go to Utah to face Weber State last week, and this week gets to travel to Eastern Washington. Somehow the world hasn't ended.

The natural state for an NCAA postseason has been one of expansion, but the NCAA has nothing to do with the postseason of FBS football. That's a hurdle as it means all of the various power brokers have to agree on something, rather than one governing body, and a loose collection of conference commissioners and university athletic directors isn't exactly interested in a level playing field. Those people are incentivized not to be.

But an interest in fairness is what might actually force the first change to the College Football Playoff. When the four-team format was announced for the 2014 season, few fans were legitimately worried that one Power 5 conference, sometimes two, would have to be left out. The concern for a really good Group of 5 teams was even less.

In practice, however, I think we're finding that people do chafe at the notion that a team like UCF has no real path to the Playoff, and it might be what drives this first round of expansion. I don't think it will be to eight (five P5 champs, best G5 team, two at-large spots), though that seems to be the basic strategy.

After watching a four-team playoff operate for five years, I prefer six as the next step because I think it's a bigger change to the sport's prevailing mindset than eight would be. Six would provide clarity, which I think would relieve the most angst among college football fans, but also limits and limits are often important.

You can't provide perfect clarity at six, but it's a first step. The Power 5 conference champs get an auto bid, as does the top G5 conference champion. That's it. Except for the annoying Notre Dame thing. You'd have to say that if Notre Dame, or any independent (wink, wink; nudge, nudge), ranked ahead of one of the six conference champions then the lowest-ranked team would be out.

In my mind it's not Notre Dame or the G5 champion, but Notre Dame or the lowest-ranked champion. Using this year's final CFP rankings as an example, No. 8 UCF would get in ahead of No. 9 Washington. At six you've eliminated the "best teams" stipulation in favor of a clear path to qualification (minus the few exceptions; thanks again, Notre Dame).

Those exceptions would be lesser than the current model, but still annoying enough when they happen to drive additional expansion and what I actually want for this sport: the FCS model. Every conference champion gets in, that's 10, and then the selection committee selects the x best teams.

Based on what we saw with the FCS playoff, having that x variable is valuable. At six teams, x is effectively zero and that will cause a bunch of hand-wringing as really good teams, some of the best teams, get left out. So you increase x to four and that's a little better, but you'll still be leaving some good teams out so there will be pressure to increase x a little more. And as the tournament expands it becomes easier to just let every conference champion in eventually.

Imagine that, a world where Coastal Carolina's path to the playoff is the same as Clemson's –– win your conference. Everyone understands what their team needs to do. FBS football's caste system begins to wither. We debate how big x should be until x reaches a point where the arguments for expansion are just a murmur.

It's almost like this model works in other sports. Or even this sport, just not at the highest level.

Six teams get the college football world to that point more quickly than eight would because it erases the “best” designation and blurs the class line between P5 and G5 once. And once you’ve done it once, it’s easier to do it twice, which only increases the pressure to start getting more of the “best” teams back into the postseason.

If a large playoff field is your aim, six is the perfect starting point.

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