by Paul West
It wouldn’t be December without yet another bout of controversy surrounding college football’s Final Four–well, sort of: the committee’s choices for the FBS playoff bracket. On one hand, its very existence represents a small measure of improvement; think of how long it took to even have something resembling a playoff in the first place! On the other hand, this year’s installment of ‘who was most egregiously snubbed’ has rekindled a conversation which shouldn’t need to be had: why does the college football playoff only involve four teams? Instead of doing a true playoff system, whereby a group of elite teams play their way into football history, college football’s selection committee chooses four teams to slot into two bowl games, leading to the so-called national championship. Here’s why it’s painfully obvious that an expanded FBS playoff field is the only way to go.
Every year, elite college football programs pay smaller-scale programs enormous sums of money to be sacrificial lambs and lose by preposterous scores. It’s exceedingly rare that one of said sacrificial lambs comes even close to turning the tables; but every so often, when an elite team sets up what it thinks will be an easy win, it backfires. Appalachian State‘s 2007 shocker over the Michigan Wolverines is a well known example, but perhaps the most historic Cinderella story in recent college football history is the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, On January 1, 2007, in a game aired on four major networks, the heavily favored Oklahoma Sooners lost a 43-42 overtime thriller to the Boise State Broncos, on one of the most famous ‘statue of liberty’ plays in history; this wasn’t just one of the greatest games in college football history, it was one of the final straws which led to the current better-than-nothing playoff system. Combine examples like the above with the fact that more than one loss spells almost certain doom for an aspiring FBS playoff team, and you understand why elite programs go to such ridiculous lengths to soften their non-conference schedules; still, this results in non-representative win-loss records and point differentials, a ‘rich get richer’ effect. Teams from the five power conferences will continue looking to enter December with one or zero losses, largely on the strength of 72-10 drubbings of programs that took money to have their players embarrassed on national television. If an elite program opts to play a schedule that doesn’t portray them as a schoolyard bully, they may be penalized for the temerity to lose to a Top 25 team they weren’t compelled to play in the first place. This, of course, highlights all the corollary problems of the power conference configuration in the first place, which only became exacerbated in recent years as the conferences began super-grouping without regard to matters like geography.
The power conference problem
Ohio State supporters are well founded in their assertion that Alabama–who played a softer schedule, while the Buckeyes accepted sterner challenges–took their spot in the bracket simply on account of being a more established football brand. As the old saying goes, they oughta know: just a few years ago, OSU beat out two arguably more deserving teams, Baylor and TCU, for their own brand-enhanced playoff berth. This isn’t to say Alabama hasn’t earned their own shot at a national title, but it does beg a question: if an 11-2 power conference team misses the playoffs due to another team’s superior name-brand or ‘pedigree, what chance does a team stand if they come from outside the ‘power five’? It also segues to this question: if winning a power conference is such a determining factor, then why are there only four playoff spots when there are five power conferences? Even six spots would allow all five conference title champs a shot at the national title, leaving another bid for, say, a 12-0 UCF team that leads the nation in scoring at almost 50 points a game. Or an Auburn team who beat Alabama 26-14 this season, lost 14-6 to Clemson earlier this year, and as of yesterday, split the AP All-SEC team award with Georgia. Georgia and Clemson are both in this year’s playoff bracket, with Clemson as the top seed.
Meaningless regular season games
Per the above concerns–that power conferences get preferential treatment, that elite teams pad their schedules, and that the scant number of berths can make conference championships seem meaningless in all but the most unusual of cases–we’re left with one remaining concern: when would the extra playoff games be played? The answer is simple: in November and December. Shortening the regular season would have a number of effects, all of them good for the game and the players. First, it would minimize the fact that ludicrously demanding travel, practice, and press schedules make Division 1 football virtually a full-time job, detracting from not just the academic but the personal growth of the young men who play it. Second, let’s be honest: the only people who really care about games between, say, Alabama and a school virtually nobody’s heard of or can find on a map, are the most rabid fans of either school. Attendance at such games is often woefully low, and were it not for premium time slots, so would television ratings–and even then, sometimes ratings drop in games where a top five team hangs 70 points on a school with 3,000 students and few football scholarships. Trimming the proverbial fat from a bloated, and largely unnecessary, regular season would give greater weight to each game, and set up a situation where the committee could create an eight-team bracket and allow things to play out over a handful of weeks. This would remove much of the controversy and bitterness from not just the selection process, but the playoff process overall; it would also add to the excitement of college football’s postseason, and draw more teams’ fan bases into the process.
Expanding the FBS playoff bracket to six or eight teams is a time whose idea came a long time ago.