WRITER’S NOTE: This is a column I wrote about expanding the College Football Playoff from four to eight teams for WinnersandWhiners:
It is now year five of the great (or not-so-great) College Football Playoff era. The powers that be created a committee of 13 of the sport’s best and brightest to find the best four teams who then slug it out over two games around the new year and shortly thereafter to be declared the national champion.
By and large, the College Football Playoff (CFP) has been well-received. Fans of big-time college had long been clamoring for a playoff given the subjective whims of poll voters and the arcane coefficients of computers that can sometimes skew a set of rankings. A bonus of the CFP is since it is technically not overseen by the NCAA, college sports’ governing body cannot screw it up. The CFP also figured out how to make every major bowl feel loved, rotating the three playoff games among six sites, and the three sites which do not host a playoff game still get a marquee matchup from the best of the rest.
Yet not everyone is happy. The biggest issue is the CFP consists of only four teams, and in the previous four seasons, all 16 teams have come from Power 5 Conferences. Invariably, a worthy team(s) comes along and fails to get the opportunity to be the best team because there’s no room.
Ohio State could feel aggrieved it was left out last season as Big Ten conference champion considering Alabama did not even reach the SEC title game. UCF could feel aggrieved considering it went 13-0 and defeated Auburn – which beat Alabama – and did not play in an upper-tier bowl let alone the CFP.
There are many potential fixes, all of which are messy and will never satisfy everyone. But for the sake of this exercise, let’s take Occam’s Razor and expand the CFP from four teams to eight.
Reason 1 – All Power 5 conference champions would be represented.
One extra round of playoffs removes a majority of complaints – that a four-team playoff is too restrictive and leaves a potential champion on the sidelines.
Could Ohio State have won the CFP last year? Maybe. Would everyone like to have seen Alabama and Ohio State play a potential quarterfinal game? Hell, yeah.
Having all power five conferences represented in the CFP is an eventuality considering the growing chasm in athletic budgets between Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences. With eight teams, no one cares if the Pac-12 endures a down year because the champion is represented. With eight teams, no one cares if one of the Power 5 conferences has two teams because there are still two other available spots. And with eight teams, there is more room for one of the Group of 5 conferences to crash the party. Which brings us to…
Reason 2 – The little guy will get his due.
The NCAA Tournament is great because it is inclusive. At Midnight Madness in October, all 350-plus Division I teams start with the chance to be in the 68-team field come March. The average person gravitates to the NCAA Tournament partly because they have $10 in the office pool but also because something special can happen when an underdog has access to the tournament.
Loyola’s run to the Final Four and Maryland-Baltimore County’s upset of No. 1 seed Virginia are Exhibits A and B. When teams like UCF go unbeaten and get shut out of the CFP, it subtracts from the drama needed to draw in the average and neutral fans. And when teams like UCF are shut out of the CFP for simply being not ranked high enough in the preseason or do not have a quality opponent in-conference to enhance their power rating, the injustice is magnified because teams from Power 5 conferences may have ducked these smaller schools KNOWING full well how good they are.
There is a natural curiosity about smaller teams reaching the pinnacle of college football. Think UCF last year. Think Northern Illinois playing in the Orange Bowl in 2013. Think Boise State in 2009. Think Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl in 2007. People want to see these Davids take on Goliath. More times than not, Goliath wins. But sometimes David does, as Oklahoma can fully attest.
Reason 3 – On-campus playoff games.
And now, the most contentious point of this proposal. The semifinal and final rotation of stadiums would remain the same. The teams ranked ninth through 16th in the CFP would play at the other four of the six major bowl sites. Having an eight-team playoff with the quarterfinals on campus sites makes both the regular season and conference championship meaningful.
The games would be played the week after the conference championship games to accommodate the student body being on campus and so players (and fellow students) can spend holidays with their families. In a perfect world, it also compresses the television schedule of bowl season. College football is all about atmosphere and iconic stadiums. A full week of on-campus hype to a playoff game is worth its weight in gold for colleges and universities in terms of free advertising.
Consider: Would you rather see Virginia Tech play Oklahoma at Jerry World in Dallas, or would you rather see the Hokies host the Sooners at Lane Stadium with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blasting with a blackout crowd in Blacksburg?
Would you rather watch Wisconsin play Alabama in Orlando or in Madison when it’s possibly snowing and the Badger student section is making Camp Randall quake when House of Pain’s “Jump Around” hits the sound system?
For the team, a quarterfinal home game is the absolute apex of motivation. Having a playoff game on campus gets the student body directly involved in a low-cost way as opposed to them paying exorbitant amounts of money for airline tickets and hotel rooms over the holiday season.
Reason 4 – Mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money.
ESPN is paying nearly $500 million dollars per year to broadcast THREE games. Now add FOUR more games to the equation. While TV contracts are at going to hit a market correction at some point, live sports programming always commands premium advertising dollars.
There is no rule saying the CFP must enter a contract with one network to carry all four additional games. In fact, it may be more profitable to sell the individual rights to each quarterfinal on shorter multiyear deals. National networks (i.e., CBS, FOX, ABC, etc.) can bid on conferences to which they hold rights and strengthen their affiliation and brand. People want to watch games that matter. And networks know this.
Reason 5 – These quarterfinal games will not replace lesser bowl games (though they should).
Full disclaimer: This space firmly believes a team should only be bowl eligible if it finishes ABOVE .500. However, that toothpaste is never going back in the tube. There were 81 bowl-eligible teams last season and all but three of them played in a bowl game.
Finding 86 bowl-eligible teams will not be easy, and maybe one or two bowls decide it is not worth the dwindling attendance and logistical headaches that come with hosting. That is simply supply and demand. According to a USA Today article from December, bowl attendance had declined each of the previous nine seasons entering the 2017 bowl season.
Yes, a team should be rewarded for having a good season. However, with so few schools having alumni and fan bases who travel well, flying to some far-flung place after a 6-6 season to play another team who went 6-6 or 7-5 is both not appealing and sometimes financially counterproductive for an athletic department. Before the CFP, Connecticut lost $1.8 million when it surprisingly reached the 2011 Fiesta Bowl.
The CFP, though, has taken care of the schools with cash. Lots and lots of cash. In that same USA Today Article, the CFP reportedly accounted for more than 70 percent of the $622 million paid out by bowl games to conferences and schools. The profit-to-expense ratio was a healthy $5 for every $1 spent, and over $100 million was spent.
Now add four additional games with direct CFP oversight as part of the playoff. Four important games that will get, at worst, solid ratings. That 5-1 P/E ratio will get dwarfed fairly easily.
The best part about college football is the arguments about how to improve it never really end. Even expanding to eight teams will cause someone to say, “Well why not make it 16 and have every conference champion represented?” Don’t worry, it’ll probably happen. But for now, let’s just try and get to eight and see what happens.